“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”–Arthur Somers Roche
“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”– Kahlil Gibran
When I was in fourth grade, I had the privilege of traveling with my grandparents and a cousin. We had taken a train to Washington DC, and I have a dream like remembrance of riding in a taxi transporting us towards an airport from the train station. It was the first time I had ever traveled in major city traffic. We were propelled with what seemed like great velocity through busy traffic, zigging and zagging in and out of traffic, bright lights of oncoming and passing vehicles playing tag in the dark of an evening.
The route took us through a menacing tunnel with blazing lights for the evening rush hour. This was my first experience in such a claustrophobic, wreck-inducing, our-lives-were-about-to-end, multi-lane, city tunnel. We were hurtling through a tube of neon lights, clamorous noises, and untold dangers surrounded and threatened our yellow tin can. My heart was racing; I felt simultaneously scared and angry.
Danger! Danger! We. Were. Out. of. Control. We were going to die in a fiery collision of metal upon metal.
Like projectile shot from a military caliber cannon, we emerged unscathed from the tunnel, and signs indicated the airport was near. That was when I saw the vwoop, vwoop, vwoop of the rotating light of the airport beacon. That circling source of luminescence became the focus of my vision, my heart rate began to slow, and my rate of respiration resumed to more normal levels. Safety was within sight. I was calm again–although my poor Grandmother, I am quite certain, based upon her wide-eyes and ever-rubbing hands, was not.
As I think back on that experience, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to feel that way ALL of the time. In fact, I am told that feeling is quite similar to how someone with an anxiety disorder feels daily. In fact, generalized anxiety disorder, and its fraternal twin, depression, and the other siblings in this family of mental anguish including: panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and their cousins of related illnesses often manifested and/or co-occurring with these disabling siblings, affect more than 40 million adults in the US alone. Without including the population 18 years or younger, these illnesses affect 18.1% of the population– and that statistic was determined before COVID. Sadly, it is estimated that nearly 80% of those affected by GAD, or other related disorder(s), do not seek professional help.
Like my first recollection of anxiety, it is perfectly normal to experience bouts of situational anxiety from time-to-time. However, it is when symptoms are persistent and pervasive, affecting day-to-day life, that anxiety can become a significant issue. Unfortunately, because anxiety can express itself in numerous ways, many people may not realize that they are experiencing chronic anxiety. Researching and preparing for this column, I soon discovered that I had very little understanding of this frequently occurring mental health issue.
While I did know there was a genetic component to anxiety, I did not realize that anxiety was twice as likely to occur in women than men. Additionally, I understood that there was a relationship between anxiety and depression; however, I did not realize anxiety can cause memory problems and issues with anger. Furthermore, I realized years ago that anxiety can cause physical symptoms, but I did not fully understand the way anxiety can increase one’s risk for health complications. I also learned that those experiencing anxiety as adults, often begin experiencing this suffering in their childhood, and it is often misdiagnosed and treated as ADHD.
As an educator, I have anecdotally observed a rise in anxiety-related issues in students. This fact bears out statistically according to the CDC which notes that a rise in anxiety, and related disorders, began to be observed between the years of 2007 to 2012. Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association in an article published in 2019, there was a significant rise in anxiety disorders among young adults during the decade between 2010 and 2020, well before the pandemic.
Numerous factors have been attributed to cause this increase of mental distress, including the rise of social media; however, the purpose of this writing is not to point a finger at sources. Additionally, I am not trying to parade as an expert on the subject, because I am most certainly not. Instead, I humbly write as someone who now realizes that not only have I experienced very real bouts of anxiety, but I have also witnessed countless others suffer from anxiety, and all of its variants, especially over the past few years. I hope my few words can shine a light on what can be done to help, support, and understand the very real anguish anxiety creates.
One tip I repeatedly read is the importance of remaining calm, accepting, and patient with those experiencing anxiety with applying pressure to “get over it.” Do not dismiss their fears with logic or rational arguments as this can feel belittling. This is especially important for those in the midst of a panic attack. Additionally, listen openly without judgement and without offering advice, but instead ask if there is something that you can do.
If a friend or loved one is experiencing a panic attack, no matter how upsetting it is to witness, remain a calm presence. Let the person know you are there. Remind him or her to breathe deeply and slowly. Stay with the person until they are calm; and again, it is okay to ask what she or he needs. They may not need anything, but by simply asking the question, allows the person to know you care and encourages him or her to focus on the question rather than the sensations coursing through their body. For some people, it may help to ask them to name one thing they can feel, see, hear, taste, and smell. Panic attacks, however, are not the time for preaching, setting ultimatums, or any other perceived negative or judgmental behaviors.
Try to understand. Read as much as you can on the subject. Ask questions regarding what you can do to better help and/or support them, especially if they are prone to panic attacks. Simply having a plan in place can offer assurance to both you and the person for whom you are supporting.
Additionally, encourage your friend or loved one to seek professional help. Be willing to call and schedule the first appointment for them. You may even need to help them figure out what to say to the doctor or therapist. Offer to drive and/or go with them to appointments in a show of support. Be willing to attend therapy sessions with them to learn what you can do to help. Group support, acupuncture, mindfulness techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so forth, may also be helpful for the person experiencing anxiety. Likewise, medications may be useful in order to better manage it.
In the end, anxiety is not a simple matter of stress. It is a very real mental disorder that affects millions of people daily, making even the most seemingly simple task a stress-inducing event. Anxiety can be manifested in a wide variety of ways; and therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all form of treatment. However, all expressions of anxiety require both personal and professional support. If you, or a loved one, are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, know that you are not alone. Help is available, and it is typically either a phone call or a click away.