Traverse City Record-Eagle


September 9, 2010

Adapted in TC: Find the root of panic

It's September, of any given year.

The school bell calls.

As a seasoned university instructor and therapist, early in the semester I make a mental note of the students I think may be dealing with mental health issues, including anxiety. I want to make sure they're getting the help they need. If they're not, I can make the necessary referrals.

By anxiety, I don't mean the typical excitement and nervousness of a new experience.

First, there's the student who needs to constantly check his cell phone messages as a way to calm his anxiety. Unlike the rest of the class, he seems incapable of not looking at his phone.

Second, there's the young woman with self-soothing gestures that distract the whole class — foot tapping and knee bouncing, hair twirling, nail biting and cuticle picking.

Third, there's the student who keeps excusing himself during class to get a drink of water. I suspect that he needs to take medication and it's causing dry mouth; that's why he also chews lots of gum in order to speak up in class.

Lastly, there's the student who insists that she has to sit near the door, in case she has to get out of the classroom quickly. I wonder if she's dealing with panic attacks.

Obviously, assessing other people requires training, confidentiality and lots of information.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, generalized anxiety is excessive anxiety and worry lasting six months or more. It is not part of another mental disorder, medical issue or substance use. The person has difficulty controlling and coping with his or her anxiety.

Anxiety can take many forms. People feel wound up, tense and restless. They may be easily fatigued and worn out. They have concentration problems and may experience irritability, significant muscle tension, difficulty with activities of daily living and trouble sleeping.

Some people say they can't get comfortable in their own skin — heart racing, sweating, mind jumping from thought to thought. They don't feel safe. They can feel like they're going to die. There are many forms and degrees of anxiety, including social anxiety, and the diagnosis should only be completed by a professional.

Some people experience situational anxiety — children pick up on their parents' anxiety and become anxious. Some are anxious trying to please intense parents. Many people feel anxious living inside of bad relationships. Other situations can create anxiety, such as riding in a car, being in a new work or living environment, leaving the house or flying. Our ego works tirelessly to ensure its survival, often by worrying.

For others, anxiety is free floating and not really attached to any specific stimulus. Living in today's world can be anxiety-producing. Some people believe they were born with an anxious temperament. Others have experienced different levels of anxiety based upon hormonal and biochemical changes.

Regardless of the type or cause of the anxiety, many people disconnect their mind from their body in order to quiet themselves. They can do this through alcohol, eating, drugs, shopping, overworking, sex or smoking. This quieting is temporary. Their symptoms need to be treated. The root cause of their anxiety needs to be addressed. Lasting relief can only be assured by dealing with both the symptoms and the cause.

There are many tools that people can use to help manage anxiety — counseling, yoga, exercise or meditation; limiting environmental stimulants like caffeine, unsettling TV, news and movies; charting one's dreams and thoughts; massage; and medication.

When I was teaching overseas, I experienced a full-blown situational panic attack. I went without sleep for days and told my husband I was coming home.

He asked me to stay one more day and to ask my peers for help. I had feared that if I did this, I'd be seen as an imposter and judged as less than. I went to work and during a lunch meeting at an Egyptian restaurant, in 100-degree heat, watching my peers drink several cocktails, I finally confessed my anxiety.

I told my five colleagues that I was ready to return to the United States because several things seemed impossible.

The air conditioning at my apartment was on the fritz, the computer system was inconsistent, my language school was a poor match, my teaching schedule was erratic and the student helpers I was promised wouldn't start for weeks.

Without hesitation, one of my colleagues took my written list of concerns and ripped them into five strips of paper. She then handed each person at the table, one of the items. She asked everyone, herself included, to solve the issue in 48 hours. They did and I stayed.

Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 23 years, has used a wheelchair for 34 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle. For more Adapted in TC columns, log on to

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