Marla Genova had resigned herself to a career in dry cleaning. The then-teenager couldn’t imagine doing anything less isolating or mundane than what she did at that post-high school job: sitting at the dry cleaner’s, mostly alone, until the one time each day the clothes were delivered. “Basically, I just sat there,” says Genova, who’s now in her 40s and lives in Connecticut. “I could have seen myself sitting there forever.”
Genova may have looked apathetic, unambitious or even unintelligent, but what she really was, was anxious. She didn’t receive an official diagnosis – social anxiety disorder – until she was screened for anxiety during an awareness event at college, even though she’d always known something was wrong.
Soon after the diagnosis, she enrolled in a social phobia group research study that taught cognitive behavioral therapy. There, Genova began trusting she could do a lot more with her life than sit.
How Anxiety Affects You
The therapy program “changed my entire way of thinking, and I was able to apply it to other parts of my life as well,” says Genova, who spent 20 years conducting clinical research on anxiety disorders and other behavioral and public health issues before launching Socially Speaking, a social performance and anxiety coaching business.
Anxiety – as it refers to a set of disorders including social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, which Genova also has – affects more than 18% of the U.S. adult population each year. That makes it the most common mental illness in the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
“Anxiety is definitely becoming more common. Chances are, you know someone who suffers from it,” says Angelique Mason, a family nurse practitioner with Penn Medicine at Woodbury Heights in New Jersey, who often sees patients with a range of anxiety disorders.
Incidence of anxiety was on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that global health crisis and attendant financial and social disruptions just threw gas on the anxiety fire for a majority of Americans. An October 2020 poll from the American Psychiatric Association found 62% of Americans feel more anxious than they did at the same time the previous year, a sizable increase over APA polls over the preceding three years, in which the number had ranged between 32% and 39%.
Moe Gelbart, director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California, notes that “we’re experiencing the highest rates of anxiety we have ever seen. Reasons include fear of the unknown and feelings of helplessness and lack of control.”
Lawrence Lovell, a licensed mental health counselor based in New York City, and founder of Breakthrough Solutions, points to a 2021 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation that found during the pandemic 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from 1 in 10 who reported those symptoms from January to June 2019.
Despite these staggering numbers, just over a third of people with anxiety get treatment, ADAA reports. This is in part because many of its manifestations are so ubiquitous – lack of sleep or feeling overwhelmed – and not initially – or even ever – associated with anxiety.
For example, feelings of apathy, fatigue, irritability and even anger – not just worry – can signal anxiety issues, says Kristina Hallett, a clinical psychologist and executive coach in Suffield, Connecticut. Problems that seem strictly physical like headaches, chest pain, numbness, rashes, hair loss and more can be linked to anxiety disorders too.
That’s not to say these symptoms are always due to anxiety, or that anxiety as an emotion rather than a psychiatric diagnosis is a bad thing. “Anxiety is a normal part of the human experience and, in many ways, evolutionarily valuable, helping us to survive and thrive” by keeping us alert to potential dangers, explains Dr. Zachary Kelm, an osteopathic psychiatry resident at Ohio State University in Columbus.
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