On the nights I am awake at 3 AM finishing schoolwork, I sometimes wander to Google, pulling up quick quizzes aptly named “Do You Have Anxiety?” usually based off the DSM criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. They aren’t very accurate, but being a terrible procrastinator, I go through several of these similarly-worded quizzes, and they end up saying something like, “you have a mild-to-moderate-to-high chance of having an anxiety disorder! (But of course, check with your doctor first.) ”Figuring out mental health is never a straightforward, clear-cut process as these quizzes suggest, but the ambiguity of the quiz results always raises more questions than it answers. Inevitably, I end my early morning diversion by searching something along the lines of, “When does regular anxiety become a disorder?”
According to the first search result on Google, the line that separates ‘normal’ anxiety and an anxiety disorder is the point where anxiety begins to interfere with daily functioning. That blog post might not be the most credible source of information on anxiety, but it echoes the National Institute of Mental Health which defines anxiety disorders as feelings of persistent and possibly increasing anxiousness which may “interfere with daily activities.” All these articles and late-night quizzes I click onto imply anxiety is a spectrum. And yet, mainstream narratives around anxiety often use dichotomous rhetoric. You either have an anxiety disorder, or you do not.
Some people think that language and terminology associated with anxiety disorders are being overused. A common opinion I see (scrolling through Facebook comments on articles, which perhaps isn’t the best source of meaningful discussion) is that people who identify feelings of nervousness as anxiety trivialize the experiences of those who have actually been diagnosed with anxiety. And there are some who believe anxiety disorders are overdiagnosed as a way to create a bigger market for pharmaceuticals. These are valid concerns. But they also leave me in a limbo of speculating whether I might have a problem with anxiety and convincing myself that I don’t.
I find myself stuck between the two narratives of (i) a functioning student — getting decent grades, showing up to social events, contributing adequately to my club, dragging myself to every lecture on time — and, (ii) being an anxiety-ridden student — dreading meeting people, being unable to eat before exams, sometimes getting flare-ups of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), getting light-headed and panicky on occasion, latching on to superstitions and omens. But really, all this, one could chalk probably up to nervousness and other factors.
Socializing is a performance, and stage fright is common. Being nervous about exams is pretty typical too. The chronic indigestion and stomach cramps may have to do with my horrific college-student diet. Getting light-headed and panicky could be because of an occasional lack of food (I forget to eat sometimes). And I grew up in a somewhat superstitious East Asian society. I could just be misattributing all these issues to anxiety. Ultimately, I tell myself, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have a Real Problem.
Last night, I lay in bed worrying whether my purchase of a crocodile print shirt would lead to a death in the family. I eventually fell asleep and woke up as usual. This afternoon, I felt the tell-tale tightness around my ribcage while reading my course texts. I continued reading as usual. I was able to push through with the tightness around my chest until I finished my work. These feelings don’t interfere too much with my daily functioning. Or maybe I have simply scheduled anxiety into my daily routine, and it is not something I find too disruptive anymore. Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself.
I appreciate that mental health has not yet derailed my life as I know it has for so many others. I recognize that there are many who experience anxiety at a much higher intensity than I do. I recognize that I am privileged in this way. But being in this gray-zone, this perpetual state of limbo, is difficult to navigate.
I experience anxiety, yet I don’t experience it enough. I experience psychosomatic discomfort, yet am not immobilized by it. My anxiety doesn’t slot easily into the category of a disorder, and yet seems to go beyond regular nervousness. I feel as though I should be able to move forward with my life, and yet, I keep coming back to the same question, to the same search tabs on Google — do I have anxiety, and do I need to get help? Is it worth jumping through the hoops of college insurance to see a medical professional? How do I justify using limited campus resources that other people might need more than I do? Do I have to make my anxiety seem debilitating enough to be taken seriously?
And is there space for people like me, in the gray-zone of disorder and not-disorder, where others may see our experiences as legitimate — not as a way to trivialize diagnosed mental illnesses on one end, and not as a mere fault of character on the other?
Maybe, but not yet.