Signing and Stabilizing: how American Sign Language has helped me cope with anxiety


Sophie Hilmer

In. Out. In. Out. I pace my breathing to the changing shapes in my right hand which form the letters of the alphabet over, and over, and over, until my heartbeat slows and my hands stop shaking.

It’s a method I use often: signing to stabilize myself. I’ve known bits and pieces of American Sign Language since I was young. My parents taught me a few signs when I was a baby, (they accidentally taught me the sign for “money” as the sign for “more,” though, which led to no end of hilarity when others more fluent in sign language came for dinner), but neither of them are part of the Deaf or Hard of Hearing communities. My aunt, who lived with us for a few years, was a sign language interpreter at the local community college, and she taught me a few more signs and how to fingerspell the alphabet. After the accident that permanently put her in a full-time care facility in Lincoln, I stopped signing.

I came to UNO a few years later and entered the English program – a Bachelor of Arts degree that requires four semesters of a foreign language. My choices weren’t completely limited. German, French and Spanish were all on the list, but I’m not passionate about any of those. Trying to learn an entirely new spoken language was as daunting as trying to eat an elephant in one bite. (Pro Tip: it’s been suggested that elephants are better eaten one bite at a time anyway.) My eyes flew down the page and locked on three little words: American Sign Language. I chose ASL as a tribute to my aunt, but it’s become much more than that for me.

The American Sign Language community on campus here at UNO is more extensive than I expected. One opportunity to plug in, even if you aren’t taking any of the courses, is the Sign and Dine events that happen twice weekly in the student center, monthly in the community and is posted to Facebook so that ASL students and others alike can come together, make friends and practice signing.

But the community isn’t the only benefit I’ve found. As a student with severe anxiety and panic attacks that are often triggered by loud, surprising or repetitive noises, being able to spend a few hours each week in silent rooms and communicate without the stress of constant noise is refreshing. Of course, there’s still some gray noise, from people breathing or fidgeting, or shifting in their chairs, but that’s nothing compared to the cacophony outside the classroom.

ASL has also been useful in the middle of a more anxious or panicked moment. When I’m lost in anxiety, I often feel unable to communicate. Knowing sign language provides a method of communication that doesn’t require my voice, (which is often choked up or tearful), and keeps my hands moving intentionally can curb anxious trembling. Even though I’m not always around others who sign, I’ve signed to myself as a physical way of calming myself down.

In the moments that I am around others who sign, using my hands to communicate has been unexpectedly helpful. I’ve taught my boyfriend a few signs, and he can fingerspell the alphabet, so when we’re out with friends or in an environment that’s triggering my anxiety, I can switch to sign and communicate with him that I need to step away or leave. That has often meant that I don’t have to shout over loud music or talk over other voices. I’m also still insecure about dealing with anxiety, so sign has meant that I can communicate with specific individuals about what’s going on, without alerting everyone nearby – which can lead to an entire roomful of people crowding around me and trying to help. Signing helps me to avoid those scenarios, communicate what I need to and also provides me with ways to calm myself down.

These are just a few of the ways that learning ASL has impacted how I live well with anxiety. Everyone’s experiences with mental health are different, but if this has resonated with you, reach out to your advisor or look into how you can join the community.