Commentary: Anxiety All Around AndOver

Anxiety haunted my every move and filled my head with a crippling self-doubt that overflowed into my every thought. I dreaded every subject, I was incapable of raising my hand, and participating to the slightest degree in discussions became a nightmarish prospect because, before even a word could escape my mouth, I began to anticipate a chorus of ridicule and resentment from my peers. Yet I was hesitant to reach out for help.

The very bane of my existence was Biology-100, which I understood as much as I did Russian, Arabic, or Computer Science. The crushing defeat that swept through my body as I got back my first test is still as fresh in my mind as it was four years ago. I was shocked and painfully disappointed, trying with all my might to blink back tears and fake a smile as my peers bragged that their averages had jumped to an even higher six. Up until that point, I had never received a test score so excruciatingly low. And I was petrified by the thought of the next week’s exam. This crippling anxiety lasted for weeks at a time and spread to other classes, and with each episode I fell further behind on my readings, did worse on my exams, and in some cases gave up on my homework altogether. Looking back on my struggles, I realize I should have sought out one-on-one help from my teachers and better articulated my concerns, but at the time I was so wrapped up in my anxiety I was unable to logically approach any possible solution or way forward. I was haunted by the fear that I was alienating myself, and I felt lonely with no one to talk to. I spent each Spanish class paralyzed by the fear that my teacher would call on me and I wouldn’t understand what they asked. I ate less and felt perpetually rushed as if there was no time left in the day. Each night I came home I found my bed immediately, still exhausted from the previous sleepless night. Yet each night I laid awake, running a never-ending to-do list through my head, believing there was some urgent matter that needed my attention at 3:00 a.m.

Anxiety is an epidemic sweeping the country, manifesting itself in sleep-deprived exhaustion, crippling self-doubt, and constant fear of rejection. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 80 percent of kids with a treatable anxiety disorder are not receiving treatment. The same organization finds that 1 in 8 children have an anxiety disorder, and when left untreated, these students are at a higher risk of failing academically, engaging in substance abuse, and becoming socially awkward. We as a community must tackle the epidemic of anxiety head-on, and offer broader systems of support for the students who question their very attendance at this school.

In a high-pressure environment such as Andover, where students are practically suffocating themselves under a mountain of stress and responsibility, we need to better address mental health both inside the classroom and in the broader Andover community, and encourage healthy conversations about students’ well being. The wealth of experienced counselors at Sykes Wellness Center have been an incredibly helpful resource for me in the past. However, if students feel stigmatized about their mental health, they are less likely to seek help and may hesitate to meet with a counselor, leaving them alone with their anxiety, which worsens over time.

As a Junior overwhelmed by intense anxiety, I was still hesitant to seek guidance from a counselor in what was then known as Graham House; in fact, it was my mom who set up my first meeting. I spent our first forty five minute meeting discussing my anxiety woes and lamenting my many sleepless nights, which I struggled to articulate through a series of long-winded, grammatically jumbled sentences. Although I still had brief surges of anxiety before each biology test and after each math exam, I was beginning to utilize the tools necessary to alleviate my turmoil.

Positive self-talk proved to be the key to handling my anxiety, as it provided me with the ability to counter my negative thoughts with positive reassurances and optimistic foresight, instead of spiraling through a long list of increasingly incredulous what-if consequences.

When I do feel a wave of anxiety approaching, I remind myself that although I can not control the outcome of my actions and can take comfort in the hard work I put into my studies. I may sound like a self-assured senior with not an anxious thought in sight, but just under two years ago I was a lower classman completely and utterly wrapped up in my anxiety. It took me much of my first two years at Andover to come to terms with and ultimately overcome my at severe anxiety, and I hope that by sharing my story in The Phillipian I can inspire the many people at this school who grapple with the anxiety to keep fighting.

Riley Gillis is a four-year Senior from Reading, Mass. Contact that author at