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I’ll never forget the first time I got the call: “Mom, I had an anxiety attack!”
I say first time because, although they didn’t come often, there would be other calls and I’m sure my initial response was not particularly helpful.
It was something like, “What do you mean you had an anxiety attack? We all get anxious from time to time. Don’t be late for class.”
I didn’t know what I didn’t know about anxiety disorders because it wasn’t something I suffered with. Sure, I get anxious before having to speak in front of a crowd or on my way to the dentist. But that’s not what my son was trying to tell me.
What he was telling me is that he suffers from a disorder where this type of anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. His symptoms can interfere with daily activities such as job, school and relationships.
And as my son Clif has taught me, everyone responds differently when anxiety hits.
Over the years, he’s also taught me a lot about triggers, symptoms and responses. He’s given me permission to share some of that in this piece because after a few conversations (and text messages), we agreed that it would help parents of college students to respond better and help their student to soar.
According to a report by the SERU (Student Experience in the Research University) Consortium cited by Inside Higher Ed, “About one-third of undergraduate, graduate and professional school students screened during the summer were found to have depression or anxiety, or both, which is a higher rate than seen in years past."
Please note: This cannot be considered medical advice or take the place of an appointment with your medical provider. It is, however, a peek into how our family is managing the impact that anxiety and anxiety disorders can have.
What’s a helpful tip for battling the isolation that anxiety can cause?
For me the best way to deal with isolation is finding a comfortable environment. Sometimes isolation is that comforting environment, especially in those situations when other people are what’s triggering the anxiety.
But in other cases, when my inclination to isolate is enabling my anxiety, it’s been important for me to know the environments that involve people that make me comfortable. My auntie's house is like that for me. She is helpful when I ask for help, but otherwise she doesn’t pry or try to fix things for me. She just lets me chill and she does the same.
How should parents of college students who suffer from anxiety show up for them? Do’s and Don’ts would be helpful here.
I’d say "Do" check in on your child in as normal a way as possible. Ask them how they’re doing, what they’ve been up to, how their friends are, etc.
The flip side of that: "Don’t" press them about their anxiety every time you speak. Make it clear you care and are concerned about their mental health, but doing so after it’s already been clearly communicated can do more harm than good. Let them know you're there for them, then treat them normally. It’ll make them much more comfortable to come to you if and when they need to and are ready to get professional help.
Another "Do" would be take mental notes of symptoms you notice. In the fog of anxiety sometimes it’s difficult to tell, especially early on, what your own symptoms are. Parents often ask "Have you eaten anything today?" If routinely their answer is no, make note of that. When they visit home, give them food to take with them.
But again, it’s up to that person to decide they are ready for help. Once they’ve made that decision, and if they're having trouble identifying what their anxiety looks like, "Do" offer your knowledge as a parent in non-intrusive ways.
"Do" ask them! Ask your kid (once or twice so as to not be repetitive) in what ways you can be supportive! They may not have an answer at first and that may be related to their comfort level with you. For me, when you backed off a bit was when I felt I was able to come to you with what would be helpful. It made me feel like you were ready to learn from what I experienced.
The biggest "Don’t" is do not try and fix your child. I can imagine how difficult that would be when you see them hurting, but in the long run it's better that they are comfortable enough with you to tell you when something is wrong than for them to be desensitized by the constant lectures about their mental health. Again, this is what works for me. Every person is different.
Any final thoughts?
The disclaimer is that everyone’s experience with anxiety is different and different things work for different folks. I’m only discussing my personal experience. Isolation can be good and/or bad. For me, it depends on the moment.
Also, remember to treat your child like they are your child, but also like they are a person — not just a person with an anxiety disorder.
This is a great question to ask during college tours, especially if you know this is an area of need for your child. If your child is already seeing a medical provider for anxiety, make sure a few virtual appointments are set and on the books before they leave home for campus.
Photos courtesy of the author.