Dealing with anxiety

Worried? Fearful? Nervous? Find out if you’re suffering from anxiety and what you can do about it.

by Steven Krager, Medical Student,
Creighton University

It was August 2010 and Sharonda was excited to go back to school. She was ambitiously starting a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Houston in Texas to complete pre-med courses. “Being that I had already graduated from college and radiology school in 2005, I figured taking pre-med courses should be easy for me,” Sharonda says.

The courses were not easy. A month after starting the program, she abruptly started feeling dizzy and short of breath. After a trip to the ER, she was diagnosed with having a panic attack. “I didn’t realize I was placing so much stress on myself both physically and emotionally until after the attack,” Sharonda says.  A panic attack is a form of anxiety—a fear that overcomes all emotions and is accompanied by worry and apprehension.

What Is an Anxiety Disorder?

Almost all of us experience everyday anxiety, according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. This anxiety includes worry about bills, nervousness before a big test, or difficulties after a traumatic event.  Anxiety becomes a serious problem when there is excessive worry about a number of events or activities, and it is difficult to control this worry.

When this uncontrollable worry goes on for at least six months, it is known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Common symptoms of anxiety include excessive restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, irritability, and muscle tension.

Another type of anxiety disorder is panic disorder. Panic disorder occurs when you have repeated attacks of intense fear or discomfort. Along with the fear, one may experience chest pain, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, shaking, a sense of of impending doom, or other symptoms.

“Anxiety is a common complaint in our health center, and we have seen students with full-blown panic attacks,” says Michelle Grace, director of health services at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois. “Some students have seizures as a result of stressful panic situations; others tremble and cry.”

Anna Skoullos, a student at the College of Lake County, has suffered from anxiety from age 14. “I take medication as needed and if I feel a panic attack is coming on,” she says, “but in high-stress situations, I go through times where I can’t function because of the anxiety, and I shut down. When your heart is beating fast, your palms are sweaty, and you’re having thoughts that you normally would not have, it’s debilitating and affecting you from living your life. Then you know it’s a problem and you need to go get help.”

Anxiety Vs. Stress

Anxiety and stress are often confused because they are often related but two different things. Stress comes from the pressures in life, such as having too much work. Stress can lead to anxiety, but feelings of anxiety may not have a direct cause. Anxiety is considered a mental disorder, whereas stress is not, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In the Spring 2011 American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment of 105,781 college students, one in five said that anxiety had had a negative impact on their academic performance in the past year, and 27.5% said that stress had had a negative impact. Half of all students polled said they had felt overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months.

In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 68% of respondents said they sometimes or often suffer from anxiety. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 13% of college students have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or depression.

College Triggers 

Students face a unique set of life stressors that may trigger such reactions. Classes are academically challenging, and the pressure to achieve is high. “We definitely see more cases when finals come around,” says Grace. “And older students worry about supporting their families and possibly losing their jobs and homes. We saw more cases of anxiety at the start of the recession, when people were losing their jobs in droves.”

Dr. Terencio McGlasson, an assistant professor of guidance and counseling at the University of Wisconsin–Superior, says some students have a predisposition to certain psychological problems (such as depression and eating disorders), and the stress in college may trigger more profound issues.  Lifestyle choices can also play a role, including lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and alcohol and drug abuse. Dr. McGlasson mentions other potential triggers including relationship dynamics with roommates, eating disorders, and dealing with authority figures in college.

Preventing and Treating Anxiety

The best way to deal with anxiety is to recognize issues with stress early before they start causing serious harm.  “You’ve got to watch your sleep, and you’ve got to watch your nutrition,” says Dr. McGlasson.

Communication with others around you is the other key. “We often recommend that students talk to someone in counseling,” says Grace. “We don’t have long-term counseling here at the community college, so we may refer them to counseling in the community.”  Dr. McGlasson says that what makes counseling appealing and effective is that you have a chance to share these struggles with another person without any fear of judgment.

If you think your anxiety issues have gone beyond prevention, go to someone for help. The health and counseling center at your school is a great place to start.  Counseling, medication, and lifestyle changes, such as exercise and changes in eating, may be some of the treatment options recommended. Meditation and deep breathing exercises may help. A counselor may find that a nutritional deficiency, such as insufficient vitamin D or magnesium or excessive sugar, is a factor.

Sharonda found help for her panic attacks by following up with her physician. Exercising regularly, cutting her caffeine intake and learning how to relax also helped.
Skoullos encourages students to reach out to others and try to help those who may be suffering from anxiety. “Treat their anxiety seriously and listen to them,” she says. “Don’t just say, ‘Calm down.’ Calm down are my least two favorite words.”

Dr. McGlasson hopes that students who are struggling will understand that it is OK to seek help for mental health issues. He emphasizes that seeking help for anxiety is normal.
“You are not alone,” says Skoullos. “Anxiety is treatable. You just need to seek help, because it’s no way to live.”

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