Last May, Olivia Gerns was driving home after dropping off her then-boyfriend when she had a panic attack. Thoughts about potentially hurting herself overwhelmed her, and she found herself in tears, feeling helpless and like she had hit rock bottom.
“Something about (my then-boyfriend) leaving triggered me,” said Gerns, a junior music performance and music education major. “There was that feeling of, ‘Oh God, I’m alone now; what if I do something?’ I didn’t feel like I wanted to make an attempt for suicide or to hurt myself, but there was the fear that I would impulsively.”
Gerns pulled to the side of the road and then her anxiety disorder took over. She couldn’t shake the thoughts of dying, and when she got scared that thoughts of hurting herself had become out of her control, she called her mom. A few days later, they made the decision to pull Gerns out of school for the final two weeks of the semester.
“It’s the equivalent of me falling on the street and breaking my leg, and I can’t get up,” Gerns said. “I needed to be lifted because I couldn’t get up. If you can’t function day-to-day because of your anxiety, there is no doubt that you should be able to call for help. You say, ‘Help me up. I can’t do this because of what is broken.’”
About 40 million American adults, 18 percent of the population, suffer from anxiety disorders, which can come in the form of general anxiety, phobias, panic disorders, social anxiety disorders and others, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Seventy-five percent of people with anxiety disorders will experience their first panic attack by the age of 22.
“It’s not just feeling anxious here or there. Anyone can feel anxious,” Gerns said. “You’re on the edge of your seat, there’s something on your mind, you’re fidgety and there’s some type of tension. With anxiety, you feel that way almost 24/7.”
At Chapman, anxiety is the most common reason students visit the on-campus counseling center, followed by depression and relationship problems, said Jeanne Walker, director of Student Psychological Counseling Services. Walker attributes this to the rising number of out-of-state students, the “crazy” world situation today, genetic factors and an increase in medications.
“The problem, in general, with anxiety is that it’s misunderstood,” Walker said. “Anxiety has become this horrific thing that we need to be afraid of, but anxiety is just something that we all have naturally … It’s how your body protects yourself. In the old days, we used to be afraid of tigers. We don’t have tigers attacking us anymore; we have exams, but the anxiety reaction is exactly the same.”
Walker said that the worst kind of anxiety comes from the fear of anxiety itself, something Gerns said contributes to her disorder.
“It spirals down because it’s a whole ‘what-if’ scenario, like what if I’m in class and something triggers my anxiety and a panic attack happens,” Gerns said. “You always have a sense of tension, whether it’s a lump in your throat or an emotional symptom. It can be kind of haunting.”
Carolyn Brodbeck, an associate professor of psychology, said that someone with an anxiety disorder is not able to relax after a stressful situation.
“It’s not just the week before finals, you’re temporarily stressed out and then you’re done with finals and able to relax,” Brodbeck said. “Someone who has (anxiety), even when they’re done with their final papers and projects, maybe they’re already home with their family and friends, still finds it difficult to relax even when there’s not a specific stressor.”
Cianna Allen, a senior political science major, said her anxiety disorder stems from “firsts,” to the point that she didn’t want to go to her first day of ballet class because she was afraid people wouldn’t like her, or she ran crying to the principal’s office on the first day of middle school because she couldn’t open her locker.
“For me, anxiety is racing thoughts,” Allen said. “You almost get paralyzed because there is so much going through your head that you don’t know where to begin. It’s all negative thoughts and they all spiral and build into something bigger than what it is.”
As a result, Allen has learned how to train her thoughts and recognize when those thoughts are going in that downward spiral, and then redirect them.
“When I fall behind (in schoolwork), my anxiety says, ‘You have too much to do and you can’t do it,’” Allen said. “Rational people can look at what they have to do and make a plan and then start, but for me, it’s getting myself to even start. That’s when it comes down to retraining my thoughts. Even if I just do one thing, it’s better than nothing.”
Brodbeck, who has training in cognitive behavioral therapy, said that she will look at how a person’s thoughts affect his or her mood and then analyze external stressors, which can range from having a paper due in a week to family problems. Another key factor she says psychologists are researching is the biological risk, as anxiety disorders can be genetic.
However, for Michaela McLeod, a junior film production major, knowing that her mother also had an anxiety disorder does not always make her feel better about it.
“When you have an anxiety disorder, the day-to-day activities become more difficult,” McLeod said. “Laundry, cooking and general work feel like it has a ticking time bomb on it. It’s a disorder that makes it feel as if it’s you against the world, even if there are plenty of people attempting to help.”
After deciding to leave Chapman a couple weeks early, Gerns spent the summer meeting with psychiatrists and spent almost 100 hours in therapy before returning to Chapman in the fall.
“It’s very physical – it’s your brain,” Gerns said. “Your brain is broken and needs healing. That takes time, just like a broken bone or a torn muscle. It’s not just feeling upset or anxious. It’s chemicals in your brain that are imbalanced. I wasn’t Olivia; I was some other form of myself as if I had been cloned and the real me was stuck in a case. All I did was focus on being Olivia again.”