"Am I Experiencing Everyday Anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder?"

The Office of Counseling, Disability, Alcohol, and Other Drug Services weighs in

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"Am I Experiencing Everyday Anxiety or an Anxiety Disorder?"
Article courtesy of the he Office of Counseling, Disability, Alcohol, and Other Drug Services.
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Kean Counseling Center, Contributor

It’s a Tuesday morning and you just sat down in front of your laptop. It is another day of remote learning. Your professor will be logging on in a few minutes, and as you sit there waiting, your mind begins to wander back to the beginning of the spring semester. You had loved taking the short drive to campus where you would meet up with friends before your class. You were in your first year as a journalism major and you were looking forward to your courses. Your professors were engaging and challenging and this kept you very motivated. Your college experience was amazing! 

But now everything is different. The COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing. You are sitting in your pajamas at home staring at a screen. You can hear your parents in the next room and it seems like they might be arguing...again! Money is a big problem for everyone since your father got laid off. As far as your school work, you have no idea how you are doing. The discussion boards are so confusing and the professors keep assigning homework after homework. And on top of it all your boyfriend’s mother just tested positive for COVID! You begin to notice that your heart is racing. You are breathing more heavily and your hands are sweaty. Your mind is focused on thoughts of failure and you can’t focus! Just as your professor finally logs on, you log off and climb under your bed covers, sobbing.

How the world has changed. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have found that they have less and less control over their lives. Life seems more unpredictable and unstable and feelings of worry, nervousness, and doubt have become all too common. Mental health providers are in full agreement that all these factors have contributed to increased reports of anxiety in the population. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. In a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease control, the prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder reported by a sample of individuals in June 2020 (25.5%) was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019 (8.1%). The impact of anxiety is even felt on our campus where anxiety is the number one most common presenting problem for students who come to the Counseling Center.

Anxiety is an emotion that is experienced, on one end, as a common response to uncertainty and doubt, and on the other, as an all-consuming mental health condition, with many other manifestations in-between. With such a broad spectrum of potential experiences that we can have with this emotion, how do we know when we are having a “normal” occurrence or experiencing a “mental disorder”? This is an important question because it will determine if we hang tight until the feeling subsides or take the important step of seeking out counseling and other effective support services.

Below are some simple questions that you can ask yourself to determine if you are experiencing everyday anxiety or potentially an anxiety disorder:

Does my anxiety match the situation or problem? Everyday anxiety is usually connected to perceived or real uncertainty in our environment. When we are having a normal response, we can usually identify what is causing the feeling or what it is related to. For example, you may experience anxiety before a test or before you talk to someone you are attracted to. An anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is usually experienced as an unspecific, sustained, and overwhelming sense of emotional or physical danger or dread. It can seem to be connected to “everything” and “nothing” all at the same time and is often out of proportion to a given situation.  Even in those cases when it is specific to a situation or person, it may not decrease when the threat goes away, lasting for days and weeks. A good example is a continuous, distressing sense that you will contract COVID-19 even when you are at home by yourself. 

Is my anxiety affecting my ability to function? Normal anxiety tends to last only as long as the threat situation. After things settle down, we are usually able to return to other aspects of our lives without much disturbance. A memory of the prior threat may cause us some discomfort but it does not last very long. When we have an anxiety disorder, our daily functioning can be significantly altered. We may find ourselves avoiding situations that trigger us or we may experience troubling bodily symptoms such as stomach upset, racing thoughts, increased heart rate, and sweating. We may also have frequent thoughts of “doom and gloom." These symptoms can be crippling and may make it difficult for us to go on with our regular activities. 

Am I able to calm down or manage my anxiety? By the time most of us reach adulthood, we will have experienced enough situations that cause everyday anxiety to develop a reasonable stockpile of tricks and strategies to deal with the emotion. This may include leaving a triggering situation, engaging in a distracting activity, taking a deep breath, or just “pushing through it”. When you have an anxiety disorder, these techniques may not work so well. In fact, in some cases, they may cause the symptoms to increase. For example, if I have a “phobia” or anxiety about driving, avoiding doing so can actually make my experience of anxiety worse. In some cases of serious anxiety symptoms, in order to find some respite, a person may turn to more unhealthy coping methods such as substance abuse, social isolation, or verbal or physical aggression.

We are currently living in very distressing times when triggers for anxiety seem to be all around us. In order to be healthy, it is important that we have a good sense of our own emotions and how they affect our lives. By keying in on the impact that anxiety is having on us, we are in a better position to seek help when necessary. For more information, visit the Counseling Center website at https://www.kean.edu/offices/office-counseling-disability-alcohol-and-other-drug-services/counseling-center or call us at (908) 316-8217 to ask questions or make an appointment.

This article was written by Vidal Annan, Jr., PhD., director of the Office of Counseling, Disability, Alcohol, and Other Drug Services.