Having anxiety is different than just being stressed out

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I am one of thousands of students at the University of Texas who suffers from anxiety. Unlike stress, which is typical for college students, anxiety impacts every thought that I have. It ranges from a simmering nervousness to paralyzing dread. The thoughts caused by my anxiety are irrational, but in the moment they seem so true I can’t write them off.

According to a report done in 2017, 12.8 percent of UT students reported they had been treated for anxiety in the past year. Unfortunately, anxiety can appear in many different ways, which is part of what makes it so difficult to understand if you don’t have it. If you want to help your friends with anxiety, you need to start asking questions and stop trying to solve it like a stress-related issue.

The Counseling and Mental Health Center defines anxiety as a “constant, chronic and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress, disturbs your social life and interferes with classes and work.” It’s the number one reason students come to the center. This means that students typically know that they have anxiety, but many don’t know how to explain it to those around them. 

Marybeth Tomka, a UT staff member at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, has struggled with anxiety since she was six years old. At 59, she has learned to manage it. But when her daughter went to college, Tomka saw her struggle with anxiety and felt helpless. “You have to learn the coping mechanisms for yourself,” Tomka said.

Eventually, her daughter had to drop out because of the toll it was taking emotionally. After watching her daughter, Tomka said as difficult as it may be to recognize anxiety in yourself, she knows it can be even more difficult to recognize it in others. 

So what can you do if you don’t suffer from anxiety? For starters, don’t tell your friends to stop worrying. This makes them feel minimized —  since all they do is worry — and can cause them to spiral. In Tomka’s opinion, the best approach for friends wanting to help is to just be honest. “Ask them: ‘Do I do anything that triggers your anxiety? Can I do anything to make you feel more comfortable?’” Tomka said.

However, sometimes the feeling of anxiety comes on quickly, and the best response as a friend is to just sit there with them and be understanding. Advertising junior Amanda Saunders said anxiety feels like “trying to leave your body but not being able to.” For her, anxiety is a constant evaluation of worst case scenarios. At times, her anxiety can cause panic attacks. 

“I felt like I needed to throw up, run away and the world literally feels like it’s spinning,” Saunders said. “(It’s) super uncomfortable and kind of scary.”

Panic attacks are an especially vulnerable time for people with anxiety and is not the time to ask questions. Understandably, it can be uncomfortable to talk about after the fact. The best thing to do is wait until your friend or significant other calms down and is ready to talk — whether it be that moment or a few days later.

It is not up to you to solve anyone’s anxiety. Anxiety is a lifelong battle that can be managed, but it won’t ever fully go away. The best thing that you can do is be there for your friends and recognize their triggers. We’re lucky to go to a university that is open to talking about mental illness, but if we as individuals fail to recognize what anxiety actually looks like, we might as well not have the conversation at all. 

Newman is a journalism junior from Frisco.