NEWTON – Since he was in third grade, Discovery High senior Zach Perry has suffered from anxiety attacks.
He is one of 6.8 million people or 3.1 percent of the U.S. population who lives with this problem every day.
“It shaped how I grew up,” he said.
Recently, Perry took the opportunity with his senior project to try and help those who don’t suffer from the issue have a better understanding of what it’s like to battle anxiety.
“I created a short film with the help of a few peers that shows what living with anxiety attacks can be like through visual metaphors,” Perry said.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website, adaa.org.
Sometimes, just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety. They don’t know how to stop the worry cycle and feel it is beyond their control.
Over the years, Perry has learned how to cope with the issue. He’s spent time seeing counselors and getting help from them.
“But for other people, I’ve noticed they think they are alone because you don’t know how to explain it. I feel like I’m dying when it happens, but I’m not,” Perry said. “Thankfully, I’ve been able to meet a few people who could help me through it. You have to learn how to deal with it.”
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is effective for many people, helping them to identify, understand and modify faulty thinking and behavior patterns, according to adaa.org.
This enables people with GAD to learn how to control their worry. Relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, exercise and other alternative treatments also may become part of a treatment plan.
For Perry, one warning sign an attack is imminent is feeling like he can’t breathe.
“You start to hyperventilate, and it’ll go to the point where you’re entire body just doesn’t know what to do,” he said.
He uses the visual of drowning as a way to express this kind of moment in his film.
While it was Perry’s vision, and he directed the project, it’s his friend Philippe Sandel who stepped up to act out the scenes.
“There aren’t a lot of people who I could just ask if I could bury them or put them under water, but he was very willing to help,” Perry said. “I couldn’t have done this on my own without everyone who helped.”
When Perry approached him, Sandel wasn’t sure how he was going to portray his friend’s vision in the film.
“It’s one of those big things where there are so many people who suffer from it you don’t really want to get it wrong,” Sandel said.
When their anxiety level is mild, people with GAD can function socially and be gainfully employed, according to adaa.org.
Although they may avoid some situations because they have the disorder – some people can have difficulty carrying out the simplest daily activities when their anxiety is severe.
The more they talked about the project, the more Sandel understood the importance of Perry’s film.
“Just seeing how he’s been able to work his way through it, and me being able to help him with that, and see how many other people it’s helped, it’s just incredible,” Sandel said.
He also suffers from anxiety, and for him, the underwater scenes were the best example of how he feels at those moments.
“I just feel stuck and can’t breathe,” Sandel said.
Sharing some understanding
Perry’s hope for anyone who sees the video is they come away with a better understanding of what an anxiety attack can feel like and what it is.
“I hope it’s an encouragement to go get help and that it is there,” he said. “I wish I had made it a little different to show the person in the film did get help, but the overall message is that there is help.
“If you want to live a normal life with anxiety, you can. It’s not impossible.”
He credits his friends as the support group for helping him cope.
Geoff Crosson was Perry’s senior seminar teacher and knew he suffered from anxiety issues prior to the project and was impressed with the idea.
“I knew that’s why he wanted to take on the topic because it was close to his heart,” Crosson said. “He wanted it to be a metaphor for people who suffer from anxiety, and I thought that was the coolest take on a video, an advocacy video.”
This kind of outreach has become a trend with the senior projects at Discovery High.
“It seems like students don’t just want to demonstrate what they’ve learned, they want to help somebody else,” Crosson said.
Perry’s film can be viewed on Youtube (https://youtu.be/fuB-TzXL05g), and it has more than 1,700 views.
It has won the grand jury award at the Southeast Psych Student Film Festival in Charlotte and was shown at the State Cinema in Newton before the showing of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” during its opening weekend.
Perry recently learned it's an official selection of the American Youth Film Festival in Atlanta this June.
Both Perry (University of North Carolina School of Arts) and Sandel (Western Carolina University) intend on studying film production in college.