I need to get to school on time. What if I’m late? I have to make an A on this exam or my GPA is going to fall. I don’t think my friends or co-workers like me. Ugh, I have to study. I’m so stressed I could die.
If a passerby walks past Grace Toups on a normal day, no one would know she is constantly at war with herself.
She, like 40 million adults 18 and older, has been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder along with social anxiety that constantly gets in the way of her daily life. Toups has battled with anxiety and stress for the majority of her lifetime.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes GAD as, “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things. People with the disorder experience excessive anxiety and worry, often expecting the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern. GAD is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months.”
Social anxiety is defined by the ADAA as, “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations. Although they recognize that the fear is excessive and unreasonable, people with social anxiety disorder feel powerless against their anxiety. They are terrified they will humiliate or embarrass themselves.”
Between the two, Toups has had problems coping with change and completing day-to-day tasks. These disorders were well hidden for the first part of her life but soon became unbearable as she entered high school.
Toups entered freshman year as most teenagers do, shy and nervous. In the beginning of the year, she thought she was just experiencing the same anxiety everyone else was feeling as they adjusted to a new school, but she soon found out her anxiety was different from her peers.
She says it was her English class that initially triggered her anxiety. Paired with the stress of a new school and a tough class, Toups felt as if she could barely keep up.
“I remember often crying,” Toups said, “after and during the class when my teacher gave a new assignment and having to visit the guidance counselor often to discuss my anxiety.”
It was during a string of these minor attacks that she and her family decided to take action and go to the doctor. During this appointment, she was diagnosed with GAD and social anxiety. Her doctor prescribed medication to help her cope. Additionally, she began having weekly meetings with her counselor.
Throughout the rest of high school, Toups’ mental health battles continued to rage on.
“I have experienced anxiety attacks mostly in relation to school,” Toups said, “such as fearing I was going to fail a test or having my GPA fall and having no control over it because I failed myself for not studying earlier. Most of these instances occur when I am moments away from beginning a test. No matter how hard I prepare, the slightest thing such as, ‘We will begin in five minutes,’ sends me off and I will start to experience shortness of breath and shaking.”
Toups says waiting is the worst trigger for her anxiety. She says that often times she will feel fine one minute then completely shatter her self-esteem in the next.
By the end of high school, though she still had minor anxiety attacks, Toups thought she was in better control of her anxiety than she was freshman year. She had experienced what she thought was the worst. Then, she entered college.
I feel like I’m going to explode. I can’t stop stressing long enough to get my work done. I want to disappear, I can’t handle this anymore.
Since entering college, Toups has found it hard to adjust to her new environment.
“I’m struggling to find my place and to make new friends,” Toups began. “I often worry I am in the wrong major or that I am not doing well enough to be accepted into the graduate program of my choice. College has added new things to stress about, all more serious than those I stressed out about in high school. College is major in determining who I am going to be and with that brings about a new realm of stress.”
This fall semester has taken a toll on Toups’ mental health. Little things that normally would not trigger her anxiety seem to be getting the best of her. College has been more of an adjustment than she first expected and it has shown in her social and school life. Between keeping up her grades and trying to spend time with friends, something was bound to give.
The blow-up happened around 7 p.m. in mid-October.
“I had a big paper to turn in the next day, so I was staying at school with my boyfriend and another friend to all work on our papers,” Toups said. “It was getting late and we decided to leave and go home. I was completely fine at the time and we all walked to our cars which happened to be in the same parking lot on South Stadium Dr.”
When they made it to their cars, the group began exchanging jokes and tried to de-stress a bit. After they finished joking, the group separated and Toups got into her car with her boyfriend. In the car, the two discussed whether they would continue working on homework at her house or if she would bring her boyfriend home. Then, a LSU Police car pulled up behind her vehicle.
