By Zach Morgan
This blog was originally published for the Daily Nexus, UCSB’s student-run newspaper.
I used to think anxiety was just a bunch of bullshit.
In middle school, seventh or eighth grade I think, I remember my grandmother talking to one of my aunts on the phone. My aunt was telling my grandma about how her daughter had just been diagnosed as “suffering” from anxiety. Thinking back now, it may have been an anxiety disorder diagnosis; I don’t remember that clearly. I listened from the other room, and I was confused.
Ignorant tween as I was, it baffled me that someone could “suffer” from what I saw as a prolonged state of nervousness. I guess that’s how I felt about all mental health issues at the time. Why didn’t anxious people just stop being anxious? Why didn’t depressed people just cheer up?
I went on with this mindset through the remainder of middle school, then through high school, and it persisted until I went to college, left my parents, left my friends and support system and means of self-identification, went through a crippling breakup, worried about making friends, worried about going out on weekends, worried about my grades, worried that going to UCSB was a gigantic mistake, worried about my future in general…
When I started to wake up on weekends — weekends! — with a pounding heart and a mind chock-full of dread, I began to give some credence to anxiety as a true affliction.
Besides finals week, I was able to keep my anxiety under wraps those first couple years. Most of the time it was a dull buzz I could tone down with friends or beer or weekend trips home.
Now, in the final quarter of my senior year, my last hurrah, my metaphorical rounding of third base, that dull buzz is a lot louder. Everything is coming to an end for my college career, and I have this endless gamut of questions playing pinball in my head: Did I do enough? Did I make my mark? Just how much will I regret not going abroad? Can I function beyond the college environment? Will friendships be snuffed out by the hands of time and distance? These are but a sample. There are many more, and I ruminate on them to no end. Beyond graduation lies a fair bit of uncertainty, and I think that’s the primary cause of all this. I’ve never done well when I’m unsure of what comes next.
Even when I’m not actively worrying about these things, they still evoke a fight-or-flight reaction somewhere down in my subconscious. For me, it’s akin to standing on train tracks and feeling the rumble of the train as it approaches. Rocks bounce and vibrate underfoot, your body shakes and you hear that horn, deafening, telling you to get the fuck out of the way, but you can never really see the train. In all likelihood, it probably never existed. You were probably never anywhere near the tracks in the first place. Though you try to shake it off and smile and go on with your day, one feeling remains: That steel locomotive is going to run you down, and it will have no qualms about it.
All that said, this is just my experience. I am not alone (far from it, unfortunately). Anxiety, both day-to-day and clinical, is incredibly common.
I spoke to Brian Olowude, associate director of Counseling & Psychological Services (C.A.P.S.) and all-around nice human being, who pointed out that this prevalence can be an issue.
“Anxiety is a significant issue and one that needs attention, continued and constant attention,” Olowude said. “I think because stress and anxiety is such a common vernacular, [because] we hear it in so many ways around us, there’s a tendency to not always give it the attention it deserves as a serious issue.”
Just take a look at the stats: The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found in 2013 that 41.6 percent of college students believed anxiety to be the most prevalent issue on college campuses. In a 2015 ADAA poll, 30 percent of college students reported that stress and anxiety had negatively affected their academic performance in some way.
More broadly, the ADAA also states that some 40 million adults in the United States struggle with anxiety disorder, and 75 percent of those chronic sufferers experienced their initial anxiety episode before the age of 22. There’s no doubt a lot of overlap with students there. A 2011 national survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 62 percent of students who withdrew from college did so because of anxiety or anxiety-related issues.
Despite being incredibly treatable, anxiety goes untreated by about two-thirds of those who suffer from it. It’s a big problem, one exacerbated by lack of treatment and attention.
This leads me to a few suggestions I’d like to share with you. If stress and anxiety are going to be taken as seriously as they should be, then the individual must first know what they can do to help themselves and, over time, help others. Whether you’re a chronic sufferer or a student with a little extra weight on your shoulders, take a glance.
Number one: If you find yourself backed into a corner, under considerable pressure or just generally overmatched by mental hardships, then you need to get help. You need to talk to somebody.
This is always the first thing said when giving mental health advice — “you need to get help” — and that’s because it’s paramount to getting better. And though this advice is repeated over and over like some well-meaning broken record, people still feel too self-conscious to heed it. Those deaf ears result in worsening anxiety attacks, eating disorders and, in the grimmest circumstances, suicidal ideation. Overcoming self-judgment and embarrassment is the initial task one must undertake.
“I think the first, most important thing that has to happen for [anxiety] to be treated is to first admit that you have it, to admit and to recognize that something isn’t quite right with how you’re operating in this world with this anxiety,” Olowude said. “That’s the first step, and the sooner we can acknowledge that, the better. There’s never a wrong time to do it.”
Though I’m a fan of self remedies, and though I think it’s great to help yourself to whatever extent you can, it would be reckless of me to suggest that mental illness is best battled solo. It’s not. You can treat a cold, you can treat a flu, but ulcers and cancer can’t be fought with vitamin C and bed rest. It takes a trained mind to help with both the diagnosis and the treatment of serious medical issues, and the same goes for serious issues of mental health.
Herein lies a problem, however, and its name is stigma. There’s still a stigma about mental health that pervades the minds of many, from big-time sufferers to seasonally depressed young adults. It’s thought that exposing a flaw or weakness within your own mind automatically slaps you with any number of labels: crazy, weird, freak, retard, etc. And this makes sense because other people do tend to be judgmental. You may be looked down upon, many times, because you have problems others don’t. It’s even worse if your problems are misunderstood; you may be seen as dangerous or unpredictable. Among other things, it can make you feel inadequate, alone. If you’re used to nothing but judgment from other people, then you’ll be pretty reluctant to share your feelings with them. This is where the stigma really takes hold, because therapists, by their very nature, are also people.
