Beneath the Surface

Students open up about coping with anxiety

My role: Working with one other reporter and a researcher, I interviewed several students about mental health and anxiety, identifying two students and a psychologist to include in the final story. The reporter and I collaborated on the final story, balancing our voices and creating a compelling feature within the magazine’s theme: belonging.

Pacing through the aisles of a grocery store, William Baselice keeps his head down and moves quickly. He cycles through a grocery list in his mind, looking up from his feet to grab what he needs before moving to the next section of the store. The other shoppers probably don’t even notice him — they’re most likely absorbed in their own grocery lists — but that’s not what Baselice’s anxiety is telling him.

Baselice, a junior at the University of Oregon (UO), is hyperaware of all the people around him who could potentially be judging him, scrutinizing his actions or any part of his appearance. What does the woman buying cereal think of his pants? Is that man judging the items in his basket? Did the cashier think the way he said ‘hi’ was weird?

“I don’t know how that doesn’t make everyone anxious,” Baselice said.

Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that around 40 million adults over the age of 18 suffer from an anxiety disorder. A 2018 study by the American College Health Association revealed that over 60 percent of college students felt overwhelmed by anxiety in the past year alone. And according to the University of Oregon Health Center, they saw a 31 percent increase in students seeking help for mental illness in 2017 as reported by the Daily Emerald.

The American College Health Association theorizes that the increase is because the generation currently attending university grew up during the Great Recession in the U.S. and watched many family members and friends lose homes and jobs. Now, they’re all facing pressure to succeed in school and secure job opportunities.

Anxiety surrounding academic performance is something UO senior Kayleigh Skolnick knows well. Skolnick was diagnosed with anxiety in high school, but it didn’t get in the way of everyday life until she started college.

“I don’t think I really paid attention to it when I was younger,” she said, “Then I got to college and it was a totally different environment.”

While hosting a dinner party with her roommates, Skolnick sat nearby in the corner of her living room, brushing her fingers across the head of her emotional support cat, Dwight. Her roommates and some of their friends chatted over drinks about the end of the school term and their mutual lack of love lives.

Skolnick withdrew herself from the conversation in order to pay attention to the Sims game she was playing on her laptop, and Dwight simply sat by her side, staring at the group of people across the room. Within a half-hour, Skolnick snuck upstairs to her room without uttering a word – isolating herself further. According to Skolnick, this isolation is a typical reaction when she feels anxious.

“It’s funny, a lot of people don’t think anxiety is a serious thing,” she said. “But it is when you’re sitting in a room, watching a movie — just downtime, maybe it’s Netflix or whatever — and all of a sudden you just get this wave of intense panic.”

Panic is linked to the body’s fight or flight reaction, a system that developed when humans were wearing loincloths and being regularly chased by wild predators. When the brain recognizes a dangerous situation, it floods the body with stress hormones that heighten the senses and muscles needed in order to escape. This system is essential for survival in threatening situations, but when Skolnick’s brain interprets sitting down to watch Netflix as an attack she needs to escape, it can become problematic.

“Anxiety, fear and panic are all normal emotions that we need to function well,” Dr. Crystal Dehle, the director of the UO Psychology Clinic and therapist of over 20 years, said. “For folks who experience anxiety, fear or panic at a clinical level, the problem is that their warning systems are too sensitive.”

When Baselice’s or Skolnick’s anxiety labels places like the grocery store, or even their own living room, as a dangerous environment, their general anxiety can be elevated into a panic.

Dehle explained that the types of stresses the modern person experience are significantly different from the stresses we faced when these response systems developed. If Baselice was being chased by a predator, it would be obvious when the danger was no longer present and his nervous system would kick in to calm him down. But the problem is that he’s not being chased by an obvious predator.

“If you’re chronically anxious about social situations or interpersonal things or worries about the future, then it’s harder for your body to tell when the danger has passed, so you might be on high alert more regularly or chronically,” Dehle said. “If you’re chronically on high alert it doesn’t take much to bump it up and get a fight or flight response.”

And so the cycle continues, with anxiety being pushed into a panic, teaching the brain to read those panicked places as unsafe. The circle of safety someone with anxiety feels can slowly shrink as more places are marked as dangerous, limiting their life experiences until they decide to break the cycle of anxiety.

