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Research: Investigating Anxiety

News Story

Dyson Assistant Professor Ion-Cosmin Chivu and Holly Wright ’18 are aiming to bring more conversation and awareness to anxiety through research and theater.

From losing sleep over looming deadlines to fretting inferiority when compared to peers, many young people across the country are experiencing feelings like these, which can often be signs of a larger and widespread issue—anxiety.

Holly Wright ’18 grew up in the beautiful San Francisco Bay Area of Palo Alto, California—a city home to the prestigious Stanford University and part of the tech hub that is Silicon Valley. But despite so much success bursting at its seams, Palo Alto harbors a serious problem among younger generations, Wright says.

In the last 10 years, Palo Alto has seen a dramatic increase in mental illness in young adults, and has a suicide rate more than four times the national average with 10 teen deaths in just seven years.Holly Wright '18

“I grew up surrounded by this and I feel it is important to get voices out there and get people talking about this issue,” the BA in DirectingInternational Performance Ensemble major says. “There are a lot different theories as to why mental illness has increased there. It is a very tech-heavy area and a lot of big companies are founded in our backyard. Because of this, there is a huge pressure for students to be very high achievers, with some of the best high schools in the nation. There is a culmination of cultural expectations, school expectations, and the expectations to attend Ivy League schools.”

Feeling motivated and inspired to further investigate and spread awareness about an issue close to home, Wright paired with one of her directing professors, Ion-Cosmin Chivu, to conduct research titled “Anxiety: An Epidemic” as a summer 2016 undergraduate research grant recipient.

For most of her research, Wright spent the summer in Palo Alto collecting 48 first-hand testimonials from people age 13 to 26 years old concerning their experiences with anxiety and how it influences their social and academic life, whether they consider themselves introverts or extroverts, and other anxiety-related questions.

She then compiled all of her own data and compared it to data produced by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. From there she gathered a list of common themes people experienced—insomnia, feeling the inability to speak up, negativity, overthinking, fascination with the possibility of failure, procrastination—and then used that information to create a piece of theatre.

Wright wrote a play that she and Chivu are in the process of perfecting through several rounds of drafts. Once completed, Wright says it will be performed at the University for the Pace Community, but she and Chivu hope it will draw a larger audience from across New York City and beyond.

“We hope to have a facilitated talk back after each show,” Wright says. “We are starting to see a lot more support groups being made for young adults to share their experiences and make a change in our community, and I think we need to start actively promoting that change instead of just talking about it.”

Chivu, who is from Romania, says anxiety is often seen as weakness there, but he is happy to see that it is now being taken seriously.

“I am happy that our society is finally arriving at a place where anxiety can be looked at very seriously and adults are taking steps to deal with it,” Chivu says. “Bringing awareness to the issue is essential to finding a way to have the younger generations come out of this tunnel.”

Wright says her research made her realize how deep of a connection she has to where she grew up, learning what her hometown has to show and offer to not only her community, but society as a whole.

“Anxiety is something that tends to be overlooked and could be a symptom of something worse—if it gets too far, it can result in mental trauma,” Wright says. “I am hoping by starting an open conversation that we can help lessen the impact and help people manage their anxiety before they get pushed too far.”