Often, we speak of anxiety in terms of stress. It’s believed that, like the latter, anxiety ought to come and go with hardship but is still totally and necessarily manageable. Flyers, emails and other announcements, even occasionally some from Stanford, offer countless solutions to it. In such ads, it’s defined as something we all go through, irrespective of depth and source, that can be ameliorated with some basic relaxation.
What might also be familiar to most students is the popular teen culture built around half-hearted jokes about self-deprecation and mental insecurity. Here the assumption of anxiety is nearly a prerequisite to participate, reducing the visibility of actual issues and marginalizing those with them. In spite of its characteristic melodrama, this culture was created in response to the stress that accompanies students’ workloads as well as the social pressure to outperform their peers.
The bottom-line perception in both cases is that anxiety is a byproduct of a successful life.
To some extent, that’s true: Fear of one’s responsibilities can build up until it causes a definite mental health problem, and we, as students, are all vulnerable to that. Unfortunately, this well-known face of anxiety is far from its full extent. Like any other mental health disorder, it is deeply personal and varies in effect and persistence.
For some, it’s a personally manageable, short-term problem. That’s great — chronic anxiety isn’t something everyone needs to or even should identify with. Suffering from the chronic issue outweighs any sense of community that comes out of connecting with others about it. If you find yourself outside of it, that’s a good thing.
Not too long ago, however, a review of the WHO’s Mental Health Surveys made clear that anxiety and other persistent mental health disorders are often widespread, rather than stress-induced and short-lived. It’s also hard to believe that these disorders are the outcome of high achievement when they are often as debilitating as serious physical disorders, reducing one’s capacity for success in the first place. What’s worse, and rather saddening, is that most people don’t seek help for recent onset anxiety for at least a year.
This evidence, which from the nature of the problem is almost invisible to us, suggests that for many people, anxiety is not just another ball to juggle but rather a deep-rooted, perpetual problem. It remains a silent struggle for so long because one of its primary symptoms is the fear of being perceived as a failure. That’s due, in part, to how we equate everyday stress and anxiety. If we are to believe that the most successful people manage these feelings best, then telling others you can’t overcome anxiety feels like an admission of weakness.
Herein lies the issue with the way we view anxiety. To us, it is another mountain to be climbed by the high achiever, and doing so implies strength and resilience. Conquering it is a classic example of human persistence, like an athlete recovering from injury and returning to win first place. While such stories are romantic, many people cannot brush anxiety away with sheer resolve.
This isn’t due to a lack of persistence; it comes from many different places. Often there is a genetic component, but we know that it needn’t run in the family for a long time to appear and proliferate. Still, in the absence of these factors, the problem can still run deep. Trauma, abuse or fear of persecution can make worrying second nature.
Knowing, then, that anxiety as a medical condition affects the individual for long periods of time, it must assert a profound effect on the victim. Dealing with a stifling, painful problem alone changes your perspective. For me, that meant feeling less of a connection to other people, even those whom I worked closely with; if struggling together builds companionship, doing so unaided seems to draw one inward. It was harder for me to be empathetic and even more difficult to imagine empathy from others.
Cognizant of this, I could try to rebuild my connections and sense of place. Even so, the change that comes with anxiety can’t simply be scrubbed clean. It is developed alongside one’s normal experience, seeping into one’s personality until it’s unclear what was originally there. We know and widely believe this for so many other disorders and personal battles. Anxiety must be treated in the same way.
This starts with recognizing that it shapes those it affects well after recovery. That is, neither the problem nor its aftermath are short-term. This understanding has become clearer in recent years as neurobiology has expanded, but it can also be explained on a more basic behavioral level: A persistent mental process will wire the brain to keep repeating that same process. This is the fundamental idea behind a variety of mental tactics for discipline and self-reflection, but can go awry when a constant, negative modifier is thrown into the process. Moreover, the brain is very intercommunicative, training its various functions in much the same way: One’s creativity, sources of joy and methods of coping are among the many traits affected by mental health disorders.
Some of the characteristics born in this way out of anxiety are more uniform. Resilience, I believe, is foremost among them; as we’ve learned from Sisyphus, it builds one’s character tremendously to suffer without avail. Still, other outcomes are unpredictable because everyone manages the disorder within their own set of circumstances. This isn’t a medical report, so I won’t go into greater biological depth. The point is that, for better or worse, those who suffer from anxiety are stuck with its impression.
One more thing is certain: Those who have suffered from anxiety must accept these changes into their person. Each and every victim has to come to terms with how their experience has shaped who they are. It’s easy to push this past away, or perhaps even to marginalize it in light of society’s commercialization of anxiety. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the reality of its effects. Whether or not we choose to embrace them, they reside within our personality. Though they are intangible like the disorder, they are also just as real.
Moreover, the problem can resurface. Feeling that you’ve finally overcome anxiety is one of the greatest senses of relief I’ve ever encountered. Of course, that newfound love of life comes with a hatred for what has been defeated. It is subsequently reduced and forcibly forgotten. This dissociation from it, however, allows it to creep back unrealized until it’s too late. For this reason, the victim must not banish all memory of it, but instead needs to contextualize within their life. How much worse anxiety feels when it drains life’s color for the second time.
America’s mental health crisis is a great, and unresolved tragedy in its own right. It may be, however, that another will rapidly follow: Those who are lucky enough to recover find that instead of gaining freedom, they’ve entered into a new prison. They never quite regain ownership of themselves, because they view the depth of their anxiety’s effect with the same dismissive stance we’ve taken towards its breadth.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.