A graduate student explores the stories behind a disorder and its treatments
Sociology graduate student Jennifer Esala is in the midst of researching and writing her dissertation on anxiety disorders—on that and actually much more. Her working title is “Living with Fear: A Sociological Analysis of Anxiety Disorders.” She hopes her research will contribute to our understanding of how those with the disorder, and women especially, experience it in their lives from diagnosis to treatment choice to the challenges of everyday life.
Esala has the enthusiasm and determination that’s required of anyone who wants to craft an academic career of distinction. She transferred to UNH because she wanted to work with Linda Blum, then an assistant professor of sociology at UNH. Blum’s book, At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the United States, spoke to Esala's interests in sociological theories about women and their bodies.
“I coauthored an encyclopedia entry on Breastfeeding with Linda,” Esala says. “Even though she’s left UNH, she’s still on my dissertation committee. My committee includes faculty members from history, women’s studies, psychology, and of course, sociology. Michele Dillon, my committee chair, has been incredibly supportive.”
The author of several books, which focus on religion and culture, Dillon most recently published the highly regarded Introduction to Sociological Theory: Theorists, Concepts, and their Applicability to the Twenty-First Century.
“What I enjoy about working with Jennifer and other graduate students is the opportunity to read up on new trends,” Dillon says. “It’s exciting to see what kinds of questions they want to explore.”
Esala’s broader experience at UNH has also been engaging. She has taught social theory and statistics, won a departmental graduate student teaching award, and been awarded a dissertation fellowship through the Graduate School. At the UNH Carsey Institute, Esala has contributed to research ranging from youth interviews regarding staying or leaving Coos County, New Hampshire, to food insecurity and hunger among youth in rural New Hampshire. This past summer, Esala was the institute's Nordblom Fellow.
Esala is focusing on anxiety disorders for her dissertation because, as other sociologists have noted, these disorders lie at the intersection of a lifestyle-disease and a biomedical disorder.
“With panic attacks and anxiety, the body and mind are really intertwined,” Esala says. “More women than men are diagnosed with anxiety disorders. I want to look at the lived experiences of anxiety and discover how those with the disorder navigate their lives.”
Here are some surprising facts from Esala’s dissertation proposal:
- Over a third of the U.S. population reports using some form of alternative medicine, despite a widely acknowledged lack of medical consensus regarding the efficacy of such treatments.
- Approximately 20 percent of the population has suffered from some form of an anxiety disorder and that the majority will seek both mainstream and alternative care.
- Those with anxiety are more likely to use alternative medicine than conventional medicine.
The symptoms for anxiety disorders can be pretty tough, ranging from numbness in hands and feet, to heart palpitations, to vomiting and tremors. The treatments for it are therapy, medications, or alternative therapies such as meditation and yoga, which, though often suggested, are questionable—some studies say they work, others say they don’t.
So far, Esala has interviewed thirty-five individuals with diagnosed anxiety disorders. They are all volunteers who have either met Esala at a support group meeting where the group let her observe or saw one of her fliers. But, interviewing someone with an anxiety disorder requires careful attention.
“I make it very clear that this is not therapy,” Esala says. “But I’ve found that people appreciate being able to tell their story from beginning to end, even though at times the interviews are hard for them to get through. I don’t push for information, but if someone begins to shake or show signs of nervousness, I am sure to ask them if they need to take a break, and we wait until they are comfortable before continuing.”
For some, anxiety can be contagious.
“In most of the support groups, they ask that people not discuss symptoms,” Esala says. “For example, a discussion of heart palpitations could actually be contagious.”
This past year at the Society for the Study of Social Problems annual conference on the ethical dilemmas, Esala presented a paper about interviewing those with anxiety disorders entitled “When Talking Hurts.”
While she plans to do more interviewing, Esala has already transcribed the data she has and is immersed in analyzing it for specific themes and sub-themes and then identifying the various patterns underlying those themes.
In preparing to go out into the field to interview, Esala built a strong theoretical foundation around three sociological literatures—gender studies, medical sociology, and sociology of the body. In the field, her research decisions were guided by those theories. At the same time, her grounding in the field and the data she has gathered will allow her to revise, challenge, and go beyond some of those theoretical ideas.
As Dillon explains: “With sociological research, it’s always a back and forth conversation between theory and data. A good researcher exhausts all angles in analyzing the data, reaching a point of saturation. Then, she can begin to draw some conclusions.”
Of course, Esala is developing ideas about her data as she goes.
“So far, my findings do look differently than I thought they would,” Esala says. “Most people don’t think they can fix their disorder by meditating. But there’s not a wholesale rejection of mainstream medicine, rather it’s an augmentation of supportive therapeutic techniques. They try to find multiple ways of managing.”
‹‹ back to top