Two students share their experiences with managing anxiety

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Junior Elena Macomber visually illustrates her feelings of anxiety and her relationship with the disorder. It symbolizes scary uncertainty "which is why it's dark and kind of fuzzy. It never seems to end and just escalates, which is why there are arrows," Macomber said.

Long fingers twitch, clasp, shake uncontrollably. A sense of panic escalates, and the room starts to blur. Trembling limbs knock over glasses in their wake, as anxiety threatens to overwhelm the brain, overriding the nervous system. When one’s nervousness prevents them from functioning properly and lasts for long periods of time, an anxiety disorder is to blame.

Anxiety disorders occur as a result of both genetic and environmental factors, according to Richard A. Friedman from The New York Times. Up to twenty percent of adolescents in the United States have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, while over forty million adult Americans suffer from anxiety disorders, making it the most common psychiatric illness among adults and children, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

Psychology and biology behind anxiety disorders

The main factors which influence the development of an anxiety disorder include genetics, biochemistry, environment, history, and psychological profile, according to “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” by The New York Times.

Similar to many other mental illnesses such as depression, a family history of the disorder can increase one’s chances, especially if it’s present on both sides. These genetics end up influencing one’s’ brain chemistry as well, another factor which distinguishes one affected by an anxiety disorder from someone a bit stressed.

Studies have shown that those with this disorder have an imbalance of neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and and dopamine, are chemicals which help to transfer signals across synapses and play a heavy role in experiencing emotions such as pleasure and sadness.

One’s environment also contributes to the development of anxiety and often is the source of triggers for anxiety attacks. A study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information – of an experiment testing the environment’s impact on anxiety and depression over the lifespan of two twins – found that the test subjects’ environments affected the stability and predictability of their anxiety (and depression.)

While some people rest on the belief that anxiety is simply a common product of the teenage brain’s workings, however the importance of environmental factors in this disorder contradict this idea. “[Anxiety] in teenagers is due entirely to societal practices that infantilize young people and isolate them from responsible adults, trapping them in the frivolous … world of ‘teen culture’ … the problem is our society, not the brain,” wrote Senior Research Psychologist at American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, Robert Epstine, in a letter to the editor published by The New York Times.

Many people don’t understand these facts behind anxiety disorders, enabling the word to be associated with average stress rather than often debilitating and difficult feelings of worry. Family history and certain genetic factors cannot be altered. However, the biochemistry and brain structure of those with anxiety is helping to identify possible treatment for the illness. Also, understanding environmental factors which exacerbate symptoms of anxiousness can assist in ensuring that those factors are minimized in areas such as the classroom and school community.

 

Alex Duval discusses anxiety experience in hopes of educating others

Sophomore Alex Duval’s relationship with anxiety has been long and harrowing. “I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the end of May 2014, but I had suspicions that I had them at least a year or two before that,” they said.

Currently diagnosed with a combination of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and anxiety, Duval has attempted to treat the disorder in many ways since their diagnosis, including seeing therapists and trying different medications. “There’s no one way that works for everyone to treat their disorder,” Duval said.

The age group who suffers most is not completely known because of teenagers tend to assume symptoms are a part of typical teen angst while the term anxious gets used as a casual descriptor of everyday stress. These misconceptions about the levels of anxiety that accompany the disorder on a day-to-day basis minimizes the seriousness behind this real (and very treatable) psychiatric illnesses.  “A is when you’re trying to describe [how you feel], but people say ‘Yeah, I feel that too,’” Duval said.

Comparing the stress one feels as a person without an anxiety disorder to the constant, unyielding worry that comes with having a disorder can serve to trivializes the pain, rather than providing empathy. “[The anxiety] becomes so bad that life in this wonderful neuro-typical world gets really hard…the world isn’t made for [people with anxiety disorders], but we’re still forced to get by in it,” Duval said.

Still, Duval was surprised how supportive the students and faculty have been about her anxiety.“When I first came to SPA [in ninth grade], I found other people who had anxiety disorders … I started using Tumblr and I saw other people describe it, and I was like ‘that’s exactly how I feel!” Duval said.

Before they were able to get help, Duval’s symptoms built up and affected their ability to participate in school.  “I guess my parents were saying ‘Why can’t you just go to school’ … Ms. Short also helped me explain to them that I wasn’t being lazy,” Duval said.

