Under Pressure: Anxiety is more common than you think

Pam Midgett, director of Counseling Center, is staged at her desk working on her computer, April 4, in her office in the Counseling Center. Photo by Rachel Johnson

Pam Midgett, director of Counseling Center, is staged at her desk working on her computer, April 4, in her office in the Counseling Center. Photo by Rachel Johnson

“It’s like when you get really hungry – you can’t ignore your stomach constantly growling. It’s always there.” That’s how Catherine Stepniak, psychology and sociology junior, describes her anxiety.

“Most of the time I feel like I’m about to die. I get a pounding heart, shortness of breath, nausea, sometimes I do actually throw up and my legs just feel like Jello,” Stepniak said about her panic attacks, a form of anxiety.

Between school, work, and personal lives, college students will feel anxious from time to time. However, according to the ADAA website, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, if a student experiences “frequent, intense, and uncontrollable anxiety that interferes with [their] daily routines, [it] may be a sign of an anxiety disorder.”

The ADAA site also says that in 2011, more than 62 percent of students with mental health problems who withdrew from college did so because of their struggles with mental health.

With mental health and anxiety in particular so prevalent on college campuses, the Counseling Center has a team of counselors to help students address these issues.

One such counselor, Lori Arnold, said everyone will probably feel anxious from time to time, but for someone with an anxiety disorder “it gets excessive and situations that for most of us wouldn’t cause anxiety, it does cause anxiety [for them] and that anxiety can be paralyzing.”

According to Arnold, anxiety disorders can impact major areas of functioning such as relationships, work and school.

“A person with anxiety also struggles to calm down and to feel relaxed even when they’re out of that stressful situation,” Arnold said. “There’s not always a logical reason to feel anxious for someone struggling with anxiety, sometimes it’s just there. 

Reagan Foster, also a counselor at the Counseling Center, said anxiety is exhausting and can impact your everyday life.

“It’s like being hyped up on caffeine all the time,” Foster said. “Your body doesn’t feel at rest, you’re constantly moving and your head is just spinning in 14,000 different directions. It’s hard to focus. It’s hard to concentrate. It’s hard to relax.”

CAUSES OF ANXIETY

Foster said the pressure college students are under can be partially to blame for their anxiety.

“A lot of it has to do with high pressure that students put on themselves, or have been put on them from their parents or their friends,” Foster said. “The pressure to succeed and figuring out who you are is a mish mash of what feeds anxiety, on top of whether you’re predisposed to it from your family or your genetics.”

Foster also said that students can struggle to cope with failure and figure out who they are while at college, which can fuel anxiety.

“College is a big time where you learn what you’re naturally good at, what you’re not naturally good at, and sometimes it can be a real struggle to deal with the reality of those things,” Foster said. “It is a time when people learn who they are as a person, spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, sexually, and the kind of person they want to be and the kind of things they want to stand for. Developing yourself is a messy and a stressful thing and that can be really scary.” 

Anxiety doesn’t always have to be rational. In fact, according to Foster, sometimes anxiety causes irrational fears.

“One of the biggest illustrations that I use for anxiety is that anxiety causes us to believe lies,” Foster said. “We believe that the worst thing is going to happen. We believe that we’re not good enough and the anxiety just manifests those irrational, unreal thoughts.”

THE MANY FACES OF ANXIETY

According to Arnold, everyone experiences anxiety in a different way. What one person’s anxiety disorder looks like is not how everyone experiences it, and there is not a one-size-fits-all treatment plan.

Anxiety is a broad term that, according to the ADAA site, encompasses things like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and panic attacks, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and more. 

Arnold said she sees students experiencing anxiety surrounding academic performance.

“Test anxiety is common for college students,” Arnold said. “Although sometimes that’s seen as separate from other anxiety, it can overlap a lot. There are some students that care so much about their grades that they get just so nervous and anxious before a test and it can impair their ability to be calm and think clearly and perform as well as they can during a testing situation.”

Social anxiety is also common, according to Arnold.

“It can be really scary and nerve-wracking to step outside your comfort zone to talk to the person sitting next to you in class,” Arnold said. “It can be difficult to put yourself out there without that fear and worry about judgment and what others may think about you.”

Arnold describes general anxiety as being “Maybe not related to a specific area, but maybe just this general sense of nervousness and restlessness and being on edge that’s pervasive in a lot of different areas of your life.” 

Stepniak, who experiences panic attacks, said an attack gives her an overwhelming feeling that something is wrong. Cue pounding heart, shortness of breath, nausea and shaky legs. 

COPING MECHANISMS

Should students decide to seek help outside of their friend group or family, the Counseling Center is available for free appointments.

“It’s a non-judgmental, accepting place to be heard about anything in your life,” Foster said. “Sometimes when we go to people that care about us, they have an opinion on how we should think or feel or do. In counseling, there’s no opinion. There’s only acceptance and there’s only listening.”

