It feels as if you’re drowning or suffocating. Everything is out of your control and you just can’t think straight.
While most people may feel anxious at times, it’s one thing to feel anxiety occasionally and another thing to really suffer from it. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. College Magazine spoke to the people who know anxiety best and came up with a list of facts about the disorder you may not have known.
1. It’s Not Just Emotional; It’s Physical
“A [panic attack] can feel like ‘I’m gonna die.’ And whether that’s from physiological responses—your heart racing, your face tingling or going numb—a lot of it has to do with how our brain processes stress and trauma,” said Deborah Weiss, counselor for anxiety at University of Florida’s Health and Wellness Center.
Whether it’s sweating, hyperventilating, heaviness on the chest, dizziness, etc., it’s all very overwhelming. I know firsthand that the physical makes the emotional experience that much worse. At my worst, I may feel like I can’t really take in what I see or hear because my senses are overwhelmed. The symptoms really all depend on the individual and on the specific circumstance.
2. You Literally Cannot Think
“When you go into that kind of panic, your blood leaves the prefrontal cortex and goes into the body so that you can do things. When people talk about ‘I can’t focus, I can’t think,’ it’s like ‘right, of course you can’t think, because your blood is not in…the thinking part of your brain,’” said Weiss.
Anxiety can leave you feeling sort of paralyzed. Sometimes, I’ll feel so anxious that I won’t want to leave my bed or even move. While every person copes with anxiety differently, one of the best ways I found to cope with this feeling is to accomplish a small goal. First, I’ll give myself a few minutes to gather a “can do” attitude. Then, I’ll focus on something small like tidying up my room or doing the dishes. That always helps me feel like I’ve regained a little bit of control and slowly brings me back to normal.
3. It Hits You Like a Truck
“My anxiety almost comes out of nowhere and it’s this, ‘Oh shit,’ moment that’s either going to last a few minutes or even a few days, making every little thing hard to do,” said a University of Florida student* who’s suffered from anxiety for years.
The worst part of anxiety is that sometimes you don’t even know what triggers it. In the past, I’ve been in public places when it’s hit me with no warning. It’s a huge obstacle when you’re occupied with something that involves your utmost attention and focus, like meeting a writing deadline.
4. Overthinking is Overdone
“You overthink everything, no matter how stupid it is,” said the same UF student on her experience with anxiety.
A few days ago, I was doing the dishes and my roommate was sort of hovering over me. I wanted to ask if I was in her way so I could politely help her out. But it came out completely wrong. I said, “Do you need something?” The statement sounded so rude. Luckily, she’s my best friend so I apologized and explained. She and my other roommate laughed it off, as did I. Still, I kept thinking about it over the next few days, even though it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Anxiety can be triggered from something as normal as stressing an exam or as small as overthinking something you said days ago. The point is it’s hard to be laid-back when there’s always something that “can go wrong.”
5. Rational Thinking Doesn’t Fix Irrational Thinking
“You can’t convince yourself otherwise even when you know your thinking is irrational,” said a UF student on this experience.
No matter how irrational you know your thoughts are, you just can’t get rid of that feeling of “impending doom.” It basically starts with something small and then grows into a fully formed, menacing demon. This past month, when I first started apartment hunting in New York, I sent out a message of interest for a place in Manhattan. I didn’t get a response but my best friend did. That resulted in me freaking out thinking that I look too young to most people, that I won’t get a solid job within 6 months, that I won’t find a place to live, and that I’ll fail at my dream career forever. Like I said, a downward, irrational spiral. I later learned that my email never went through. Even if it had, it didn’t mean it was the end of my career. It takes me calming down to realize that most of my worries will never come true.
6. The Habit of Avoidance
“If I have a panic attack in a situation…well, then I’m going to start avoiding that situation or the location,” said Weiss.
This effect is brought on by a specific situation and then develops into a more general trigger. For example, a few months ago, I had an anxiety attack on a road trip while it was raining. Since then, road trips tend to scare me, even if it’s a sunny day. I just remember the feeling of being terrified too vividly. I feel as if I can’t focus on anything when driving for longer than 30 minutes. It can be tricky to deal with this avoidance habit because the simplest things, like driving back home for summer break, can become difficult.
7. Maintenance Requires Daily Effort
“Getting good sleep can be really important…but it’s really knowing what YOU need,” said Weiss on coping.
What most people don’t know about anxiety is that it requires daily maintenance. Everyone copes differently. It’s about finding what works for you. I personally stick to the three most common recommendations: a healthy diet, sufficient rest and daily exercise. Whenever I can follow these three habits, I tend to feel normal, calm and happy, as I should. If I stray from this, I start falling apart. It’s a challenge when life throws a lot at you and there’s just not enough time to manage everything together.
“Sometimes when I’m in large crowds of people, the thought of not being able to get out freaks me out, even something as simple as being on a bus,” said a UF student on her anxiety.
Well, you probably won’t catch us at giant music festivals. Any place too crowded can be overwhelming to the point where it triggers a full-on panic attack. I’ll never forget freaking out at EDC Orlando this past fall while I was just waiting in line. The fear can be overcome, of course, but it takes practice and learning to master techniques in calming down.
9. Anxiety Can Be a Superpower
“Anxiety serves a function. That kick start of adrenaline…it’s a motivator. [Anxiety] clears and you have that super-powered focus,” said Weiss.
Fortunately, anxiety doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Often times, people who have learned to manage their anxiety are highly successful individuals. I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. I tend to procrastinate until my anxiety clears and then my hyperfocus sets in and helps me get the job done accurately and quickly. I usually will listen to music to pump myself up, imagining myself where I want to be in life, and then thinking of what I need to do to get there. I do this as I jam and wait until enough time runs out, so that I have no choice but to get to work. Then, I slowly breathe and begin. From that moment on, nothing can distract me and it seems as if whatever I’m working on is writing itself.
10. The Burden of Shame
“When we talk about anxiety, we’re talking about another layer of burden, with the shame, the embarrassment, with people thinking they’re crazy or thinking themselves that they’re crazy,” said Weiss.
Although times are changing, there is still a stigma on people with mental health issues. It makes it hard for us to reach out to others for help. After every panic attack, I always feel disappointed in myself. I feel as if I’m crazy but I later remind myself it’s just a condition. Hopefully with time, people will come to understand more about what these issues really are and the stigma will cease to be.
Anxiety is obviously hard to deal with. It’s an extra burden to carry around that can hinder you from completing the smallest tasks. But it’s also manageable and much more common than most people think. As long as you figure out what’s right for you, you’ll be fine. Remember, if I can get through it, so can you.