Anxiety is something that all humans have and will experience. It is a normal feeling that we all have and should not be afraid or anxious to feel it. It helps us cope with intimidating or uncomfortable experiences, such as public speaking or asking someone out. For some people, it goes beyond just one moment, it goes further to actually chain them down and really hinder their daily lives. Museums and museum facilitators can help people who deal with an anxiety disorder, which can help them feel less anxious throughout their experience.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety: “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”
Anxiety Disorder: “A mental health disordered characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activates.”
The three main types of Anxiety Disorders
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms.
Panic Disorder: People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending.
Social Anxiety Disorder: People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fear full of offending others.
My goal here is not to make an attempt for museum professionals to attempt to self-diagnose or attempt to diagnose/treat visitors have these anxiety disorders. The goal overall is to make an environment, exhibit or facilitation in which, people who have an anxiety disorder to feel less stressed or anxious during their museum experience.
In American society and culture, mental health issues have consistently been seen in a negative light. It’s seen as a defect that is often associated with being institutionalized. Think about how people in America feel about emotional therapy/counseling versus physical therapy. One is seen negatively as if they need help to function while the other is a common occurrence of someone is just trying to overcome a physical injury. We seem to commonly have a polar opinion about it. Compared to other parts of the world, mainly Europe or Australia, mental health is seen just as important as physical health.
The Norwegian University for Science and Technology found that appreciation for art and culture can reduce people’s risk of anxiety and depression. University College London found that museums can make people feel less lonely, especially those who feel marginalized or isolated. Museums can be a place of restoration and tranquility. Taking a look at art museums, which create these places that invoke a sense of relaxation. An example is the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, they have a beautiful open courtyard in the midst of a museum that can sometimes feel quite small and tight. Areas that allow for someone with an anxiety order to be able to breathe, remove themselves from an anxiety-prone situation and be in a less stressful environment.
A great example of a stress-reducing area is something like Artlab+ at the Hirshhorn. It’s a place where teens can be more express and be able to do what they want but also in a museum and social environment. It has a limited capacity so it won’t feel as overwhelming as a large museum exhibit. Visitors are also free to explore their own interested such as videography or photography. It provides that stress-reducing space that helps quell anxiety.
Along with the idea of having a less stressful environment, it’s important to have hands-on or interactive areas/stations within a museum. Hands-on carts that allowed for a more personal facilitation or interactions for visitors can be helpful and aid someone who has social anxiety. A smaller group, or even a one on one interactive) can be less stressful environment than a large tour group. It is also important to note that it also does the same. In some cases, it can feel like overwhelming to someone too. Overall It is a more intimate experience that allows for personal connection and will make people with anxiety feel more included.
Audience-based facilitations can really help bring out people with anxiety. Allowing them to lead the discussion and explore their interests within the facilitation. Spewing out facts and information can become overwhelming as if the visitor was in a classroom and they need to write everything down just to make sure they retain it all can be extremely stressful. Facilitators should be warm and friendly, similarly to a friend rather than a lecturer at a university.
An educational theory such as Vygotsky proximal zone of development educational theory will create a more obtainable knowledge that does not feel unobtainable. Another example is creating flow with the facilitation as illustrated by Csikszentmihalyi’s educational theory. The final educational theorist I’ll mention is Gardner who believes in multiple intelligences. His theory of different type of intelligence that correlates with people’s strengths on how they learn.
Question framing and response framing is vital to reducing stress. If questions are being asked that have one factual answer that not only stagnates the conversations but also make people who anxiety feel more anxious especially if they can’t answer the question. Responses are just as important. Responding to correct and even incorrect answer in a positive demeanor really change how someone with anxiety can move forward during a facilitation.
Museums should and can become places of positive social experiences that will lead to reduced social isolation. Calming experiences that reducing anxiety, whether that’s the environment in the museum or a specific space. We want museums to be fun and exciting, warm and friendly, educational and positive. We want to create inspirational and meaningful experiences that help all our visitors grow. Sometimes we need to step back and look at those people who are not generally seen, such as someone with an anxiety disorder, and make them feel welcome and important within the museum.