Dinah Harriger Cummings

Mental Health Awareness Week: Anxiety 101

Stress seems to be a given in the American lifestyle. We all experience situations and seasons of life that are more stressful than others. We manage stress in our jobs, academic pursuits, relationships, career decisions, health status, etc. Although stress is unavoidable and is sometimes accompanied by negative physical consequences, our culture tends to mistake stress for anxiety.

During Mental Health Awareness Week (May 11-17), it’s a good time to understand the difference between stress and anxiety. Although they are both certainly related, stress is rooted in external circumstances and situations, whereas anxiety is an internal emotional response of fear and worry that remains even when the external stressor is gone. So, anxiety is an overwhelming fear and helplessness that persists despite our circumstances, and interferes with the ability to manage our daily lives.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America tells us that anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million Americans, and that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed as men. In a little over a decade, anxiety and depression rates have doubled, and the suicide rate has tripled in the U.S. Access to mental health services proves critical during the college years given that the typical age of onset for many mental health conditions is 18-24. College campuses across the country have seen a significant increase in students seeking help for anxiety-related conditions. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 75% of individuals with an anxiety disorder will experience symptoms before the age of 22. College presents the perfect set of environmental stressors (from a new environment to social pressures to major life decisions) that, when combined with internal factors, increases one’s risk for anxiety and depression.

Ranging from generalized anxiety disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic attacks, anxiety spectrum disorders come in many shapes and sizes, and symptoms manifest uniquely in each individual. Anxiety disorders frequently co-occur with other conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, substance abuse, headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, and sleep disorders.

Kappa Alpha Theta’s Sisters Supporting Sisters Initiative is such a valuable resource for our collegians not only in educating our members about mental health issues but also by helping connect them to campus resources. Theta sisters have been supporting each other long before we had an official mental health initiative. In my own life, it was a Theta sister who encouraged me to seek help for anxiety during our sophomore year of college. I can honestly say that her intervention and encouragement changed my life. I am so thankful for Theta and the supportive friends who walked with me through a difficult season.

The good news is that treatment outcomes for anxiety are quite favorable; unfortunately only a third of individuals suffering with anxiety seek help. Getting that help early is so important to effectively treat and manage anxiety. Treatment options typically include medication, therapy, and lifestyle modifications. Anxiety disorders do not develop overnight, so effectively managing stress can certainly be an effective prevention strategy.