Anxiety disorders are highly misunderstood and growing at alarming rates. For college students across America, 41.6 percent deal with anxiety, outpacing rates of depression and relationship issues. Anxiety disorders is an umbrella term that can manifest many different ways, from social anxiety to phobia to panic disorders.
As someone who experienced generalized anxiety from a young age, I always assumed that everyone else constantly felt restless, trapped, and scared. When I realized that those feelings weren’t typical, I felt isolated and lonely, which compounded those same trapped and scared emotions. In understanding anxiety, I realized how often the term gets misused and how those with anxiety disorders are often seen as the butt of a joke. Since going to college, I’ve become one of the thousands of college students with anxiety, and the way that we often handle anxiety is by hiding it or joking about it. This leaves our friends, professors, and family in the dark on how to help us with an anxiety disorder.
To combat the stigma about anxiety, learn how to cope with anxiety yourself, and help anyone you encounter, there are a few simple and easy actions you can take.
Learn about Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the US and affect over 18 percent of the population every year. The illness can have multiple risk factors, from genetics to brain chemistry to life events, and often anxiety disorders arise from a combination of multiple factors.
In understanding anxiety, don’t generalize anxiety disorders! Anxiety is not just stress or being worried all the time. Mental illnesses that we think of as separate from anxiety, like PTSD and OCD, are also considered anxiety disorders, in addition to panic and depressive disorders. The occurrence of depression and anxiety together is very common, and feature similar symptoms like avoidance and difficulty sleeping, while also increasing the severity of each other. Sometimes, the tools to help someone with depression are very similar to helping someone with anxiety.
One important distinction to make is between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, which are often conflated. Panic attacks tend to be more intense and are associated with panic disorders, while triggers often bring anxiety attacks, and anxiety attacks tend to last much longer than panic attacks. These two types of attacks can look and feel similar though, and often untreated anxiety attacks may develop into a panic disorder.
To understand college students with anxiety, the term “generalized anxiety disorder” is really important. Generalized anxiety disorders are characterized by a constant worry cycle over the course of several months; the set-up of college systems and workloads creates an environment highly conducive to this type of constant anxiety. College-aged people are also most likely to develop a generalized anxiety disorder, though the reason is not yet fully understood.
The best resources for understanding anxiety are often a local psychologist or even just the web. To take steps to understanding anxiety in the real world, you can find a list of accurate depictions in television and movies here. There are also amazing young artists working to define and explore the experience of anxiety through their work.
Encourage Treatment and Support
While anxiety disorders can be daunting, they are incredibly treatable with help. Getting treatment is the first step to a more manageable life and for understanding anxiety on an individual scale. For generalized anxiety disorders, the most effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Anxiety disorders may also be combated with well-known medication like Prozac, Xanax, or Valium, depending on what works for each individual case.
Many mental health practices specialize in specific types of anxiety disorders, as well as combinations of anxiety with different issues, like depression or substance abuse. For example, a group of therapists might specifically work with those with PTSD, and under this subset, they may specialize in PTSD related to sexual assault survivors, childhood trauma, or veterans. Finding a therapist who specializes in the anxiety disorder experience that needs to be addressed often leads to the best results for treatment. For college students with anxiety who have little access to resources or insurance, school resources and helplines are often free.
If someone you know has anxiety but is reluctant to get treatment, a few tips you can use are to help the person stay physically active, establish a consistent sleep schedule, cut back on caffeine, or try alternative treatment methods like yoga and meditation. These can be part of their toolbox to understanding anxiety and their symptoms.
Come up with a Game Plan
When anxiety increases, it can feel like an inescapable downward spiral of panic. Whether you or someone you know has anxiety, establishing a plan for your situation is important. From college students with anxiety to even those with normal stress levels, a game plan for addressing moments of high stress and panic can be very helpful.
Triggers of anxiety, especially for those diagnosed with PTSD, can destroy an entire day or week, like smelling a cologne similar to one worn by an assaulter, to fireworks reminiscent of gunfire. Since triggers are often unexpected and overwhelming, the important thing to do is get out of the situation of that trigger. While this looks different for everyone, in the short-term it can mean leaving the room to meditate, getting physical contact and affirmation from a friend, or simply taking deep breathes. In the long-term, a mental health professional can establish a treatment plan for decreasing sensitivity to triggers. For college students with anxiety related to tests, this can be as simple as meditating for a few minutes before a test.
If someone around you has a panic attack, a few strategies you can use to help is to simply stay with them, ask what they need, like medication or water, or breathe with them to create a calmer situation. One small way to help is to speak in simple, short sentences that an overwhelmed person can understand and take more comfort in.
In terms of your game plan, understanding anxiety and issues that arise with anxiety is key. Behaviors like reassurance seeking (like your friend constantly asking if you actually like them) shouldn’t be shamed, but it’s important to establish boundaries that keep everyone healthy and happy. Ultimately, the most important part of your game plan is to discuss with the person with anxiety, or your loved ones that will support you, the best ways to combat anxiety.