The College Survival Guide: Combatting Anxiety

Confession time: college was not the best four years of my life. In fact, it was four of the most challenging, most mentally draining, and most stressful years of my life.

And I’m far from the only one to have felt this way.

Now, let me just state the obvious and say that everyone’s experience is different; some people do have a great time in college, and if that’s you, then I am truly happy for you.

College is far from the worst thing a person can experience, but it does present its own unique set of challenges. Studies have shown that 41.6% of college students experience anxiety and 36.4% experience depression. A more recent study showed that 1 out of every 3 college freshmen worldwide have a diagnosable mental health disorder.

There are more factors in this equation than just college (such as social media and technology), but I think most can attest to the fact that college didn’t exactly help. For my own experience, I’d never truly experienced intense anxiety until college. I knew peers who already dealt with it, and only had it get worse. I knew peers who dropped out because of it.

So this one goes out to all those college students stressing the heck out right now. Take a break. Have a cookie. Watch some Netflix. And read this post! (*audience boos*)

the romanticization of mental illness

There is tendency in campus culture to romanticize mental unhealthiness; regardless of whether or not you have a diagnosable disorder, or think you do, the inclination is to label yourself: “I have anxiety.” “I have depression.” Because if you’re in college and you don’t deal with mental illness to some degree, you must be doing something wrong.

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Furthermore, once you start dealing with it, it becomes apart of you. Because it’s so acute and intense, it must be beyond your control, not an amalgamation of your genetics (yes, that is a factor), your environment, and–the one people don’t like to mention–your decisions and mental habit patterns. At some point, anxiety or depression isn’t just an explanation. It becomes an excuse. And a pretty darn convenient one at that, because our society is so afraid of offending people that God forbid anyone call you out on it.

Of course people shouldn’t be shamed for dealing with mental illness. And yes, there is a degree to which you are dealing with the chemicals and neural pathways of the brain. But the brain is an organ–and just like your other organs, there are things you choose to do that impact its health. Because the brain is a complex machine, mysterious and often unpredictable, people tend to axe the idea of one’s choices having any affect on its health. But wait… the brain is where you make your decisions. If anything, shouldn’t it have more of an impact?

“suck it up, buttercup”

I’ve found that people tend to fight the argument that your choices and your mental habit patterns impact your mental health for several reasons. The first is that they say that’s shaming people with mental illnesses, that you’re essentially telling them to “suck it up, buttercup” when it really is beyond their control.

Granted, in most cases, telling people to “just get over it” is about as effective as a laminated paper towel, encouraging people that they can take control of their minds should be effective. The issue, a lot of times, is in the execution.

If you teach people they have no control, you’re subjecting them to the whim of circumstance, medication, and stigma. Think about people with physical disorders. People with cancer, even. There’s a certain degree to which they can’t control what’s going on with them. But the people who survive or overcome their limitations are the ones who believe that they did have some control. Most of it was mental. The will to live is mental.

The second reason that people fight the control argument is because it’s hard. It’s hard to overcome anxiety or depression, what-have-you. It’s hard to change your mental habit patterns. And how do you do it, anyway? If “suck it up, buttercup” doesn’t work, then what does?

You know what else is hard? Weight loss. And you know how you do it? The same way you improve your mental health: one little change at a time. You don’t just say, “Okay, I’m going to stop eating junk food now,” and expect that to work. In the same way, you don’t just say, “Okay, I’m going to stop being worried now” and expect that to work. Instead, you work little by little, replacing bad habits with good ones: where you once picked up chips, you pick up carrot sticks. Where you once watched TV, you go for a walk. Where you once picked up your phone to escape your stress, you listen to some relaxing music and write down your thoughts. Where you once freaked out over a difficult assignment, you think about how capable you are of doing this, how all you can do is your best, and–most of all–how it’s not the end of the world.

it’s not the end of the world?

I don’t know how to say this any better, even though at this point saying it is a cliché. After all, one very common aspect of something like generalized anxiety disorder is that the individual worries excessively over scenarios that may be wholly improbable. So saying “it’s not the end of the world” is about as effective as “suck it up, buttercup,” right?