If you really feel backed against the ropes, however, you’ll need to overcome that stigma in some way.
The first time I went to C.A.P.S., which was early on in my junior year, I was horrifically embarrassed. To cope, I took what one might call a “detached” viewpoint. As I saw it, therapists were like any other doctor, right? And in my view, doctors spent so much time cutting up cadavers and studying the innards of fellow humans that they couldn’t possibly be judgmental. They had to view humans objectively. By extension of this weird logic, therapists must see the human mind and its myriad complexities as just that: disembodied complexities that need to be fixed. To them I wasn’t “me” per se. I was case file xxx-xxx, with such and such medical history and such and such family history of mental illness. If I could get it in my head that I was more of a project, a thinking, talking cadaver, and not a person prone to judgment and sideways glances, then I’d feel a bit better.
To be honest, this wasn’t the best outlook to have, nor was it the most accurate view of therapists (Individually tailored therapy, Olowude informed me, is both normal and ideal). Nevertheless, it helped me overcome the shame I felt. It allowed me a chance to engage my issues rather than suppress them and don an artificial smile.
The second suggestion I have for dealing with anxiety: exercise, vigorous exercise, not half-assed cardio.
Exercise, aerobic exercise specifically, has been shown to improve not only physical health but cognitive function, that is, mental health and mental ability. Strenuous exercise releases endorphins, natural painkiller-like chemicals, that help to facilitate sleep, reduce tension levels, stabilize mood and increase self-esteem.
In addition to its physiological effects, aerobic exercise, I find, is most effective as a distraction from anxiety. My personal instrument of choice is the stationary bike, though I’ve dabbled with jogging (hurts my knees), swimming (my form needs work) and the StairMaster (effective but uninteresting). You’ll see that if you put in enough effort to really “work out,” then you’ll be too preoccupied with catching your breath to worry about school or work or all that shit that’s bouncing around in your brain. If you do it right, exercise forms a monopoly on your attention.
“Doing it right” means putting in genuine effort to challenge yourself. If you’re capable of reading a book while using an elliptical, that’s fine, but you may not be doing all you can do. If you want to gain knowledge and burn some calories at the same time, then by all means do whatever is best for you. I dig it. But if you want to get healthier, and if you seek that “natural high” your runner friends talk about, then you’ll need to really grind. The American Heart Association recommends 25 to 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardio three times a week. It’s going to take a healthy amount of sweat, but it’ll be worth it. There’s a hidden benefit to all this as well: You’ll no longer have anxiety about dying from early onset heart disease! It’s a win-win.
Know that the most important relationship in exercise is human and iron (or human and treadmill, human and StairMaster, human and pull-up bar, human and so on and so on). If you’re putting in effort and following gym etiquette, no one’s going to give you a hard time. While anxiety manifests within the caverns of the human mind, it’s sometimes best remedied by spending quality time, alone, with nonthinking and nonspeaking objects. It’s less complicated that way.
This brings me to suggestion number three, one I’ve found particularly helpful as of late: Get a journal and write in it.
Journaling has been found by several studies to be an effective form of stress reduction. Like exercise, it’s a self-remedy. If you have no one to talk to or if you still feel uncomfortable with the notion outside of therapy, then the journal can provide a wonderful, completely confidential palette for catharsis.
“The act of writing in and of itself, I think, is therapeutic,” Olowude said. “The act of acknowledging a thought, looking at it on paper, is very therapeutic … When we keep those things in for so long, it’s more corrosive to our internal environment, our inner emotions.”
The journal is most effective as an outlet for those corrosive thoughts. It doesn’t think. It doesn’t critique. It’s just there, a blank page bound in leather, a yellow lined notepad or a Word doc with a blinking cursor. A journal can be anything; that’s the beauty of it.
When you’re journaling, the most important thing is to be devoid of inhibition, which is the bane of good writing everywhere. When you crack open that notebook or laptop, that’s your time to whine. That’s your time to unload all of those things you’d keep quiet in the presence of others.
As Olowude told me, “Don’t even worry about the spelling. Don’t worry about the punctuation; just write what you are feeling and what you’re experiencing without judgment.”
Thought and writing have to be one. Your pen or your typing hands need to be an extension of your stream of consciousness. This is difficult, and it will take time and repetition to perfect.
When writing becomes unconscious in this way, you’ll find that you’ve entered a different state of being. It’s a lot like meditation or mindfulness: a calm, relaxed, reflective mindset. After you’ve filled the page with your scribblings, perhaps take some time to look back on them. Look for patterns in thought, in conflicts that arise. Are these conflicts real? Are they overblown in any way? If you find yourself troubled by what you’ve written — deeply troubled — then it may be time to take the first suggestion into account.
During our interview, Olowude left me with a quote that I felt was a great summation of anxiety. It was a metaphor his mentor used to discuss the many factors that both support one’s life and disrupt it. I’d like to end with it here.
“[My mentor] would describe a milking stool. Your life would be the flat part of the stool, and then the legs would be your spirituality, your health, your exercise, your emotions … and if any one of those legs were a little shorter than the others, then it would be unstable; you’d be wobbly. That’s a way of looking at anxiety: Is one of those legs in your life a little bit shorter?”
If your life is a little wobbly, then come back to the suggestions here. Build up a good sweat or write about what ails you. Better yet, talk to someone and devise your own best solution. It’s your life, after all.
Zach Morgan believes in the destigmatization of mental health and the importance of seeking help.