What I say: I’ve always had anxiety issues.
What I mean: I’ve lived my entire adolescent & adult life with low-key dread permeating my mind at every moment. I constantly feel like something is wrong or I’ve done something wrong, even when, in reality, everything is fine and I’m having a perfectly good day. On my worst days, it manifests in the form of physical symptoms, like headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, and shortness of breath. On good days, I still carry my anxiety in the space just above my belly but below my ribs, a hard, ever-present knot of tension and unease.
My experience probably sounds familiar to a lot of you. Anxiety gets called an epidemic for a reason: it can vary from person to person, but the one constant is that it’s widespread.
Before I made the decision to come to grad school, I knew I had to take my mental health into account. School is one of the biggest sources of stress. Grad school, which emphasizes self-directed learning, can be even trickier for someone whose anxiety means they have trouble motivating themselves. Could I handle it?
But I’ve never let my anxiety stop me from doing what I wanted to do.
(Unless what I want to do is make a phone call. Anxiety can have that victory.)
I have what I think of as “up” days and “down” days. On up days, my anxiety takes little to no management. Things are going smoothly and I’m okay; if I’m lucky, I even feel energetic. On down days, I’m still functional, but anxiety puts me in a dreary, self-deprecating, lonely mood. Down days mean +20 Impostor Syndrome points, +30 “every decision I’ve ever made has been a mistake” points, and -50 chill points.
I know it’s all in my head. Doesn’t make any difference.
The worst thing about anxiety is the illusion of isolation: feeling like I have no one, that I’m unable to make meaningful or lasting connections because there is something essentially, irreparably wrong with me.
The most exhausting thing about it? Having my mood swing between highs and lows multiple times within the same week. Multiple times within the same day.
The scariest thing about it? Late-night anxiety attacks involving intense shortness of breath, panic, and crying.
World Mental Health Day was this week, and a lot of brave people have publicly posted their stories. They’ve talked about their personal experiences and shared their strength with others. I wanted to do the same, so here I am, giving it my best shot. But I do so with hesitation. Even as I write this, I think about how I’ll have to delete this post before I give my blog’s URL to a potential employer. I wouldn’t want them to think anything I’ve written here makes me unsuitable for a job. And what does that say about society’s attitude toward mental health? Many people are afraid to talk about it because it could mean real-life repercussions. That needs to change. I can only hope that as more people openly discuss their experiences, the stigma starts to recede.
I don’t want this post to be a downer, so I’ll end it with three of the most important things I’ve learned about coping with my anxiety.
1. Self-care often means pushing yourself to do things you don’t want to do in the moment, knowing you’ll be better off in the future.
Organizing my time with near-obsessive dedication, writing down and checking off every commitment & responsibility, forcing myself not to procrastinate — that’s how I’m managing grad school. Sometimes it’s unbelievably difficult, especially when I’ve had a bad day, and all I want to do is eat an entire box of Cheez-Its and take a nap. But I always end up grateful for that discipline in the long run. It’s okay (and essential!) to take days off when you need to, but there’s a balance between immediate self-care and taking care of your future self, too.
2. High functioning isn’t the same as faking it.
Many people fall into the trap of thinking their problems aren’t “that bad,” and they should just “get over it.” If you’re even thinking of going to a counselor or asking for medication, then it’s likely because you do need the help. Maybe you can function without it, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t benefit from it, or from at least talking to friends about what you’re going through.
Even if you don’t want to go that route, try to remind yourself that your feelings are valid. Your problems are no less important and your victories no less meaningful than anyone else’s. When I stopped berating myself and accepted that I have anxiety — that I don’t just feel anxious, I have anxiety — it made a huge difference to my frame of mind.
3. Being active actually does help.
(A more honest title would be: “Distracting and exhausting myself helps.” But that doesn’t sound very perky.)
This gets said all the time, and you probably get the point by now, but it never stops surprising me how different I feel when I’m living actively compared to when I’m not. This is partially a physical health thing, but there’s more to “being active” than just balancing your diet and getting exercise. It’s about:
- Hygiene — showering and brushing your teeth even when you don’t feel like it, maintaining a workspace that’s as uncluttered as you can manage, keeping up with moisturizing and skin care routines.
- Drinking plenty of water, making it a habit.
- Keeping your mind stimulated with activities, challenges & creative outlets.
- Penciling in some real time in your real schedule for doing things you love.
As a grad student, I have long days, tons of pressure to secure a good job when I graduate in a year, and obligations to student societies as well as my classes. I can’t even think about my student loans without an ensuing wave of nausea. I don’t have a squad to help me bear these burdens, either. I chose to go abroad for my degree and haven’t made any close friends yet; my old friends and I have drifted apart. Those things do weigh down on me.
But staying consistently busy and active has made me feel more energetic and clear-headed than I have in months. Granted, I’m overdue for another “I’ve fucked up my entire life and am doomed to fail” breakdown, likely to happen the next time I mess something up. In no way has taking showers and joining the student newspaper solved all my problems. I feel better equipped to bounce back from the down days, though.
Everyone has different ways of coping with anxiety; I’m just sharing my personal experiences, wanting to add my voice to a very important conversation. None of my coping methods are meant to replace therapy or medication, and they won’t work for everyone. Someone else might look at what I’ve written, roll their eyes, and think, “Yeah, I wish it were that easy.”
The thing I want to communicate above all is that, even if you’re not managing as well as others seem to be, managing at all is a victory. You don’t need to be perfect, and you don’t need to be as functional, accomplished, or polished as anybody else (who might only be those things on the outside, anyway). Focus on being okay, whatever okay is for you.
Fellow students, for what it’s worth: you can always come talk to me.