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The Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having an Anxiety Disorder

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I went into panic. I ran to my room, pacing back and forth, questioning to God above, “Why is this happening?” as tears rolled down my face. I asked, “What should I do?” and “How do I help?” as more tears rolled down my face.

I realized I wasn’t going to get an answer, to which I started panting; I lost my breath in and out for 15 minutes before I got angry at just the fact that this was happening to me. I’ve had anxiety since elementary school, and I knew that these were signs of what a panic attack looked like for me.

I got so angry with myself that this is how my body chose to fight stress. I felt weak and with feeling angry at myself, it only induced more panic. I gained anxiety just from the fear of having anxiety. I had a panic attack just from the worry of having one. It was a spiral effect of worries that led me onto the floor of the bathroom. Rocking back and forth, I tried to channel my breath and practiced what they always told me, “breathe in for four, release for four.” Only, I was breathing in for eight and barely ever releasing. I tried to clench my fists to stop from shaking and hold back the anger. When I finally felt like the worst was over, I tried standing up by using the shower curtain. After a few seconds of using the shower curtain to support all my anxiety, pain and anger, I fainted. I collapsed down to my bathroom floor, where I laid out of breath.

My mother found me and helped me back to health. It was one of the worst panic attacks of my life, and I hated myself that this was my body’s way of coping. Later that day, I told my best friend what happened, and she insisted that “everyone has anxiety” and that I’m “overreacting” and “being dramatic,” and that I should simply “get over it.” I still remember these harsh words over two years later. Once they hurt me so bad, and now I just envy her because she will never experience the pain I feel from anxiety, even though she confidently claims to know what that word means.

Anxiety is classified as a mental health disorder. In order to be diagnosed, you must meet certain criteria: the way in which you experience your symptoms must be severe enough, appear often enough and become disruptive enough to be called an anxiety disorder. ​​That being said, a lot of people tend to throw around the word “anxiety,” without knowing the severe pain attached to the word for many others.

Some people who don’t have any anxiety disorder use the word to mean they are simply just nervous, or they have a worry that will soon disappear. “I’m so anxious” is a commonly used phrase for people who have never experienced having an anxiety disorder. Everyone can get nervous, often this is a part of your personality, some people are more prone to being nervous than others. However, even if people are prone to being nervous, that doesn’t mean they fit into the extreme, or the specific categories of an anxiety disorder.

People may think I’m overreacting, or being too sensitive, but that’s part of the problem. If we don’t address this issue it will only get more difficult for those people who want to speak up. If we’re just throwing around the word, then it takes away the intensity of the struggles that the word deals with. As someone with anxiety, when my friends and family misuse the word, that really gets under my skin the most. Everyone should be using it correctly, but especially if you are surrounded by someone who battles that disorder, you need to be educated. Whether you’re a parent or a friend, if someone in your life has anxiety, you should know somewhat of the pain they experience, and never want to minimize that pain.

If you minimize that pain, it will make them less willing to come to you with their problems because they won’t think you’re taking them seriously. Sometimes my best friend will be nervous about something that will go away in a few minutes. The more and more times that she throws the word around incorrectly, it makes me less willing to come to her for help. Why would I want to tell her about my anxiety, when she thinks she experiences the same thing, when she doesn’t? She will think I’m overreacting about what I’m experiencing because she uses the word, so she will think she goes through the same thing. But what she’s going through is being nervous about something. Maybe her trying to relate to me is out of love, and she’s trying to make me feel like I’m not alone, which I appreciate that aspect, but then it seems like we’re going through the same thing. And if she can get over whatever she’s facing, then so can I, right? If she thinks we’re going through the same thing, and her situation isn’t that big of a deal, then mine shouldn’t be that big of a deal either.

Anxiety to me means something I’ve battled since I was in elementary school. It’s a circle of words and worries that are never ending inside my brain. When my legs start to twitch and my hands clamp up, I know the rest of my day will be ruined. That no matter how cold it is outside; I’ll still be drenched with sweat and in a constant panic. Sometimes I’ll get anxious over just the fear of getting more anxious, and the two just build on each other until a panic attack is the winner. These symptoms are not the same for everyone, but since mine can take such a toll on my life, I personally don’t agree with the word being used so lightly or incorrectly.

A professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha responded to the article “I Didn’t Know How to Ask for Help”: Stories of Students with Anxiety.” The article is from a group of students who are explaining how their anxiety affects their schoolwork and hoping professors will be more helpful towards their mental illness. In the response, the professor completely dismisses the idea that professors need to accommodate those students. She refers to how classrooms were run when she was in college, insinuating that’s how the classroom should be run today as well. She may think the way classrooms were operated when she was in school, worked well enough, so why change it? However, she would not know if the classroom operated well for students with anxiety because she is not one of them. Now, more people are willing to talk about mental health, and have conversations about anxiety. We must adapt to the times, and if students have the courage to tell their professor they are struggling, they should be supported. All students should have the same resources and encouragement from their professors, so that they can get their work done no matter what mental health battle they are fighting.

More people admit they have anxiety now, meaning there are more people with known mental illnesses that attend college. The professor who wrote this response potentially just wasn’t exposed to peers with anxiety, simply because they weren’t at college, because it was too hard for them to attend. Since those with anxiety are now willing to attend, shouldn’t we want to keep them there? In order to keep them there, we don’t need to baby them, or give them an unlimited number of excuses, but professors need to be more understanding. A student with anxiety versus a student who doesn’t have anxiety, experience the classroom and learn very differently. If professors are running the classroom in a way that just suits students ​​without ​​anxiety, that is setting up the students ​with ​​anxiety to do poorly.

The professor then goes along to say, “I don’t know what brings on anxiety, but I hope these students are formulating a plan to deal with it.” She seems to not understand that they were trying to formulate a plan by writing the article, explaining to the world what their pain is like, and possible solutions to help them learn better. The professor who wrote the response shut that plan down with her ignorant viewpoint. She even admits, “I don’t know what brings on anxiety.” How could you so quickly shut down students trying to deal with their anxiety, when you don’t even know what ​​brings on a​nxiety? This professor exemplifies one of the main problems in our society, which is people using words that they don’t understand. Don’t speak on topics you are not educated on. Don’t pretend to have something when you don’t. That only takes away from the people who actually have it, and minimizes their real experiences when you pretend, you’re going through the same thing.

There is a huge difference between having nerves and having anxiety. You could be nervous about taking a big test or scared to confront your roommate about a living issue. Say you complete one of these tasks, you take the test, or you have an awkward conversation with your roommate. Either way, after you go through the event, the nerves disappear. It’s only the lead up that causes you stress. For those with an anxiety disorder, no matter if they complete the task that’s making them anxious or not, the anxiety doesn’t go away. It stays with them. Say they confront their roommate, and even if it goes over well and they come to some resolution to fix the problem that was bothering them, they will still overthink everything. After the confrontation is over, they could then think “What if my roommate actually hates me?” “What if they were just pretending to agree with me?” “What if they talk bad about me to our friends?” “What if the friends believe her over me?” “What if I’m left with no friends, and will be lonely forever?” This is an example of what plays out in the head of someone with anxiety. They overthink and worry about every possible scenario. Their mind is never at rest. Even if their day is going well and they are getting lucky, they will then be scared that they are getting lucky! They then think if they’re ​​too ​​lucky, that means the luck can’t stay forever, and something bad is about to happen. They won’t allow too many good things to happen to them because they’re just going to be on edge of what bad things will come next. Even before the bad thing actually happens to them, they will be worried about how they are going to handle that bad thing. They will then think about what if they handle it wrong and will think about everything that could go wrong with how they handle it. Then they’re so worked about handling a hypothetical situation wrong, they’re now worked up about a situation they made up in their head. They are anxious about just the potential idea of being anxious.

The person who is nervous can have a calm mind once they’ve tackled the thing making them nervous because it’s disappeared, and they forget about it forever. On the other hand, people with an anxiety disorder, that anxiety stays with them and builds into even more anxiety, even when in reality they have nothing to be worried about in that moment. It’s understandable that people who don’t live with a mental illness could throw around the word anxiety incorrectly because they don’t know the pain behind it. However, I feel if you are not educated on something, then you shouldn’t speak on it. If you are unsure of whether something is correct or not to use, then you probably shouldn’t use it, until you have figured out how to do so correctly. Many people also use the word when they are stressed out because they don’t know the difference between stress and anxiety. This is understandable because like the article “Stress vs Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference,” says, “Stress and anxiety share many of the same physical symptoms, making it difficult to spot the differences between them.” Stress and anxiety both come with similar symptoms such as, exhaustion, lack of focus and irritability, rapid heart rate, and headaches. So, when people who have stress experience this symptom, they could mistake that for anxiety. Stress is your body’s reaction to something that triggers you. Anxiety is triggered by stress. Therefore, those who experience stress, they just experience stress and then that’s it. After that level, it stops. However, for people who experience anxiety, they get triggered by the stress, so they go through all of the stress obstacles, and then on top of that, deal with anxiety. So, it’s a double hitter. For someone who is just stressed out, stating that they are anxious, is false. People can definitely have difficulties managing stress to where it impedes their ability to carry out your normal daily activities, just like what happens with anxiety. Although, just because you’re stressed, doesn’t mean you have a mental health disorder.

