How many of us can remember at a very young age developing a sudden case of “my tummy hurts” to avoid going to the school? Then, as soon as there was a parental decision to allow a missed day of school, there would be a miraculous recovery allowing for the rest of the day to be spent doing what we loved – playing! The scenario probably sounds familiar to many of us.
Fast forward to the first year of college for a different scenario. You are in a new environment, living far away from home. You are the first one in your family to attend college. Your parents worked tirelessly, made countless sacrifices, and in some cases, borrowed large sums of money to make sure you went to college. You were going to have the opportunities that they never had. They placed all their hopes in you and in your future success. None of the sacrifices mattered as long as they could see you succeed.
You work hard, stay up very late most nights trying to keep up with everything; however, it all just doesn’t seem to be enough. You are struggling to keep up with the all the work that is required. You had an interest in music, but engineering was a better career choice to ensure your family would survive financially. The engineering classes prove to be quite difficult, but you must keep pressing on. You begin to dread going to class. You begin having bouts of nausea and severe stomach pains. Your stomach feels heavy, tied up in knots. You begin to wonder if you are becoming seriously ill.
The second part of the scenario may sound familiar to many as well. Success is revered in our culture. Failure is really not an option. We place great emphasis on success but very little focus on dealing with adversity or coping with a real or perceived failure. The pressure to succeed can be quite great, and in some cases, can have fatal consequences. There are many reports of students taking their own lives as a result of these pressures becoming too overwhelming.
Individuals affected by anxiety may report having numerous physical symptoms (headaches, heart pounding or racing, poor sleep, nausea, chronic stomach problems, fatigue); however, many don’t recognise these as symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety can be described as worry, nervousness, or a feeling of apprehension. It can be associated with an upcoming event, and in more serious cases, can present in the form of panic attacks.
Panic attacks are described in various ways by individuals who have experienced them. A woman working in the healthcare profession was at work one day and described what she later recognised as a panic attack. Her heart was pounding, racing. She felt like she couldn’t breathe. She felt dizzy. At the time, she thought she was having a heart attack. She thought she was dying. She was terrified.
She later recognized that she had a panic attack and had been under a considerable amount of stress. A new mother, she had just returned to work from maternity leave and had recently decided to pursue a graduate degree. In this case, all the pressure came from within herself. It was of great importance to be a success in all areas of her life- to be a successful mother, student, as well in her career.
In both scenarios above, it must be noted that the individuals did not recognise the symptoms as either anxiety or panic. Anxiety is at times referred to as a silent epidemic, sometimes missed due to a focus on the physical symptoms. Though it is hard to find many statistics, there are estimates that anxiety affects about 25% of the population in India. In the US, however, statistics on anxiety are more readily available. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 18% of the US population is affected by anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is often stated to occur with depression. In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, individuals can report an impending feeling of doom. Pain or tightness in the chest as well as heart palpitations can be reported as well. Some report a feeling like one is choking or an inability to breathe. It is easy to see why these symptoms may sometimes be mistaken for a physical illness. As with many other behavioral health issues, the stigma associated with an anxiety diagnosis also prevents individuals from seeking treatment.
In recent months and years, however, Indian films exploring these topics have become more prevalent. They have played a role in bringing the subject matter to the forefront. A continued effort to have a more open dialogue, whether it be in the world of film or within individual families, can be encouraging for those who are fearful of seeking help.
– Suja Mathew is a licensed professional counsellor who has been working in the behavioral health field for 20 years. She currently lives in the United States.
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