Baselice uses art as a way to quiet his mind and find moments of peace throughout the day. Sitting down in his room, listening to music and drawing is a way he escapes from the worry that can otherwise run on a nonstop loop.

Ruby Quintero, a junior at UO, started to notice herself spiraling into anxiety more often than her peers when she was still very young. She realized that she reacted to stress and surprises differently than her friends.

“It was in middle school when people asked what was wrong with me, and I couldn’t tell them because I didn’t know what was wrong. I just thought that we had different personalities,” Quintero said.

She started taking anxiety medication as a preteen and continued for several years until she started questioning if taking anxiety pills meant that she wasn’t the one in control.

“I think it was pride,” she said. “I thought I could deal with it on my own. I don’t need help from other people going through anxiety, I don’t need medication to make me normal or the way I’m supposed to be.”

The internalized stigma surrounding mental health is also why Quintero stopped taking medication. She felt that taking medication for her anxiety somehow made her mentally weak or unable to live independently. Society is telling Quintero that her worry is all in her head and she should be able to turn it off like flicking a switch. After a while, anxiety starts to feel like something she should be able to handle on her own.

“A lot of anxiety is me denouncing it,” she said. “‘That’s silly, therapy is silly, emotional support pets are silly, anxiety pills are silly.’ I just constantly feel like I have to be right there with everybody else saying it’s silly. Which sucks, because I’m the person who has it and should understand that it’s OK.”

So, when her boyfriend or friends ask how she’s feeling, she downplays it, telling them she’s a little worried before brushing it off with a simple ‘it’s fine.’ It seems easier to carry the weight of her worry on her own without burdening the people who care about her with her mental health.

It wasn’t until she was talking with a friend, who opened up about their own anxiety that she started to consider reaching out for help again. Recently, she discussed her lifelong struggle with anxiety with a new doctor, who wrote her a letter for an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). Quintero is now able to have her family cat live in her Eugene apartment, which she believes will help her find more moments of peace.

Receiving an ESA letter –  a letter that labels her anxiety as a disability –  was a conflicting step for Quintero.

“It’s a really weird feeling because I am a person who is independent and strong-willed, so to feel like I have to get an emotional support pet or to be on anxiety pills, it makes me feel like I’m not in control of my life,” she said.

Even with internal conflict, Quintero’s motivation to manage her anxiety trumps the stigma of asking for help, and after learning about her insurance’s mental health coverage, she’s starting to consider finding a therapist.

Therapists like Dehle understand that asking for help from someone outside of your circle can feel strange and counterintuitive at first.

“[Therapy] creates opportunities to have a fresh set of eyes on the things you’re going through,” Dehle said. “With your friends and family, there is an expectation that the relationship is reciprocal, but your therapist is there for you without expecting anything back in return.”

When Baselice was in high school, he was very private about his anxiety. When he met new friends in college he trusted, however, he opened up about his experience.

“It felt like I had support if I ever needed it,” Baselice said, “Once you talk about it, it really diminishes fear about what people think.”

As Baselice shares more about his own mental health struggles with the people he trusts, he normalizes the topic for himself and those around him. This normalization is one of the theories the UO Counseling Center has about the increase in students seeking help over the past few years. As students see the people around them focus on their mental health, it’s teaching them that it’s OK to do so, too.

With the influx of students came a reassessment of how the counseling center responded to appointment requests. Counselors used to allow students several days, up to a couple of weeks, to reply to appointment scheduling emails, which sometimes caused openings to pass by unclaimed. By requiring students to respond to scheduling emails within two business days in order to claim an appointment time, the center is now able to actively fill therapy openings, reducing the wait to two weeks.

The increase in students seeking support for their mental health, whether it be through therapy, medication or emotional support animals, can be seen as a disconcerting problem facing this generation, or a positive shift in destigmatizing asking for help. Quintero chooses to see her steps toward asking for help as a new beginning.

“It feels like a step in a new direction like maybe things will get better,” Quintero said, “Maybe my anxiety won’t go away, but things will get better.”

If you are a University of Oregon student and you want help or to see a therapist, all of your appointments are cost-free as they are covered by a fee in your tuition. Drop-in hours for the Counseling Center are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and their phone number is (541) 346-3227. You can also call their 24-hour hotline at the same number. If you are not a UO student, you can call the National Alliance for Mental Health’s hotline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If it’s an emergency, please call 911.