By Katelyn Needham/reporter

Anxiety in students is common, but help is available on TCC campuses

SE student Drew Cook studies in the SE library. Cook uses physical activity to manage his anxiety and depression.
SE student Drew Cook studies in the SE library. Cook uses physical activity to manage his anxiety and depression.

Wake up at 5 a.m.

Drive 30 minutes to Irving for work.

Go to the gym.

Go to class 5-7 p.m.

Sleep.

Repeat.

This is the normal routine for SE student Drew Cook, who works full time at two locations and takes classes four nights a week.

Anxiety and depression also are a part of every day for Cook, but they are definitely not routine.

His lifelong battle was identified at age 15 with diagnoses for panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and chronic depression, he said. Cook doesn’t like to tell people about his mental illness because of how people view mental illness, he said.

“There is a stigma attached to it, especially with depression,” he said. “You can’t really understand it until you have experienced it. It’s hard.”

An anxiety disorder is defined as more than temporary worry or fear, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The feelings often interrupt daily duties like work, school and personal relationships.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders and experience their first episode by the age of 22. In 2014, around 15.7 million American adults suffered from depression.

The two together make up the largest amount of mental health issues in America. Only one-third of people will receive treatment, according to the AADA. The U.S. will spend $42 billion of its $148 billion mental health bill on anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders often occur simultaneously with depression. They can develop because of genetic factors, brain chemistry, personality and life events, according to the ADAA.

“When I get really anxious and it builds up, I shut down,” Cook said. “I get really quiet and seclude myself from everyone. If anything, I go and I just sit somewhere away from everyone, especially people that are close to me.”

Some symptoms of anxiety can include restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension and difficulty sleeping.

Cook experienced his first panic attack when he was 17 and working at Six Flags. The stresses of junior year, like taking the SAT and picking a college, were overwhelming to him at the time, he said.

“It came on my mind when I was just doing my daily work,” he said. “I was pushing this big garbage cart, and it was hot outside. It got to the point where I couldn’t breathe anymore. I fell over and blacked out on the concrete.”

When Cook woke up, he was in the infirmary area where his mother was waiting to pick him up.

“My hands started cramping up in this weird formation, and I couldn’t for the life of me release that tension,” he said. “I remember legitimately thinking I was going to die. As my ma was rushing me to the hospital, I was confessing all my sins and telling her how much I love her. I don’t think you can understand until you have one.”

Cook sums up his experience with panic attacks as absolute terror. Now when he has attacks, he tries to focus on breathing to prevent hyperventilation, he said.

Recognizing symptoms

According to the ADAA, some of the panic attack symptoms include accelerated heart rate, sweating, shaking, sensation of choking, nausea and fear of dying.

“The main thing you want to look at if someone starts having a panic attack is their breathing,” NW counselor Brentom Jackson said. “They will have high-level respiratory issues, and a lot of times, it will look like a panic attack or a heart attack. Some students won’t know the difference.”

Most students who will experience a panic attack have had one before, so asking them can help to better understand how to help them, Jackson said.

“Reassure them that a panic attack is OK, and they will get through it,” Jackson said. “The second thing you want to do is assist them in sitting down, and the third is assist in regulating their breathing. Panic attacks last anywhere from three to five minutes. Afterward, it helps to call someone they trust or walk them down to the counseling office.”

Penn State University conducted a study with more than 100,000 students and found the numbers of students suffering from anxiety had surpassed those with depression.

“I’ve gone to counseling a few times because I suffer from both anxiety and depression,” Cook said. “My ma recognized that I was receding from everything, and I almost got admitted to Millwood, the psychiatric clinic [in Arlington]. I really appreciate all that they do. They teach you exercises to get to the root of the issue.”

The 2015 National College Health Assessment survey found one in six students had been diagnosed or treated with an anxiety disorder.

The same survey found 21.9 percent said their academic performance was affected by their disorder, that being defined as failing an exam or major project, receiving an incomplete or dropping the class entirely.

Getting help

TCC offers services to help students learn more about their anxiety and help them succeed, including free counseling and student accessibility resources.

“We meet with them one-on-one and discuss how to help them individually,” SE SAR administrative assistant Pamela Oliver said. “It could be to have a more private testing area or more time to test. Those are the main things that help students with anxiety.”

Students must bring documentation of their disorder and fill out paperwork. After that’s completed, they can make an appointment to meet with the coordinator and find resources that will help them, Oliver said.

Students visiting counseling services for anxiety make up about 80 percent of all visits, Jackson said.

“The first thing counseling can do is help a student during a panic attack,” he said. “We also provide basic talk therapy for students with anxiety. We teach them mindfulness and stress relief techniques that will help them prevent anxiety.”

If the student suffers from severe anxiety, counseling services can also recommend them to a medical professional like a psychiatrist for help, Jackson said.

Several treatments are available, as it is among the highly treatable mental illnesses, according to the AADA. Treatments can include psychotherapy or talk therapy, self-help and support groups, stress management and medication.

The most common medications for treatment are anti-depressants, beta-blockers and anti-anxiety drugs.

“I think medication is a good step, but it shouldn’t be the first step,” Jackson said. “Students should recognize that anxiety isn’t uncommon, and a lot of times, it can be prevented with simple things like meditation, different eating styles and reduction of caffeine and nicotine.”

Cook goes to the gym every day as a way to manage stress, he said.

“Doing that has given me a lot of reprieve from all of my current stressors,” he said. “When you’re exercising, you’re just focusing on getting through to the next set. I think that helps me put myself in the present moment and not worry about what’s happening after.”

Cook’s advice for other students trying to cope with anxiety is to try to stay physically active among other things.

“I like to identify the root of the issue and work back through it,” Cook said. “If I start to get really anxious about school or anything else in general, that’s what I do, and that’s the best advice I can give someone. It really helps me. Also find something you’re really good at. That’s helped a lot of people I know.”