Anxiety disorders are one of the most common health problems on college campuses, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The organization states that 85 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by something they had to do in the past year. In addition, About 40 million adults suffer from an anxiety disorder and 75 percent of them experience their first episode of anxiety by age 22.
College students often throw around the phrase “I’m so anxious about the future” in everyday conversation. “I really hope I get that internship,” or “I hope I did well on that test,” students say. What distinguishes healthy concern from true anxiety? Everyone has their respective worries, but many people do not truly have anxiety. Healthy concern about something is okay––if nobody worries about anything, parts of their life can fall apart. However, anxiety occurs when someone internalizes these worries and lets them consume their mind.
Academic performance: a common source of anxiety
Let’s take a typical college scenario––grades. A student who worries about their grades in a healthy manner will most likely check them a couple times a week and will not panic if they receive a lower grade than expected. They realize they only did their best and that they can improve. They’ll look at that grade, and then go on with their day.
The anxious student, however, will repeatedly check their grades––probably several times a day–– and beat themselves up if they see anything less than an A. This student’s heart may start racing and they may even shed tears. When they’re hanging out with friends later that night, they think, “I’m a failure. I put several hours into that assignment and I only got a B. I can’t do anything right.” They’ll scrutinize the paper or project they turned in and beat themselves up for every little error they made. This thought won’t leave their head, and some of their friends will notice that they’re not themselves. In the future, this person may even turn down opportunities with friends, stay up late, and skip meals in exchange for extra time on assignments. I’ll define this type of anxiety––performance anxiety––in a later post. That’s only a mild scenario.
Anxiety usually morphs into something much worse and can lead to other illnesses, including depression. Around 50 percent of college students received no prior information about mental illnesses before their collegiate career, Psychology Today states. One in four students report suicidal thoughts and one in three report prolonged depression.
This is a huge problem. Let’s put this into perspective using the population at my school, Biola University. We have about 4,225 undergraduates. That means about 1,394 students suffer from depression and 1,056 have experienced suicidal thoughts. That’s a lot of students navigating these difficult emotions alone. I’m hoping this entry provides some information and decreases that statistic.
Differences between worry and anxiety
Psychology Today also lists 10 crucial differences between anxiety and worry:
- Anxiety usually occurs in the body, worry occurs in the mind.
- Worry is specific, anxiety is diffuse.
- Worry is verbally focused, anxiety includes both verbal thoughts and mental imagery.
- Worry often triggers problem solving, anxiety doesn’t.
- Worry creates mild distress, anxiety creates severe emotional distress.
- Worry is caused by more realistic concerns than anxiety.
- Worry is controllable, anxiety is less controllable.
- Worry is usually temporary, while anxiety lingers.
- Worry doesn’t affect a person’s normal psychological state and personal functioning, while anxiety does.
- Worry is considered a normal psychological state, while anxiety isn’t.
Those 10 points generally fit into one of two categories: rational vs. irrational. Anxiety symptoms align with irrational, while worry aligns with rational. That’s because anxiety triggers your fight or flight response, creating a rise of adrenaline and hyper alertness., according to anxiety.org.
Anxietycentre states that 30 percent of the 40 million adults with anxiety don’t even know they have it, were misdiagnosed with something else, or don’t seek help. So, how can you tell if you have anxiety? I had no idea I suffered from it until I experienced my first panic attack (which I will describe in the next post about navigating panic attacks). Warning signs generally appear. Bestcolleges lists some of these symptoms: stress, irritability, fearfulness, sweating, irregular heartbeat, muscle pain and tension, frequent upset stomach or diarrhea, headaches, shortness of breath, and dizziness.
My personal experience
I have all of these symptoms when my anxiety kicks in. It usually starts with a cold sweat and racing heartbeat, then I’ll feel a tightness in my abdomen and have difficulty breathing (much like an asthma attack). A headache comes a bit later and I’ll start feeling foggy. I usually avoid people during these moments because I can’t look them in the eye and I just want to curl up in a ball because my mind is so foggy. If I actually do talk to someone during an anxiety attack, forming words becomes quite the struggle and I’ll jumble over sentences or I’ll say the opposite of what I actually meant and have to go back and correct myself. My mind feels like it races a thousand miles an hour and I can’t focus on one single thing. I’ll become very restless and will often tap my foot, rub my arms, or fiddle with my fingers if I’m in class. I have to fight the urge to walk around during longer lectures. My limbs become numb and I’ll get really sleepy because the symptoms wear my body down. I’ll avoid friends because I’m ashamed of my feelings and I often walked straight past my roommate when I got back from class instead of saying hello. I frequently napped during time I set aside for homework this semester because I was so worn out that I couldn’t even bring myself to work on projects for my publication design class (my favorite class this past semester). I was so tired one time that I actually skipped class (which I’d never done before this past semester) and also had to leave wind ensemble rehearsal early one day to go to the emergency room because I couldn’t breathe. It felt like I was going crazy at times and I wished I weren’t alive because I couldn’t handle the way I felt (suicidal thoughts are a clear warning sign you might have anxiety and should seek help––it’s actually what made me find help).
When to seek help
It’s important to find help if you suffer from anxiety (I’ll list specific resources in my third post of this series). How do you know if you might have anxiety? Please note, this post is designed to help you identify if you might have anxiety, but it is not designed for self diagnosis. Please consult your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. BU Today suggests that students should become concerned about feelings of anxiety for the following reasons:
- skipping classes
- difficulty concentrating
- prolonged feelings of sadness or despair
- withdrawal from daily activities
- excessive panic
- giving away possessions
- changes in personal hygiene
- excessive use of alcohol or drugs (as a way to self-medicate)
- Any emotions or behaviors that significantly deviate from your daily routine
Why many college students don’t seek help
Many students hesitate to find support because they don’t have time, wanted to deal with it themselves, or because of negative stigmas, according an NCBI study. I didn’t seek help at first for all of these reasons. I thought I just became overly stressed about assignments and could deal with my emotions on my own. I didn’t want people to think I was crazy or mentally ill. I balanced 18 units, two jobs, an unpaid internship, and wind ensemble, so I believed I didn’t have time for doctors appointments. Furthermore, I didn’t want to pay medical expenses on top of tuition and other expenses.
Feel no shame
Don’t hesitate to seek help if you need it. Waiting only prolongs the anxiety, making it difficult to recover. Catching it in the bud makes it easier to manage and treat, but recovery from panic attacks and severe anxiety is a long road. It’s taken me over three months to get my anxiety at a manageable level. The majority of people will develop some sort of health condition at some point in their lives, its only a matter of what condition that is.
You don’t have to feel ashamed about having a mental illness––it’s an effect of living in a sinful world. Others may not openly share that they suffer with anxiety, but they do As much as we want to deal with things on our own, but you’re also not the only student dealing with a mental illness. In addition, we all have blind spots, so it’s hard to think rationally when anxiety makes us think irrationally. Other people we trust (parents, friends, professors, family doctors, church leaders) can help us identify what makes us anxious and calm us down during distress. Most colleges have resources available (I’ll share these in another post) as a starting place if you’re not ready to talk to anyone yet about anxiety. I encourage you to at least talk with one person if you think you might have anxiety. It’ll become one of the best decisions you’ve made.
This is the first article in a series about anxiety. Please follow my blog if you’d like to receive updates.