Desks are clean and the floors are still shiny. Backpacks are still intact. Students of every age are settling into their new routines. Empty nesters are back to square one, and the crisp autumn air has made its way into our mornings. This is fall as we know it, and while many of us have watched this cycle come and go, changes can still ignite angst.
As the leaves turn color and fall to the ground, pressure can build in our students. Upcoming tests, papers to write and the everyday fight for a parking space can seem like a mountain for someone living with anxiety. In reality, so can getting up in the morning, going to work and managing everyday tasks. Anxiety is a sneaky beast. It can creep in and wind us up and then drain our momentum. It leaves us feeling irritated, tired, and sore. Anxiety does not discriminate, it's an equal opportunity disorder that can propel the helicopter parent, dismantle routine and leave us fighting for control.
Everyone experiences anxiety; maybe, it manifests as sweaty palms before asking someone for a date, or a racing heart when having to give a speech. Positive stress is a normal and essential part of our lives. It drives us. For over 40 million adults in the U.S., however, anxiety is more than heightened alertness when driving on black ice, it is a generalized disorder. Anxiety disorders tend to develop around the age of 21, ironically just about the time "adulting" becomes a verb. It can begin as a normal response to everyday experiences, deadlines and circumstances and grow into a persistent and excessive fear or worry even when situations are manageable. People experiencing an anxiety disorder can be tense, jumpy, restless and irritable. They may anticipate the worst-case scenario and have body reactions like a pounding heart, tremors, sweating, headaches, and fatigue. They may have stomach issues and trouble with sleeping. Most importantly to note, when anxiety first begins to emerge in someone, it doesn't always give its name. People may feel like they are irrational or crazy and not understand that according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 18 percent of the population is experiencing the same thing as them.
Diagnosing anxiety usually starts with a physical examination to check for any medical conditions that might be a source of concern. After that, a mental health professional will determine the type of anxiety disorder a person has by their symptoms. Once this "beast" has a name, it is much easier to tame. We can learn to tell when it is on its way and how to rewire the mind to stop it in its tracks. Anxiety tends to be future-focused while its coconspirator, depression tends to live in the past. Grounding activities that help us focus on the present moment can be key to managing a panic attack. When we focus on the here and now, things we can concretely see, hear, touch, smell and taste, we bring ourselves to the present. When we take time to notice that the earth beneath our feet is holding us, and not the other way around, it can bring comfort. Deep breathing can slow our heart rate and clear our minds, allowing us to use logic and reason to identify that we are not in danger. Placing a hand on our hearts or any other self-soothing is a way to be gentle with ourselves. Letting go of things we can't control is also as important as creating a plan to tackle the things we can. Drinking water, avoiding extra sugar and caffeine can also help, as does re-labeling the thoughts that pop into our heads, giving them a proper title instead of impending doom. Moving the body can burn extra energy and release endorphins that can make us feel better. Early bedtimes can help lighten the burden.
A good thing to remember when dealing with any kind of mental illness or anxiety disorder is that the person who is living with it gets to decide how difficult it is. Just because we have had experiences with sweaty palms doesn't mean we know what it is like to be inside anyone else's mind. Be gentle with yourselves, and each other, too. Eighteen percent of us desire to be understood.
Kelly Brevig is Suicide Educational Services Coordinator with Evergreen Youth and Family Services.