Adolescent Anxiety

Adolescent Anxiety

Matthew Broder

Mental health is an issue so often stigmatized within modern society, especially amongst young males. Being open about your struggles has somehow become synonymous with weakness, something which no “real man” would ever want to show. Men are pressured into sitting down and shutting up about how they feel, forcing them to bottle up their emotions and put on a mask of normalcy, to act like nothing’s wrong. But this is not an obscure issue: according to the National Institutes of Health, nearly a third of adolescents aged 13 to 18 will experience an anxiety disorder of some kind. Yet, despite its prevalence, teens often feel that they’re alone in this struggle. We as men have been taught to be confident and dominant, to hide our feelings, to just get over it.

         Perhaps this is because times are changing so rapidly. Between 2007 and 2012, diagnoses anxiety disorders in children and teens went up 20%. A survey done every year by Higher Education Research, which asks incoming college freshmen if they feel overwhelmed by all they have to do, received an answer of “yes” from 41% of students in 2016 compared to 28% in 2000 and 18% in 1985. Anxiety in teens is at an all-time high. At a school as competitive as Priory, we feel incredible amounts of pressure to do well. We’re told that we’re the best of the best, that we shouldn’t waste the opportunities we’ve been given. So many would do anything to have the same chance at success we’ve been given. Feeling like we haven’t been able to live up to these increasingly harder-to-reach and demanding expectations is frustrating and exacts a toll on our self-image. Often, it’s easy to see others around us as competition rather than the brothers they truly are. Rather than feeling a sense of camaraderie in the struggle, too often we feel isolated, adrift in a sea of anxiety.

         Furthermore, the stigma given to mental health only makes this issue worse. To be forthcoming about your struggles is to open yourself to being labeled as crazy or delusional. “It’s all in your head,” say some. “Just get over it,” say others. These sentiments miss the point entirely. It’s called mental illness for a reason. Yeah, it is all in my head, just like heart disease is all in your heart. Telling someone to “get over it” is like telling someone to get over cancer. Both are chronic conditions, incurable, but certainly treatable with the right combination of medicine and therapy. Neither ever just “go away”: they’re life-long conditions that come and go with time. Just how cancer can spring back up after years of inactivity, you can go years without having a panic attack and suddenly start having them again. In the words of John Green, author of The Fault in our Stars who suffers from OCD (and my all-time favorite author): “For me, it’s not something I expect to defeat in my life. It’s not like a battle I expect to win. It’s something I expect to live with and still have a fulfilling life.”

         As someone who suffers from a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I think that mental health is not only stigmatized but also misunderstood. With an anxiety disorder, it’s so much more than feeling nervous before a midterm, or butterflies in your stomach before a game. That sort of anxiety is arguably a good thing: it can motivate you to study harder, to perform better. If you’re in a legitimately dangerous situation, that fight-or-flight response is necessary. But it becomes a problem when that response kicks in when it shouldn’t. It’s like a fire alarm: if there’s an actual fire, the alarm should go off. But once it starts going off whenever someone lights a candle, you know something’s wrong. Having an anxiety disorder is like having that overactive fire alarm: the simplest things can set me off. It gives a small threat a big shadow.

         One way I’ve found to cope with anxiety is to just let it all go. I’ve come to see that I’m not in this alone. I have a wonderful support group who’s always there for me. But most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s okay to just be myself, with all my imperfections. Nobody’s perfect, so why do I have to be? In the words of John Green: “I just give myself the permission to suck… which I find hugely liberating.”