The main value I want people to take away from this, is not to use the word when they don’t know the pain behind that word. When someone who doesn’t have anxiety uses that word, it minimizes the pain of someone who does have it. The person who does have it, could see that the person who doesn’t have it, is getting over what they deem to be anxiety quickly. If they are just nervous or stressed, they will get over that quickly, and eventually resolve what they are going through. Then the person who has anxiety is left feeling like they should be getting over it quickly too. In the end, that makes them more anxious because they don’t know how to get over it quickly, and then they think there’s something wrong with them. In the beginning of the essay, I referenced how my best friend told me that everyone has anxiety and I should just “get over it.” She said those words so easily because she has never felt what anxiety feels like. If you haven’t felt it, you need to be careful when you use it. No one should be pretending they have it either. The people who actually have it are too busy going through anxiety symptoms to ever use it as a bargaining chip. It’s not used just so people with anxiety can get out of doing things other kids do. Kids with anxiety just need to be helped more to feel supported and understood, so that they can go about their lives like other kids without a mental illness do. That’s why I think professors need to accommodate kids with anxiety more.

That doesn’t mean not calling on them in class. I have anxiety and I for one can tell you for a 100% fact that I hate being called on in class. I’d rather just sit in class, pay attention and observe silently. I’m terrified of getting called on when I am not raising my hand because I don’t want to look silly. If I say the wrong answer, or just put myself out there and express an out-of- the-box idea, I’m scared of getting laughed at or judged. However, despite how much I hate it, and know my life would be easier without it, I think it’s still good for me. It helps me to grow because if professors were just constantly not putting me through things that kids without anxiety go through, I would never develop or be challenged. Being put in situations like that eventually helps my anxiety. If I’m put in a situation that makes me anxious, but in the end goes well, I maybe won’t be as anxious about that situation anymore. If a professor calls on me when I really don’t want to participate, but I say the right answer, and they are proud of me, and my classmates don’t laugh at me and everyone just continues on with their day normally, I will know that being called on isn’t so bad. Then, I won’t be as scared of it anymore. So, I don’t think we should eliminate class participation for those with anxiety, because in the end it’s helping them. Exposure is one of the best cures. I have social anxiety, and coming to college, it has only heightened. Meeting new people and going new places was extremely difficult for me. However, the more people I talked to and the more places I went, and then I could return to my dorm at peace knowing that it went okay, and people didn’t hate me, that helps to “cure” my social anxiety. I’m being exposed to intense social situations, and if they go well, then I can handle more intense social situations. Similarly, if you have a phobia of spiders, and you eventually cross paths with a spider, and it doesn’t hurt you, you maybe won’t be as scared of them because you got out of the situation unharmed.

I think what professors can do is approach those students. One of the hardest things for me is that initial approach of meeting a professor and introducing myself. I think what they could do is pass around note cards or in some anonymous way, ask all the students to tell them, if they are comfortable with sharing what mental health disorder, if any, they have. They can also ask them anonymously, if they want to talk about it with the professor or not. If they say they want to, then the professor can organize a time with the student to meet and talk. So now, there will be an arranged meeting so that the student can meet the professor. I know for me, if I have questions about what we’re learning in class or anything about an assignment, I’m always so scared to go up to the professor. But if there was an initial meeting with them at the beginning of the semester that we organized together, they would then know who I am, so any further interaction with them would be less awkward and more comfortable. During the meeting, the professor and the student can cover ground of how the student learns best, but the professor can also tell the student what is to be expected of them, even if they have something like anxiety. The professor does not have to baby them. Sometimes it’s just better for a person with anxiety to know what’s coming, so they can prepare themselves and don’t have to be caught off guard. They can then learn how the rest of the class learns.

People misusing the word “anxiety” has always bothered me because when they do, it minimizes what I, and many others, go through. Professors and those around people with anxiety should be aware that they learn, think, and behave differently than those without it. No one has to baby or give pity to those with anxiety, the best solution is to just understand. Understand what they go through. If you cannot understand, then don’t speak on it. Knowledge is power, and if we all gain more knowledge about anxiety, we won’t have to make anyone feel like their mental health disorder is unimportant or unmanageable.


Getty image via AaronAmat

Originally published: December 17, 2020
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