By Hugo Guzman
Hub Staff Writer
Gaby Cedeno was 17 when feelings of inadequacy and anxiety about the future began to take control of her life. Now 22, Cedeno remembers that social situations became unmanageable because she felt anxious.
“I had always dealt with anxiety, but I thought it was normal until it spiked my junior year of high school,” Cedeno said. “It reached a point where I didn’t even want to leave my room.”
By the time she graduated high school, she had taken to waking up several hours before starting her day, just to prepare herself for any social situations she might encounter.
Cedeno’s experiences might seem like an extreme case of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but statistics show that anxiety is becoming more common among young adults, especially college students.
According to the American College Health Association, 61.9 percent of college students reported feelings of “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016, a dramatic increase from 50 percent in 2011.
Even when specific emotions aren’t defined, 41 percent of incoming freshmen at the University of California, Los Angeles reported they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do,” according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. That figure was only 29 percent in 2010.
Los Angeles-based author Rebecca Baker is a testament to such statistics. Although she has lived with anxiety since she was 7, she said her symptoms spiked while attending Whittier College, in California. She began to suffer heart palpitations, shortness of breath and nausea, physiological symptoms directly caused by anxiety.
“In large group settings or during test-taking, these symptoms would be at their worst,” Baker said.
The effect of academics became evident when Baker took a semester in Ireland, she said. There, the academic culture is based on personal achievement, rather than competition. Symptoms disappeared practically overnight, according to Baker.
Psychotherapist Patricia Pint says that’s little wonder. For many young adults, academics presents a “do-or-die” situation where they must either perform, or risk their future livelihoods.
It’s that stress about the future that Pint described as the root of all anxiety.
“What’s gonna happen to me six months from now?” Pint asks her clients hypothetically. “What happens when the tracks aren’t laid out in front of you? That’s scary.”
Social media also has an undeniable effect, Pint says. Competition and stress about the future is already at an all-time high for young adults, and social media only overstimulates them, she said.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on young people to be in multiple times at once,” Pint said. “If you’re on Facebook and Instagram, you’re not here, in the present moment.”
Being in the present moment is key to combatting anxiety, according to Pint, who practices mindfulness meditation with her clients. Because anxiety disorders are physiological responses to uncertainty about the future, Pint said that tolerating that uncertainty is an essential element in treatment.
For many living with anxiety, that often means focusing on something productive. Arcadia-based artist Vahag Byurat took up art and music to combat his anxiety. He said that when he’s got a pen in his hand, or fingers on a piano, focusing on the present moment becomes a breeze.
“I think a lot of my anxiety derives from feeling less than worthy in my own head,” Byurat said. “So producing something I would consider greater than myself almost feels like tricking the world that I’m worth more.”
Prescribed medication helps
Cedeno agrees, citing her experiences in sports as something that has helped her conquer anxiety.
But it’s not her only weapon in the battle for her mental health. Cedeno takes medication to control her anxiety on a day-to-day basis, as do one in six Americans, according to a 2013 analysis by the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. Pint warned that although medication can be a blessing for many living with anxiety, it should only be taken as prescribed by a doctor, and always in combination with therapy sessions. Therapy, and awareness of it, is part of the reason that Pint says anxiety is more common than ever.
“People are reaching out and talking about it on social media,” Pint said. “It’s being destigmatized!”
But that’s not true for everyone, says Hollywood-based comedian Erik Escobar. Escobar has starred in several Buzzfeed video shorts, and headlined comedy tours around the country. But it’s sometimes too easy for him to prioritize his mental health, especially due to the pressures on men.
“If you can’t just tough it out, you would be perceived as weak,” Escobar lamented. “Most men may just ignore or disregard stress or anxiety.” Times are changing, and Escobar made it clear that young adults tend to be more open to seeking help than older men might be, a sentiment echoed by Erik Uriarte, a rabbinical student interning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His work at the hospital puts him in daily contact with young people who struggle with anxiety and need guidance.
“The young adult generation understands that anxiety is a problem that won’t just go away,” Uriarte said. “Before, we didn’t really understand anxiety. In previous generations, it was ‘Oh, suck it up. Get over it.’”
But now, more people like Escobar, Cedeno and Baker are reaching out to others with their experiences, he said. And for those who want to help, it can sometimes be as easy as just listening, something his rabbinical training has taught him how to do.
“What really helps is to be a person who can acknowledge what they’re going through,” Uriarte said. “People who have anxiety feel out of control of something. One of the worst things you can do is to minimize what they’re feeling.”