“My anxiety hit me like a truck. I stepped out of my car with my hands where he could see them and he shined his flashlight in my face and interrogated me over why we were sitting in the car at this time of night. After a few minutes of interrogation, he told us to get in our car and leave. I listened and got into my car, started it and began to freak out because I felt as if I was a criminal under observation.”
Toups began to drive home and while she was doing so, she began to cry. Her boyfriend began asking if she needed to pull over but she was afraid that if she pulled over, the policeman would interrogate them again.
“During this drive home, my anxiety and crying got worse and worse, to the point where I felt I would explode,” Toups said. “Finally, we turned onto a street that is close to my house until I realized there was another cop car down that road. It turns out the cop car was there because of an accident someone had gotten into on the road, but to me, I saw the cop lights and it triggered the anxiety to hit its peak.”
She began screaming and the crying worsened. Her foot began shaking on the pedal and she had to rush into a nearby parking lot before she would wreck the car.
“I finally made it to the parking lot, stopped the car, cried and hyperventilated until I felt lightheaded and thought I could pass out,” Toups said. “Eventually, I was led to the passenger side and my boyfriend drove me the rest of the way home. Once home, I couldn’t get out the car, I was screaming worse than before and I thought I was going to explode. It was the scariest experience I have ever had to face.”
Another reason Toups’ anxiety levels are increasing is because she just began a job.
“I have tons of fears,” Toups began, “which include answering the phones, saying the wrong thing, messing up on a task and not being liked by my co-workers. Overall, college is a huge adjustment for me because I am realizing that everything I do will positively or negatively impact my future, and the thought of that keeps me worrying constantly.”
In the past, Toups has gone to therapy for her anxiety, but, after a few sessions, she did away with it.
“I never really felt like it helped me much,” she said. “I was forced into scary situations that I felt were doing me no good.”
She said that one reason she might not have done well in therapy is because of her lack of trust and openness.
“I began to lie to the therapist and pretend my anxiety was not as bad as it was,” Toups said, “because I felt I could cope with my stress on my own like every other person my age. I do not regret leaving the counselor I was seeing, but I do regret not being open to some of the techniques she offered me.”
Since her anxiety has worsened with the beginning of college, her doctor is recommending that she sees a counselor for her anxiety. At the moment, Toups is unopen to the idea because of the lack of time she has along with the fear she would be labeled a “freak.”
When asked about how she copes with her anxiety, she responded, “For the most part, I don’t handle my anxiety in any certain way. Mostly, I surround myself with family or people who help me ride out the anxiety wave until it somewhat passes. It’s not a great method, I know.”
Many students, like Toups, are struggling with how to cope with their anxiety in college. Professionals from LSU’s Mental Health Service, such as Dr. Rachel Stokes, are working to help students struggling with all sorts of mental health issues.
“There are many types of support options which are beneficial for students with anxiety disorders,” Stokes said. “Often students find interventions such as individual therapy, group therapy or psychoeducational seminars which are offered at LSU Mental Health Service to be helpful.”
Stokes also said that some student seek out self-help options such as podcasts, readings and workbooks. Meditation and the practice of Mindfulness exercises and activities are often found to be valuable methods for reducing anxiety symptoms over time.
Like Toups, many students find that disclosing that they go to therapy will label them as a “freak” in society. It is up to friends and close family members to help the person struggling see that is isn’t a weakness to go to therapy but a strength.
“Encouraging a friend to seek out help for their anxiety symptoms and helping to break stigma and shame about reaching out for help is a tremendous help to someone who is struggling,” Stokes said.
Additionally, Stokes says the biggest aspect to a good therapy session is trust, something Toups struggled with when going her first time. Stokes firmly believes that going to therapy at different points in life is a unique and helpful experience and patients will get much more out of it if they just trust in their doctor and are truthful with themselves.
Looking at it now, Toups said she has a long way to go on her journey with anxiety. She has experienced hurt and desolation, but she assures the fight will not stop here. With her support team by her side, she knows this momentary battle will only make her stronger. She will overcome.