Looking inside the anxious mind

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“You know you’re being irrational, but you can’t stop your heart from racing,” says Lindsay*, a U of M student diagnosed with anxiety. “And if you feel like you’re going to die this very moment, it’s very hard to just continue on like everything’s fine.”

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues in Canada, according to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Community Health Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Since these disorders are especially common among young people ages 15-24, university students would do well to understand what anxiety is, and how it might affect them or their friends.

There are five generally recognized anxiety disorders: ptsd (post-traumatic stress disorder), generalized anxiety disorder (gad), obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias and panic disorder. The most common of the five is gad.

While anxiety is often felt throughout the body, it originates in the brain, where both genetic and environmental factors interact. Two circuits in the brain come into play when mammals like us sense danger. There is the cerebral cortex, which regulates things like thinking and decision-making. Then we have the circuit that is running through the amygdala, designed to perceive threats.

This second response is fast and primal. It can activate responses in the body like a racing heart before the other conscious response has fully registered what has happened.

With demanding classes, tumultuous relationships and mounting bills, everyone encounters potentially anxiety-inducing situations. Fear and stress are normal reactions; they can even be helpful. Our body’s natural awareness and response to threats means we can respond quickly — it has helped us survive. That’s why it’s complicated to sort out anxiety in the brain: it’s a natural response, which for some, has its volume turned up.

Anxiety can take a toll physically as well as emotionally. For Lindsay, it came in several forms. “I got panic attacks and lots of migraines (apparently anxious people hold lots of tension in their necks, leading to tension headaches), and the jumpiness after an attack.”

Panic attacks can be one of the most distressing parts of an anxiety disorder, though not everyone experiences them the same way, or even at all. Lindsay describes her panic attacks as follows: “My heart is racing, and I get this huge adrenaline rush, so I’m breathing faster, and I know, I am positive I am going to die. That’s all I can think of, and I basically curl up in the fetal position or something similar to sob for a while, and try super hard to breathe normally, but it doesn’t seem to work.”

Anxiety disorders can affect students’ academic careers. “I have dropped many classes, and also severely messed up my gpa due to missing assignments, being anxious about asking for help, and even missing and having to reschedule exams,” says Lindsay. “It’s really hard to get a note sometimes, if you’re too freaked out to think clearly and go to a doctor’s office, and usually by the time you get there, the panic is done anyways.”

The difficulty is sometimes that the anxiety prevents students from seeking help. When asked if she chose to register with Disability Services, Lindsay said no. “That’s part of my avoidance,” she admitted. “Putting off stuff where I have to publicly admit that I’m not perfect.”

“I guess one thing I wish more people knew about anxiety is that it’s not contagious, it’s not your fault, and it’s really hard to ‘just snap out of it’ or whatever, particularly if you’re in the middle of a panic attack.”

With the prevalence of anxiety disorders, even if you have never experienced one yourself, it’s likely that one of your friends has. “If I had a tip for someone whose friend is anxious, if they are freaking out, find a quiet space nearby and take them there immediately,” says Lindsay. “And if they want you to stay, you can reassure them that they’re fine — even if they don’t feel fine, they will be — and if they don’t want you to stay, you can go out of the quiet space and reassure other people (if you’re at a party or something) that the person is fine, just needed a minute, nothing to see here . . . ”

When students learn about anxiety disorders — that these reactions aren’t just “part of their personality,” they can be treated — it can be a relief. “The main thing [I learned from discovering what anxiety was]: I’m not crazy! The way my brain was going and how I was reacting to stuff, I literally felt like I must be insane,” said Lindsay. “So when I realized this was all indicative of anxiety, which is a totally treatable and remarkably common thing, I had a tool to deal with it.”
Lindsay credits “exercise, daily medication and counselling” for helping her manage the anxiety in school.

In counselling, Lindsay began to think through some of her fears. “I guess it’s possible that one could be laughed out of a classroom if they didn’t know the answer to a question, but what are the odds of that actually happening? Pretty slim; generally people are more understanding than anxious people like myself give them credit for.”

There are on-campus resources for students dealing with anxiety. The Student Counselling and Career Centre in University Centre offers counselling and support groups. Disability Services offers accommodation for students with medically documented disabilities, including anxiety and mental health disorders.

*A pseudonym has been used at the interviewee’s request.