As a continuation of my Mental Illness and Schooling interview series, I’d like to introduce N. Some things that we talked about include the following: anxiety, and health anxiety in particular; anxiety as an internal struggle; the difficulty of seeking help when you don’t quite think you need it, and more. Thank you, N, for taking part.
How did anxiety affect your life in either college or graduate school, both in a general sense and in a more specific sense?
For much of college I had a lot of health anxiety — I’d think I was sick when I wasn’t, or believe I was dying of a dire disease when I really had something minor, like a sore throat. The anxiety made certain totally ordinary acts very stressful — I lived in a co-op and I remember being really anxious about cooking, in part because I was terrified about getting (or giving someone) food poisoning. I also took less pleasure in life than I might have, I think — in spending time with friends, in my relationship at the time, in traveling. I had an internship in a new city one summer and I remember walking around just terrified, convinced I was dying.
In graduate school the anxiety was less pronounced, but still present. I worried a lot about the future and worried about being “bad” or being punished for the choices I made. I didn’t necessarily feel anxious every day but I think anxiety affected my general happiness a lot — in some ways it started to shade into depression.
How did you approach dealing with academia while also dealing with anxiety? What were some specific challenges that you faced, school-wise?
My anxiety actually affected my schoolwork very little. I’ve never been that anxious about that area of my life, and class could feel like kind of a haven. Doing work for school could also be a good distraction — like, “Okay, we can’t ruminate on brain tumors now, because we have to write this chapter.”
Anxiety has always been an internal struggle for me. It seems externally not to have much [of an] effect on my life — it didn’t keep me from doing well in school, or having an active social life, or dating. It affects how I feel while doing all those things, but that’s not something most people see.
Say you’re sitting in front of your 20-year-old (or whatever age you choose) self, sharing a cup of tea. What advice would you give her (about her anxiety)?
Great question! I would tell my 20-year-old self to get help sooner. Therapy helped me a lot, but it took me a
long time to get it — I think my mental narrative went something like — I’m not anxious, I’m dying! Once I was able to frame the feelings as anxiety and not a rational approach to my impending doom, they got easier to deal with. Also I would tell her that things would get better with time, that she would learn new strategies and get better at self-soothing as she got older.
What was the best thing you did for yourself, mental health-wise, in college/graduate school?
Getting therapy helped a lot — being in college or grad school often means having access to affordable therapy, so I’d definitely recommend it for students who are struggling. Swimming was also a huge help — I started right after college to deal with back pain (which was probably related to anxiety) and it has been one of the best things for my mental health ever since.
Thanks so much, N.
If you’d like to share your experiences with mental illness and schooling for this ongoing series, please feel free to email me with a little bit about yourself, what you’d be interested in talking about, and how you found me.