Foster also said going to counseling can get students to self-reflect on their life and ask some hard questions.

“Sometimes we just go and go and go in life and we don’t take time to stop and say ‘Why did I do it that way?’ or ‘Why do I think that way?’ or ‘Why do I feel that way?’. I think that’s one of the easiest, best parts about coming to the Counseling Center: providing people an opportunity just to open up in a way they’ve never opened up before.”

The counselors offer a range of tools to help students manage their anxiety including behavioral skills and sometimes even anti-anxiety medication.

“There’s a lot of behavioral skills and relaxation exercises that can help someone manage anxiety,” Arnold said. “For some people, maybe that anxiety is so overwhelming that even with those skills they learned, it’s still difficult and still impairs their daily life and so anxiety medication can be helpful. It’s person by person.”

Foster also said each student is different and if someone has a specific form of anxiety, such as performance or test anxiety, those cases may be handled differently because counselors and students can pinpoint and manage specific triggers.

Stepniak said she uses a combination of counseling and anti-anxiety medication to manage her panic disorder. She also said self-care is part of her routine, so she makes free time for herself to reduce stress and talks to family and friends. 

WHEN TO SEEK HELP

Arnold said that if students see their anxiety impacting major areas of their life such as school or personal relationships, it may be time to reach out to friends, family, or even the Counseling Center for help.

Foster said taking some time to self-reflect can help students decide if their anxiousness is something they need to seek outside help for.

She suggested students look at their lives and ask ‘If I am struggling, in what areas am I struggling?’ ‘Is it affecting my ability to sleep?’ ‘Is it affecting my ability to eat?’ ‘Am I not being able to concentrate in class or am I not being able to study or am I lacking some motivation to do things well that I normally did well?’

Foster said it’s important for students to be their own best advocate and to trust that they know what’s best for themselves, whether that means seeking counseling or having hard conversations with family and friends.

“Life is about survival and you do what you know,” Foster said. “If reaching out to your parent or reaching out to your friend or reaching out to get help is how you get through a certain situation, that’s not necessarily a bad thing at all.” 

PRACTICING SELF CARE

Regardless of how someone with anxiety chooses to confront their struggles, learning self-care is integral to a person’s long-term mental health. Foster said caring for yourself is not selfish and will make you a better student, friend and person.

Foster said caring for your own mental health should be a priority, comparing it to how people are encouraged to put on their own oxygen masks on an airplane before helping those around them.

“Sometimes when we help ourselves and we put ourselves out there to really be bold and brave in those moments for ourselves, we can in turn give strength to others through the example of what we’ve done for ourselves,” Foster said. 

ADVOCATING FOR YOURSELF AND OTHERS

Arnold said she hopes that when students become knowledgeable on the subject of mental health, the stigma will lessen even further and students will be more able to help their peers who may be struggling. 

Should someone be worried about their friend’s mental health, Arnold suggests offering support and a listening ear.

Foster said conversations about mental health issues such as anxiety can be difficult, but students should be brave when entering these dialogues. 

“Confronting a certain sensitive issue, it is awkward,” Foster said. “But you have to embrace the awkwardness. It’s not going to go away. Awkward conversations and stressful conversations are never fun.” 

Frank Cruz, marketing junior, knows all about such conversations. His girlfriend has anxiety and depression and he said the biggest thing he learned from being with her was to be prepared for anything.

“Understand that if you love the person, no matter what they may feel at the time you’ll still be there,” Cruz said. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard to get used too since I’m a very independent person. I don’t like receiving help, but I like giving it.”

Cruz said he had to learn how to help his girlfriend when she is feeling anxious and help her combat her irrational fears by being available for her whenever she needs him.

Stepniak said she also wants people to be more educated on the subject of mental health, particularly the difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder.

“For people who don’t know what anxiety feels like, don’t use the terms lightly,” Stepniak said.

Foster said although she believes the current generation of college students are more open and accepting so far, students can struggle having difficult conversations about their problems with their parents, who may not be so open-minded.

“Trust your parents, trust the love that they have for you, but also trust yourself. That you know yourself. That you’re confident in what’s going on and you’re confident and what you want for yourself,” Foster said. “We as humans have to be our own best advocate as far as what [our] needs are.”

View part 3 of 3 in the series.

Depression and anxiety from MWSU Campus Watch on Vimeo.

 

 Read the rest of the mental health series articles:

Stressed? Overwhelmed? Sad?

Depression at MSU: ‘I’ve thought about suicide’

Suicide prevention training hits close to home

On-campus psychology clinic offers free counseling

Counselors: Nothing is off limits

Column: The best and worst day of my life

Column: Support, don’t condemn those with depression