Eventually, Alex talked to their parents about it and was able to get help: “I don’t think there’s anything bad about asking for help—once I got it, everything was a lot better. I definitely knew I couldn’t handle it by myself.” But, they struggled with approaching someone and conveying the severity of their issues. “A lot of people don’t understand … When they hear anxiety they think the emotion, like scared. They’re like ‘O, you’re fine, get over it,’” Duval said. “[But] it’s an actual disorder that needs to be taken seriously.”

Despite receiving treatment and working on managing her anxiety, it still makes many parts of their life, especially school, immensely difficult. “[Anxiety disorders] make it harder to go up and ask teachers for help and talk in class sometimes. Doing homework can be hard because I’d rather not turn it in or work less on it so I have an excuse for it being bad instead of [feeling] stupid,” Duval said.

Duval doesn’t see their anxiety disorder as something to hide or to be shameful of – rather than shying away from it, she embraces the topic in hopes of educating someone about mental heald issues. “I don’t think there’s much to hide, it’s just my brain,” Duval said.

 

Elena Macomber refuses to let anxiety define her

“It’s too real…I can’t think. I can’t breathe.” Junior Elena Macomber was diagnosed with GAD (Generalized Anxiety disorder) and social anxiety last year, but she and her parents have seen symptoms of the disorders since she was in sixth grade. GAD is characterized by excessive, continuous anxiety that interferes with day-to-day activities, according to the Mayo Clinic.

GAD is what keeps Macomber’s nightmares playing in her head in a constant loop, thoughts of public shootings and car accidents take over her mind when her family comes home half an hour late. Her nightmares will threaten to come to life, and it will all seem “too real”, like something terrible could happen any second.

Social anxiety disorder is distinguished by the immense anxiety and self-consciousness that emerges during everyday social or performance situations, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. So many things can trigger anxiety in those who struggle with a disorder. Some anxiety producers are unexpected, like loud noises, some anticipated, like worrying that someone will be mad or disappointed in them, and some daily routine, like talking in class.

Class discussions, or having to talk to someone new triggers this kind of anxiety for Macomber.“[My anxiety disorders have] inhibited me a lot in the things I do … I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t felt nervous irrationally and unreasonably,” Macomber said.

Macomber first started feeling like her anxiety was a real problem very recently. “I realized last year that it wasn’t normal that I couldn’t talk to people I didn’t know. [My anxiety increases] the closer I get to going to college and leaving SPA and my house because I’ve never done that before. Everything’s going to change and I have to grow up and be an adult and that’s scary,” Macomber said.

She initially was very opposed to seeking professional help, because she felt like she “didn’t deserve it … I was so used to [being anxious] that I couldn’t imagine life being a different way.” Macomber also felt like seeking professional help would change her situation, possibly in a negative way. “I was nervous about not being nervous … I thought if I wasn’t nervous I would be different and I would act different … I didn’t want things to change,” she said.

Although she initially felt like her anxiety didn’t need medical attention, Macomber feels like asking for help was the best thing she could have done. “Bottling it up and not telling people made [my anxiety] worse … the best thing you can do is to talk about it. It brings me back to reality when I talk about my fears,” she said.

Macomber also suggests avoiding Googling what specific symptoms mean, as individuals with anxiety disorders will have a tendency to think the worst possible thing, which will only increase their anxiety. “If you don’t want to talk to someone, write about it,” Macomber said “it won’t be just your problem, people will help you.”

Although Macomber also knows of many misconceptions about anxiety disorders, she fears that just making people aware of what an anxiety disorder isn’t enough. “People might understand the basics of [an anxiety disorder] but not really the implications,” she said.

Macomber worries about others assuming that “you can control being anxious, like it’s a switch. You decide to be anxious or you want to be anxious. Also that you are okay with being scared, like it’s a part of how you feel, that you’ve accepted it, that you’re choosing it in a way. They don’t understand that for me, at least, it’s my first response for a lot of things.”   

Telling others about her anxiety disorders was a source of stress for Macomber, especially when she imagined telling those who were close to her. “I don’t want to tell people because I feel like I’m burdening them. I thought they would treat me differently, think something was wrong with me, [like] they didn’t want to deal with me, or thought I was less of a person” she said.

However, the close friends and family that Macomber has already told had a positive, if unexpected reaction in her eyes. “They acted surprised, they were saying ‘I had no idea, how can I help?’ I didn’t expect that to happen,” she said.

When at school, Macomber has tried to self-mediate her anxiety. “I’ll get dizzy and feel like I’m going to pass out. I sit there and wait it out, get water and lay down,” she said.