The Age of Anxiety

One in five Americans suffers from an anxiety disorder.

Karen Moskowitz/Getty Images

You may get jittery before a big test, but for some people, feeling anxious isn’t just an emotion—it’s a devastating illness. Here’s what it’s really like to have an anxiety disorder—and why more teens are being diagnosed than ever before.

Kami Baker couldn’t control her body. The high school sophomore was disoriented and weak, and as she sat—crying and rocking back and forth on a cot in the school nurse’s office—she wasn’t sure she’d ever have the energy to get up and go home. When she finally did, she didn’t talk to friends or return to school for a week. “I felt like I was losing myself,” she says.

A million thoughts raced through Kami’s mind as the weird symptoms continued: tingly limbs, pounding chest. Was she having a heart attack? Was she dying? Then a trip to the family doctor revealed a surprising diagnosis. Kami was suffering from anxiety disorder, a mental illness commonly described as persistent, overwhelming fear or worry—worry so intense that it can be physically debilitating. And she soon learned that she wasn’t alone.

Right now, one in five Americans suffers from an anxiety disorder, and those numbers are growing at an alarming rate in teens. Why the spike? Experts cite a complex mix of school stress, jam-packed schedules, and constant social media stimulation. “Teens are facing an incredible amount of pressure, and they don’t know how to handle it,” says Karen Cassiday, managing director of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago.

But don’t confuse anxiety with feeling nervous before, say, a big track meet. Anxiety disorders can trigger what has been compared to an oversensitive internal alarm system—a complete mind-body reaction that makes you feel like you’re about to die in a plane crash (even though there’s no imminent danger whatsoever).

To learn what it’s really like to live with anxiety, Choices spoke to Kami and three other teens with distinct daily struggles, but surprisingly similar messages of hope. As Kami says: “The best thing you can do is talk about it. Once you know that you’re not crazy—that what you feel is OK—you’ll know you can get better.” 

If you were to be introduced to Cheyenne, you’d think she was laid-back. But when she meets someone new, she feels anything but. Instead, her stomach is tied up in knots. Did I say the right thing? Do they like me? “I work really hard at seeming comfortable,” she says, “but I’m just not.”

That’s because Cheyenne struggles with social anxiety disorder, which is an extreme fear of being judged by others. Not only has she had trouble making friends at her high school (holing up in her room feels much safer than striking up a conversation), but the idea of talking to a teacher is so paralyzing, she would rather let her grades suffer.

For a full year, Cheyenne kept her anxious feelings inside.

“I thought having anxiety was something to be ashamed of,” she explains. But that changed recently when she discovered healthier ways to cope with her stress. Cheyenne often writes in a journal because it helps her reflect on her feelings, and when she’s angry, she’ll play guitar or ukulele to work out her aggression.

Letting anxiety build up inside of you can make you crazy, she says. Talk about it, laugh about it—but don’t keep it inside. Cheyenne adds, “The only way to cope is to have an outlet.”

When most people see a headline about a far-off country developing nuclear weapons, they think about the story for a moment, then click out of the article and do something else.

When Justin reads that same headline, however, he almost feels like his house is in the middle of the combat zone—with a warhead pointing at his bedroom. That’s because the high school sophomore battles a severe form of anxiety that causes his brain to immediately jump to the worst-case scenario, no matter how unlikely it is. Experts call this catastrophic thinking. “I struggle with not being able to control certain things and that you can’t guarantee that everything will be OK,” Justin says.

When Justin’s obsessing over something, he has a hard time thinking about anything else, so he’ll bring it up to anyone who will listen. “I’ll talk about it at dinner, in the car, to my sister, then my mom, then my dad,” he says. When he senses that others are tired of listening, he grows self-conscious, which only makes him more anxious.

Recently, Justin’s been working to combat his condition in a new way: He’s shifting the focus of his anxiety. Whenever he begins feeling anxious about a situation he can’t control, he’ll try to distract himself with something he can control, like schoolwork. He’ll start studying for an upcoming test, for example, or dive into his homework.

In those moments, he often hears his dad’s words in his head: You have to live your life as if everything is fine. He’ll remind himself that he’s safe, and that today is going to be a good day. And it usually is.

Kami’s anxiety shocks her body: Her hands go tingly, her heart races, her head spins. That’s because Kami’s anxiety takes the form of panic attacks, or sudden episodes of intense fear. At first, Kami was confused by the diagnosis. “Nothing traumatic had happened to me,” Kami says. But she learned that a panic attack can be triggered by anything. (That day? It was a disturbing video she watched in psychology class.)

After Kami’s anxiety kept her in bed for a week, she knew she needed help. She began attending therapy sessions to talk about her feelings, and soon life returned to normal. She reconnected with friends. She vowed to take better care of herself. She even started practicing yoga as a form of relaxation. And today, when she senses a panic attack coming on, she distracts herself with pictures of cute dogs and pretty sunsets while taking deep breaths. “It doesn’t make anxiety go away entirely,” she says, “but it helps me until it passes.”

Having an anxiety disorder makes Kami feel weak at times—like a burden to everyone around her. Sometimes she’ll ask friends to take her home before they even get to a party, just because she’s feeling anxious. “I’ll beat myself up about it, but then I remind myself that this is a mental illness,” she says. “It’s something that’s making me sick.”

It seemed as if Ravi’s anxiety exploded out of nowhere one day during his junior year. But today Ravi, now a senior, understands that it was actually building slowly since he was first bullied at age 10. “I kept stuffing everything inside of me—all of this trauma—and eventually the top just blew off,” he says.

Before long, Ravi didn’t recognize himself. His A average dropped to a C, and he even quit the basketball team, which he loved. Then he started having panic attacks, which is when a psychologist told him he was suffering from anxiety. Still, Ravi’s dad shrugged off the diagnosis, saying, “There’s no such thing.” Ravi explains,“Everyone at my school was telling my dad that something was wrong, but he couldn’t see it.”

After several meetings with school counselors, however, Ravi’s father was finally convinced that his son needed to focus less on getting good grades—and more on being happy again. To make that happen, Ravi worked three times a week with a psychologist, who taught him the value of sitting in nature and taking breaks to clear his mind. He also put down his phone, so it couldn’t distract him. Most of all, though, he tried to focus on himself, and not worry as much about his grades or whether or not he made the winning shot at basketball.

Says Ravi: “You can get better.”

 Feeling Overwhelmed? 

Tell an adult you trust, like a parent or your doctor, and visit to learn more about anxiety disorders. The good news is anxiety is totally treatable. And with a little help, you’ll feel like yourself again.

Images: Shmuel Thaler (Cheyenne); Jessica Scranton (Justin); Bill Sitzmann (Kami); Tara Pixley (Ravi)

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