Getting stressed out about homework.
Feeling tired during the school day.
Drama with friends and fighting with your parents.
Those pesky hormones. All things that we think of as completely typical, minuscule, "teenager issues".
Bursting out in tears, and not because of too much homework, but because no matter how badly the work needs to get done or how much you may want to do it, the idea of beginning makes you feel so anxious that it's as if you're drowning. You can't even bring yourself to pick up a pencil.
Going through the day in "survival mode". All of your energy is channeled into making it to the end of the day, so even though you may not have done much or anything at all in school or at work, you feel completely drained by the time you get home.
Constant paranoia in your relationships with even your closest friends that they don't REALLY care about you. That it's all some big sham, even if they try to convince you otherwise.
Sobbing on the bathroom floor, tearing clothes, and attempting to shred your own skin because they just don't want to understand.
This is the difference.
As high schoolers of the 21st century, we face challenges which didn't exist in former generations. Social media its infinite impact. The expectations, competition, and financial aspect of college constantly looming over us. A job market that's already nearly impossible to get into, and will only grow more competitive by the time we are ready to go out and pursue what we so arduously put massive amounts of time and work into. Many factors contribute to what may be the most stressed-out generation of high schoolers yet.
But the thing is, that kind of stress on our shoulders over grades or preparation for our future is, for the most part, related circumstantially.
I guess what I want to stress here is the difference between a mentally ill person and a mentally healthy or "normal" person is that a healthy person's burdens come with what obstacles they face, while a depressed or anxious person can feel that same way, if not worse, when almost nothing or nothing at all is wrong.
I don't want to sound as if I think I or anyone else in my shoes has it "worse" than somebody who doesn't experience these feelings. My goal here is to simply explain what it's really like for a mentally ill person to go through life; especially in high school.
Let's first talk about the difference between stress and anxiety. I’m going to start off by recognizing that stress is NOT easy to deal with. I marvel at the kids who are able to juggle good grades in multiple AP classes on top of their extracirriculars and other responsibilities. Every day, we all see, (and probably know very well personally), the long term effects of stress all around us. There are even serious health issues that can arise due to too much stress; it's a very real thing that most everybody experiences in their day to day life.
Stress is our body's natural response to difficult tasks or situations. It’s something that (when managed well) generally disappears in a day or two; a come-and-go feeling that relies on the weight of a circumstance. While it is a recurring feeling, as soon as that deadline or event passes, the pressure is off.
Now imagine experiencing those same feelings, but from completely ordinary activities throughout the day or from a minor inconvenience. That’s what anxiety is: a persistent strain that exists regardless of circumstance.
Your body is responding to irrational thoughts through what are called "cognitive distortions". Some of these include: jumping to conclusions (or assuming you can "read someone's mind" and know what they are thinking / feeling about you), catastrophizing (expecting the worst to happen OR exaggerating a personal failure), "filtering" out positives and only reflecting on negatives, etc. If you'd like to read more about cognitive distortions, click here for a brief description of the different types and what they can look like.
And for the science people, click here for some of the chemical breakdown behind anxiety.
Sure, everybody experiences feelings of anxiety at some points, but there's something called "generalized anxiety disorder" (which is usually what people are talking about when they says they "have anxiety"). This means that a person generates feelings of anxiety at an unhealthy rate, even in menial, everyday settings.
This can look like many things. Everybody deals with anxiety differently - some people feel nervous, some get angry because they feel out of control in a situation, some have to keep moving and others get very tense. There countless other habits that people have which may seem a little odd on the outside, but make sense once you understand their feelings happening inside.
That being said, "stress" means an entirely different thing to a person who already exists with a high amount of anxiety.
This is the Yerkes/Dodson "Inverse U" graph, which represents how anxiety interferes with success. The minimal bottom left point in the graph, which is complete indifference towards the task at hand, yields no motivation and therefore no progress. The left side of the curve produces more and more success as the person's drive increases, until it approaches the very top. At the top is the best type of initiative we can have: caring the healthiest amount about a task. Once we get past that point; though, our success begins to plummet. We have TOO much stress, worry TOO much, therefore the result is not longer as productive. It's not because someone is lazy or making excuses for themselves, but because they have to deal with a higher amount of anxiety and fight harder in order to yield the same outcomes as a "normal" person can.
You know when you have SO much to do that you're too stressed to even begin, so you give in and turn on Netflix? Well, the reason an anxious appears "lazy" to some is because they reach this amount of anxiety and give in much sooner than a "normal" person would. They land on the right half of the curve, while the same circumstances may only cause someone else enough stress to end up further left.
It’s not an issue of completing the work, rather the thoughts about the work. Like, "if I can't get this concept am I gonna fail the test? Am I going to fall behind in this class beyond repair? What if my work continues like this through college? How can I ever be successful like that?" The mind spirals down that rabbit hole of worry. Soon enough, it's so clouded with these type of thoughts, whatever the concerns may be, however small or irrational, that the brain is physically unable function at an adequate level, sometimes too anxious to even begin.
Aside from GAD, there are other branches of anxiety disorders: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and my old friend, panic disorder.
(To be continued)