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But that’s just it, isn’t it? It’s not the end of the world. It really, actually isn’t. And though I don’t know what it’s like to have GAD, I do know what it’s like for anxiety to blow something out of proportion. Yes, yes, everyone seems to get triggered when a well-meaning person says, “I know how you feel,” but I don’t pretend to know how anyone feels. All I know how feel, so maybe this story will sound familiar. Maybe it won’t. I’mma tell it anyway.

story time

The worst anxiety I experienced during college was in my junior year, when I was finishing up the requirements for my music minor. I play viola, and though I’ve always enjoyed playing in an orchestra, I was never much of a soloist. However, in order to complete the music minor, you have to perform a solo recital on your principal instrument.

It had been months of stressful work, as I am not a natural-born musician and the standards of the program were pretty high. The closer I got to my recital date, the worse I felt. Nearly every time I practiced, I would end up crying and hyperventilating, immobilized by the fear of failure. My “mock recital” (assessed by the music staff) was even worse; I did so bad, they cut one of my pieces down to only a third of what I’d been working on. It was humiliating.

Achieving the music minor was not the issue; I’d already met all the other requirements and gotten decent enough grades in my classes that I could’ve totally bombed the recital and still received the minor. The issue was entirely my own perfectionism and the high expectations of the program. Most of the people I was around, especially my instructor, were even more neurotic and anxious than I was. It affected me, and I allowed myself to over-inflate the recital’s importance to disproportionate levels.

There was no big “aha” moment, no rousing speech from a colleague or family member (though my family was incredibly supportive) that rallied my courage. It was simply the gradual realization that even if I totally sucked, in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t fucking matter. Yes, I wanted to do my best and for there to be a payoff for all the hard work, but losing my peace over it? That wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I’d signed up to be a better violist.

I realized that I’d been weighing too much of my self-worth on this little thing, which is, I think, a big anxiety-feeder: when you bet so much of your self-confidence on this one thing that seems so important, and maybe is important, that you feel like your very essence depends on it. Listen, a little stress is good for the soul: the kind that kicks you in the seat of your pants and makes you care, that makes you work hard. But there’s a fine line between that and blowing something out of proportion.

When it comes to college, and most things in life, there is nothing worth losing your peace of mind over for longer than necessary.

I’mma say that one more time for the people in the back: there is nothing in life worth losing your peace of mind over for longer than necessary. Because you’re going to lose it sometimes–that’s just life. But if you can’t get it back, consistently, then it’s time to ask yourself a) what’s going on around you that’s causing it, b) what you can’t change, and c) what you can.

So, back to my example real quick. Quitting was an option. I thought about it. A lot. But I decided that I’d rather work through it instead. There’s a time to throw in the towel, and there’s a time to persevere. This wasn’t that terrible a situation, and once I realized that, I knew I had to finish what I started. So I couldn’t control the fact that I was going to have to perform in front of people, and I couldn’t really even control the fact that my arms and legs were going to be shaking, that my heart was going to be in top gear, and that I was going to be nervous–but I could control how prepared I was, my attitude towards the performance, and the way I handled any mistakes. Was my performance stellar? Far from it. Did I shake like a leaf? Absolutely. But I walked off the stage feeling good for one reason, and one reason only: I had done my best to control what I knew I could control.

a semi-polite plea to not rip me a new one

I spent four years placating people and doing what I called “backpedaling” (adding phrases like, “I don’t know,” “I guess,” “Maybe it’s just me,” or “In my opinion” to the ends of statements I thought might offend people). Though it’s never my intention to offend anyone, the blogging community has taught me that if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one. So take it or leave it, but please, if you disagree with anything I said, I welcome intellectual discussion as long as it’s civil. If you have your own perspective on anxiety and mental health in college, please, I’d love to hear it. But I beseech ye, don’t rip me a new one. I will block the comment.

In the meantime, check out my other college-themed posts!

3 responses to “The College Survival Guide: Combatting Anxiety”

  1. Doesn’t it sometimes seem like people try to one-up each other with their mental disorders? Lol. SO bizarre.

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed that before! Definitely bizarre. And counterproductive.

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