Spencer* ’16 stands outside her classroom waiting to take one of her many tests of the day, knowing she will not do well. The stress of multiple tests always results in the same thing: doing badly on one test for the sake of the others. Anticipating the disappointment from her teacher, a feeling of dread overwhelms Spencer. The worry extends far beyond sitting and taking the test itself; Spencer quickly feels ashamed that the task at hand is impossible.
“It’s always very preemptive,” Spencer said. “I’ll feel bad the night before or the morning before, and I’ll get this dread that will force me to act in ways that are different, like not going to school, [because] of anxiety.”
It feels normal for all the people around campus to feel anxious and overwhelmed in the “pressure-cooker” environment at Harvard-Westlake, Spencer said, but for her, it’s a little different. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in 9th grade. While a little bit of anxiety over day-to-day occurrences can push her friends to do better, it can be crippling for Spencer.
“[Stress and anxiety are] normalized at school,” Spencer said. “But in fact, there are outliers which are more serious and need to be treated.”
Everyone experiences stress and anxiety in their daily life, counselor and humanities teacher Luba Bek said. A big test or a date with someone cute, even a meeting with a teacher can trigger a loss of sleep and focus. Eighty percent of 407 students polled March 6 by the Chronicle said that they experienced moderate to severe stress every day, while 57 percent of students polled said that they experience anxiety every day.
This every-day anxiety is completely normal, Bek said, as long as it’s released before a new stress-inducing process begins. The trouble is when the anxiety is not normalized and it builds up so high the only option is to completely crash, causing a more severe state of anxiety.
“Anxiety about what’s going to happen is normal,” Bek said. “It can happen before a big game if you’re an athlete, it can happen before a test, before an ACT, before anything, and it actually mobilizes your system to fight.”
Different magnitudes of stress are described using words that seem interchangeable: fear, stress, anxiety and pressure. But each of these feelings elicits a unique response. Fear is generally stress experienced the moment something traumatic is occurring. Anxiety, on the other hand, is generally stress experienced outside of the window of when something stressful occurs. For example, anxiety can be experienced about a conversation that has happened or is yet to come, or the night before a big performance or evaluation.
“If you get your test back, you open it, you see a C- and your body [jumps], that’s fear. You’re really afraid of that grade,” Bek said. “Anxiety is when you are studying for the test, and the actuality of the test or bad grade is not there; it’s just the hypothetical that it can happen.”
Anxiety and stress are entirely different feelings. Stanford University’s associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences David Spiegel told the Huffington Post that with stress, it is easy to identify what is causing the feeling of uneasiness. With anxiety, it is more difficult to define where the anxious reaction is coming from, and soon the anxious reaction becomes a new cause for anxiety.
Stress is triggered by something externally disturbing, while anxiety comes from a situation that is not being directly experienced. According to MedlinePlus, chronic acute stress can lead to an anxiety disorder.
“[Anxiety] is something that people don’t really realize is super distressing for the person who actually has a clinical anxiety disorder, as opposed to someone who is just really stressed out,” peer support trainee and abnormal psyche student Kent Sheridan ’17 said.
There are many different types of disorders which fall under the category of anxiety disorders. The most commonly known are Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States; they affect 25 percent of 13- to 18-year-old Americans. Twenty-two percent of Harvard-Westlake students polled reported that they have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety can be confusing to people who suffer from clinical anxiety, as well. It’s a disorder that manifests itself physically as well as psychologically. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with General Anxiety Disorder commonly experience muscle tension, fatigue and the feeling of being tense or on edge for no apparent reason. These symptoms can be distracting; many students who suffer from anxiety often see grades and relationships deteriorating.
“In my relationship last year, I used to get really paranoid a lot,” Taylor Ingman ’16 said. “I would read into things a lot. If you’re with someone who can’t really wrap their head around that, it can be really perplexing.”
Ingman was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder the summer before her junior year. While she doesn’t expect everyone to completely understand her situation, the colloquial usage of words like ‘anxious’ and ‘panic attack’ can be upsetting and confusing to people who have diagnosed anxiety disorders.
“A common misconception with anxiety is just that everyone’s anxious,” Ingman said. “Last year there were a lot of times when I would [think], ‘It’s true, everyone is anxious, and I just can’t handle it.’ “
At a school like Harvard-Westlake, stress levels are a hot topic. Students use reasons such as lack of sleep and extreme stress to explain why their work turned out the way it did or to display the adversity they overcame to complete their work. Anxiety can be helpful for many people in motivating them to get their work done. Clinical anxiety, however, it can make everyday life so difficult that it becomes isolating, Spencer said.
“For me, anxiety is paralyzing,” Spencer said. “It’s not productive at all because it’s such a heightened version of it. So that’s sometimes where I feel alienated.”
Anxiety is treatable. For clinical anxiety, there are medications that can be taken to control daily anxiety and panic attacks. However, it can be difficult to come forward and ask for help when dealing with anxiety, Ingman said. She encourages students to use the resources available to them on campus like the counselors.
“Even assemblies like the suicide assembly, even if it’s not going to be a soapbox lecture about [suicide], just the guy getting up there and sharing his stories says that this is real, this is out there, and you can be dealing with this,” Ingman said.
Assemblies like this can begin conversation on campus about mental health, which leads to a greater awareness and a loss of the stigma surrounding mental health on campus, Ingman said.
A greater understanding of mental health disorders such as anxiety can lead to a more accepting student body, Sheridan said.
After taking an abnormal psychology class and training as a Peer Support Trainee, Sheridan has been able to apply the lessons he learns in class to the people around him on campus.
“Not just at Harvard-Westlake, but in general, there is a huge stigma about mental health and psychological disorders because people don’t really know that much about them,” Sheridan said. “Being exposed to issues like [anxiety], you really develop a mindset where you are more accepting.”
*Names have been changed.