I’ve dealt with anxiety since I was about 9 years old. I remember crying before going to school in elementary and middle school due to being bullied and would need to hide in the bathroom during class, where I would escape into reading Harry Potter books. As I got older, I learned to mask my anxiety so that people couldn’t see how freaked out I actually was. I developed phobias around germs, certain animals like moles, flying, driving on highways, and most of all, disappointing people.
The first time I had a real panic attack, I was 23 years old. My partner and I were in between moving from Portland, OR to NYC, and were staying with my parents in a small town in North Carolina for a few weeks while we figured out our new living situation. It came on suddenly, violently, and shook up my whole world. One morning I woke up and felt as if I could barely breathe. My chest was so tight that I thought I was going to have a heart attack, which I found out later is extremely common for people with panic disorder. I could barely sleep, eat, or focus on anything at all. I was also now too anxious to even drive, so I was stuck at home. I felt silly, and I didn’t know how to express to my partner or parents what was going on. Was I supposed to get on medication again? Go to a psychiatric ward again? Seek therapy? All of that seemed impossible. Instead, I drank and turned to homeopathic treatments like kava.
After only a month and a half of living in NYC, I had been suffering from panic attacks daily and couldn’t handle living around so many people. My partner and I decided to move back to Portland, where I was finally able to see a doctor and get on some much needed medication, and I also started therapy. I was also able to come out as a transgender man, and have been doing hormone replacement therapy for about two years now, which has been incredibly liberating. Although I still struggle with anxiety, it is a million times better than it was before I started treatment.
It’s no secret that Americans are anxious. Why wouldn’t we be? We face existential threats from a multitude of angles, many of which we desperately try to distract ourselves from. Income inequality, poverty, climate change, and a disconnection from ourselves as a part of the natural world are all components of our collective neuroses. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America and affect around 18.1% of the population, or 40 million adults aged 18 and older. Although highly treatable, only around 36.9% of people afflicted seek treatment. People with anxiety disorders are disproportionately likely to visit doctors; about 3 to 5 times more likely than than their non-anxious counterparts, and are 6 times more likely to be hospitalized for psychiatric disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association Of America.
There are different types of anxiety disorders, each coming with their own unique set of challenges and treatments.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): affects 6.8 million adults (3.1% of the population), though just about 43.2% receive the treatment that they need. Women are twice as likely as men to be inflicted with this disorder. GAD involves constant worrying, tension, and an overall feeling of dread and unease. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is one component to treatment, as well as medication. Medications can include antidepressants, Buspirone, and benzodiazepines. These treatments often work in tandem with one another, and can be quite effective.
Panic Disorder (PD): affects around 6 million adults, or 2.7% of the American population. Like GAD, women are twice as likely as men to develop PD. Someone afflicted with this disorder suffers from panic attacks, which makes you feel as if you’re losing control. They make you feel as if you are suddenly in danger, and sets off the brain’s fight or flight responses. Common with this disorder is to have accompanying physical symptoms such as rapid heart beat, chest of stomach discomfort, difficulty breathing, weakness, dizziness, hot or cold chills, and numb hands. Medications such as benzodiazepines can be helpful at stopping panic attacks, and therapy can be useful as well as a treatment.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the adult population in America. SAD affects men and women equally, and usually emergences around 13 years old. Sadly, around 36% of people with this disorder suffer for 10 years before seeking treatment. It is an intense fear of being judged, watched, or scrutinized by other people. It can make having a social life difficult, as people with SAD tend to avoid crowds, parties, and other social events. They may be afraid to be called on in class, or even afraid to be noticed at all. It can even be difficult to hold down a job.
Specific Phobias: affects 19 million American adults, or 8.7% of the American population. Women are twice as likely to have a specific phobia than men. Very commonly, people cannot pinpoint exactly where their phobias stem from. They can be caused from a traumatic event involved the phobia, witnessing a traumatic event involving the phobia, or from being exposed to the Specific Phobias are categorized into 5 types:
-Natural Environment Phobias
-Other Phobias (e.g. choking, vomiting, or contracting an illness; in children, avoidance of loud sounds like balloons popping or costumed characters like clowns)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): affects 2.2 million American adults, or 1% of the population. OCD affects men and women at similar rates, and around a third of affected adults first experienced symptoms when they were children. People with OCD have uncontrollable intrusive thoughts and obsessions that lead them to feel compelled to repetitively do something compulsively. Some examples of common repetitive behaviors are hand washing, checking on things, cleaning, and organizing things. These unwanted thoughts and rigid routines can keep people with OCD from living their lives the way the want to and can be extremely time consuming. Conditions related to OCD are body dysmorphia, hoarding disorder, hair-pulling disorder, and skin-picking disorder. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and therapy can all help with this disorder.
So, America has one of the highest rates of anxiety disorders in the world. Millenials and younger people are the groups mostly at risk. Constant consumption of social media is certainly a factor, as it can lead to FOMO (fear of missing out) and an unhealthy amount of comparing ourselves to one another. Social media usage also releases dopamine, making it addictive. Technology, as great as it can be, has isolated us from one another. Our sleep habits have become worse due to the blue lights from screens, and we work long hours for lower pay than our parents’ and grandparents’ generation did. Another factor is that people are more open about their anxiety due to a decrease in stigma, although we have a long way to go with that as well. Culturally, we need a paradigm shift so that we can begin to heal our anxious minds and bodies. Psychedelic therapy has been gaining popularity as of late as a potentially effective treatment, especially psilocybin.