Culture & Society

You Are Not Your Anxiety

A meaningful insight into a student’s battle with anxiety while studying at university.

Low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence have been things that I have battled with internally for a long time. I have always had a tendency to doubt myself and what I was truly capable of, and it was only once I got to University and semi-stepped into the real world that I began to realise there’s only so long that you can try to ignore and run from your personal issues before they catch up with you.

For years I had tried to mask and deal with my anxiety in all of the wrong ways; self-destructive, non-productive ways. But there’s only so many painful anxiety attacks you can have before you say enough is enough. In my second year of University, it had gotten to the point where I had become trapped in what felt like a whirlwind of panic and self-loathing. I had let my anxiety get so out of control that even stepping out into public on my own was frightening. I began isolating myself and choosing only to spend time with the few people who I felt somewhat comfortable around.

Anxiety is consuming; it takes over your thoughts. I could not formulate sentences without thinking one hundred times over what was going to come out of my mouth and how it might sound for fear of sounding stupid, as this is what I believed I was. We believe the stories that we tell ourselves in our own mind. They say that you become what you believe, and I had told myself that I was anxiety, and that these feelings were far more powerful than I was.

Sometimes I was even unable to socialise or step outside without having anxiety attacks, a short walk to the shop became a difficult task. Eventually, I even stopped attending University. Some days I would walk to class and stand at the door trying to calm myself down and find the courage to step foot in the room, but instead I would end up thinking myself into a panic attack and walking straight back home and climbing back into my bed. I couldn’t face the outside world. I began to lose myself. My mind told me lies, that there was something wrong with me, that it was not only myself judging me, but the world.

After letting these horrible feelings control me for a long time, I eventually decided that it was me who had to take control and make change happen. So, I began educating myself and reading up on what anxiety actually is. I remember the first book on psychology and human development I purchased that really helped me and opened my eyes, ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Steve Peters. In the first chapter alone I learned about why we as humans experience the feeling of anxiety, and I began to realise that I was not alone in feeling this way.

I realised that things aren’t as scary when you try to understand them. I learned that everybody is capable of experiencing the emotion ‘anxiety’ and that it is a built in, instinctual response which all of us have, commonly known as the ‘fight or flight response’, a thing that is believe it or not, there to help us.

For example, if you think of the feeling you get when you perhaps aren’t looking when you cross the road and almost go to walk in front of a car, that shock feeling, the stab in your chest, the pounding in your heart, the sick feeling in your stomach, fast paced breathing. Panic. This is what anxiety feels like. It makes your head spin, it makes your vision blur, your hearing fuzzy. It alters all of your emotions and physical sensations. Let’s just say that the mind is a powerful tool and can control you if you let it. Well, I learned that this feeling is a natural, built-in response which is there to heighten our senses in potentially dangerous situations, even animals have it.

I learned that my mind was tricking my body into believing that I was constantly under threat, and the moment that I realised this, my panic attacks began to lessened in intensity. From then on, I couldn’t stop researching the topic, I became so keen on trying to educate myself and find ways to calm myself down and lessen the negative self-talk happening in my mind, for the first time, I wasn’t masking, or running from my anxiety, I was facing it head-on and dealing with it. I could function again instead of feeling hopeless, I started attending more of my University lectures and classes, which was a massive achievement and an absolute breakthrough. I was no longer letting this feeling paralyse me.

I started listening to a lot of motivational videos I found online, and something I kept hearing repeated was “life begins outside of your comfort zone” and to “push yourself”, this theory kept being repeated that even if something scares you, do it. Because 9 times out of 10 you’ll learn something new, and grow from the situation – the ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ approach. So, I thought of the scariest possible thing I could have done at the time…go and apply to work in a social situation, in a quirky, busy bar. I’d never had a job before, I didn’t know how to work a till, I certainly had no idea how to make cocktails and I had crippling anxiety to top it off. But somehow, I got the job. I was confused. Why would they want to employ me? What do I have to offer? But, what’s the worst that can happen, right…?

Well actually, I would have anxiety attacks almost every day on the way to work. I would either have to get my housemate to walk me some of the way or be on the phone to him the whole time telling him to speak positive thoughts to me to get me in a better mind frame. This kind-of helped, but not enough, I would shake at work, couldn’t look people in the eye, I would stutter and forget things. I was letting my anxiety take control of me again.

It took me a good few months to feel more settled into my work place, but slowly I noticed my confidence growing, bit by bit I was progressing. I made connections with the people that worked there and the regular customers and actually ended up receiving an “employee of the month” type of reward. It might not seem like a big deal, but it was physical proof that my confidence was coming back that little bit more. Working in the bar helped me so much, I met some lovely people and it gave me a sense of purpose. I was earning money, and meeting new people on a regular basis. I couldn’t believe how far I’d come

My anxiety started to resurface again when I was introduced to having to do class presentations more at university. I remember doing a presentation and in the middle of the speech running out of the classroom and having a panic attack. It came to the final and most important presentation of my second year of uni, where I had to do the speech in front of half of my course. I was so petrified, but instead of letting the fear consume me, I stuck it out and saw it through.

Then in third year came another presentation, again I was scared but I educated myself some more. Listening to motivational speeches, learning breathing exercises, watching ‘Ted Talks’ on public speaking, confidence, body language and so on. I practised my speech a few times. And voila! I got a first!! Then it came to the last presentation I was ever going to have to give at University. Still scared, I believed in myself this time that I knew what I was talking about. Another first. 82 percent this time. I was ecstatic but it showed that even with anxiety, I can do great things. I felt amazing.

At the end of university, I received both a first for my dissertation and my overall degree. Today I had to stand up on stage to receive my award, I was scared, but I’m still here, I survived. I didn’t let anxiety stop me, and neither should you.

“Whatever we plant in our subconscious mind and nourish with repetition and emotion will one day become reality” – Earl Nightingale.