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Credit: Diego Cárdenas Uribe

I vividly remember my first-year panic episode. It occurred the night before I had to deliver a major speech for my communications seminar. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, drenched in sweat, shivering, struggling to catch my breath. After realizing this was a panic attack, I began performing breathing exercises in an attempt to slow myself down, but these didn’t help. Eventually, it ceased on its own. But even though I’d stopped physically panicking, I continued to experience overwhelming anxiety for the remainder of that morning. It was overwhelming enough that I ditched my major speech.

That episode was just a single moment in a larger struggle with social anxiety during my first year of college — anxiety that hindered my ability to speak up in front of others, communicate with peers, and achieve a satisfactory social life. And I’m not alone; according to a Sept. 2020 study, approximately 38% of college students in the United States reported having moderate to severe anxiety. In 2018, 63% of U.S college students reported having felt overwhelming anxiety at some point over the course of the year.

For those of you who are currently struggling with anxiety: know that it can be overcome. “Everyone will experience baseline anxiety at some point in life. But for those of us who experience more enduring anxieties, with treatment, we can still learn to fully function despite this,” says Dr. Batsirai Bvunzawabaya (who prefers to be called Dr. Batsi), the director of Outreach and Prevention Services at Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services. My own experiences affirm Dr. Batsi’s words. As I enter my senior year, I hold multiple leadership roles on campus, speak up with ease, and carry a comfortable social life. Of course, baseline anxieties still occasionally emerge, but the person who panicked over delivering a speech is a distant memory. So how did I overcome anxiety?

“One of the first steps in confronting anxiety is to be open with yourself,” explains Dr. Batsi. Although introspection may sound like a simple task, this isn’t the case when it comes to mental health. “Many people who have anxiety refuse to be open about it with themselves, and this can prevent them from seeking help,” says Dr. Batsi. Reluctance to seek help is largely because of the  stigma that surrounds mental illnesses in our society. For example, an Australian national survey found that a common societal misconception about social anxiety was that it was viewed “as a sign of personal weakness,” an ideology that was especially prominent within my own former self. For a long time, I repressed the notion that I may suffer from social anxiety because I didn’t want to cast myself as inferior, and doing so delayed my improvement.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is an issue everywhere — including here at Penn — and is likely something we will continue to face. But I managed to get past the stigma by assuring myself that I could seek help with full confidentiality if I wasn’t comfortable sharing, and that by acknowledging my anxiety and seeking help, I was actually performing an act of exceptional courage and compassion.

After I became honest with myself about social anxiety, the next step was to seek help and take action. At Penn, CAPS provides an abundance of resources for those with anxiety. For social anxiety, CAPS provides group therapy, talk therapy, and workshops. For other types of anxiety, CAPS counselors work with the student to craft a individualized approach that works best for them. “Each person will have their own approach to treating anxiety,” noted Dr. Batsi. “The route of treatment that works for one person with anxiety will be different from the route that works for another.”

There are also practices that we can implement on our own in response to anxiety. “Mindfulness, yoga, breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 technique, and power poses are all helpful in reducing anxiety,” says Dr. Batsi. In addition, there is a plethora of self-help literature regarding to anxiety. I’ve personally found the books of Dr. David Burns and Dr. Aziz Gazipura to be immensely helpful with social anxiety. One caveat with self-help practices that Dr. Batsi notes is that they may not be effective for everyone given how generalized the practices usually are, which is why “it’s always best to seek help from a professional like CAPS that you trust.” 

Anxiety can take a toll on its sufferer, as it unfortunately does for many students at Penn. With the vast amount of resources available to us, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about our mental health and seek help when we need it. Through self-compassion and self-honesty, we can learn to prioritize the mental prosperity that we all deserve.

ASAAD MANZAR is a College senior studying neuroscience from Dallas, Tex. His email is asaad01@sas.upenn.edu

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