Academic Success vs. Anxiety: A Painful Mixture

In the United Kingdom, and in a few other countries, the coming weeks hold mock exams all up and down the country. January exam season is by no means the most stressful. Which really puts into perspective how stressful the actual exams later on are.

As someone with an anxiety disorder, this time is especially turbulent. Any form of education is.

I naturally have the desire to academically prosper and do well. But my anxiety brings about a secondary desire: to stay in bed and be alone with my inner turmoil.

This is a painful combination. I can even see my work from my bed. My revision, and/or essays are there waiting to be done. In most cases, they’re already started, maybe even nearly finished. But no matter how hard I might try, all I really want to do is sleep my life away.

To first explain to those who don’t feel this, I myself get overbearing panic from having to go into the supermarket or get on the train to go to and from college. So anything big, especially if it has consequences, good or bad, whether it be decision making (choosing a subject or degree?), doing an essay for said subject, doing a mock exam, or even actual exam, usually has a hurricane-like impact on me. On the outside, especially outside of home, I’m as cool as ice. On the inside, I’m burning up, and spiraling downwards.

I tell myself “You want to do well, you need to do well, and you will do well,” but behind that is also a much louder and more arrogant voice, saying the opposite: “You might as well give up, you cannot prevent flunking this, and you will flunk this” . 

I am not afraid to say I deal with this every single working day. The only time I’m satisfied or temporarily calm is when the work actually pays off. But unfortunately, due to the world we live in, after every accomplishment, small or big, there is another chapter in a book of work there is to do. It can easily feel like there is no room in the cut-and-thrust world we live in for the worriers, the self-diminishing, and the self-conscious.

I also find myself looking for validation. If I get a good grade, I still need someone to tell me it is a good grade. I cannot physically tell myself “you did well,” and quite frankly, if I did, I wouldn’t believe it. I have friends who understand this, and that can work because we can tell each other we did well; but the acquaintances around me who can live with just self-validation seem so distant from me at those times. I can imagine being proud of myself but not actually self-congratulatory. This is why I find it so easy to view myself as the abnormal one. Many people can get goodness from their work without the word of others. Less people can’t.

But that part is post-effort. Getting to that point where one feels worthy of appreciation and congratulations in the first place is the extremely hard part of academia. I thought maybe I only couldn’t work well under pressure, but even when the pressure is lifted, when there is no set-in-stone deadline, I find myself constantly thinking either “what if it isn’t good enough?” or “have I really tried my best?” Even when I know deep down I have indeed tried my best and worked as hard as possible, the latter still enters my thought orbit.

Sometimes I just feel like throwing caution to the wind, but I never truly can. Some people find relief in breaks; I just find I have prolonged periods of “I should be doing the work” or “I’m going to have to go back to being stressed straight after this.” Which is not in any way an easy way to function. 

I’m not under any illusions. I’m aware we are supposed to be somewhat stressed by work. But we’re still meant to be fully functional. I sometimes argue to myself that people influenced by pressure in the way I am should just take up a separate path. Choose to just do something low maintenance or easy. But where would the challenge be? And that’s where this combination becomes fatal. I enjoy the thrill of doing well. I just don’t enjoy the work and pressure that goes into it. Or the period in-between, (such as the time between an exam and result).  

I also want to be successful one day, be financially comfortable, and be in a position or career where I am enjoying it as well as feeling some pressure. And I do want to put the work in; I don’t want it done effortlessly. It’s just the climb to that point I believe possesses enough pressure and enough complex layers to crush me into fossil fuel. And when it does come to work with a deadline, I’m a perfectionist to the point of inflicting unneeded extra pressure. If I’ve finished an essay a long time before it is due, for example, I find myself going back to the word document again and again, knowing there is nothing more to add but wanting still to make it better, make it shine as a sign of “I can do this, and will do this.” 

But as I said earlier, once that essay is marked and done, I know full well there is more to be done, more work to do, more pressure to build, more downfalls to feel. And more times to feel academically not good enough.

It can feel incredibly unrewarding.

We have to individually fight against the idea we are stunted in our ascent to grace, fight against our inner hesitation, believe in yourself when nobody else will. And challenge whatever foe you are up against, whether it be your own thoughts, outside negativity, expectation, your mental illness or anxiety, or maybe all of these things.

Because you are capable of doing whatever you can vividly imagine yourself doing. 

If your brain can imagine it happening, you and your brain can make it a reality. 

The turmoil never goes away. Sometimes I look at my friends who know my troubles, my teachers, my parents, and I think every time, the same damn thing:

“Do they really believe the boy who cannot force himself out of bed and to the supermarket, can do well in life? Pass exams? Be mundane enough to fit in with the status quo? Can they actually be proud of a person who manages to occasionally do well in his subjects, but cannot function normally?”

And then I think:

“Do I believe in myself enough to put myself through this? Am I good enough for this to be worth it?” 

And every time, I just have to blink, breathe, and get on with it. Because I won’t know the answer for a while.

In the words of Airey Neave, There is now work to be done.”

And until that work is over, I’ll never truly know the stronger force. My anxiety? Or the drive-force to do well?

But of course, I hope the latter.

People with anxiety deserve to do well, no more than anyone else, but still nonetheless, we deserve to do well.

I find the effort we put into things when we finally do fight against the want to lay in bed or clear our heads and finally work as hard as possible most of the time pays off. We are rewarded for our determination.

Which brings me to this, let’s look at our Anxiety Heroes, those who still prospered, some do still today. It’s proof of anxiety not restricting creativity and academic success.

Emma Stone:

Emma Stone may be one of the most popular young American women in movies today, but she also dealt with numerous panic attacks to the point where she developed agoraphobia. While statistically, many people get panic attacks in their 20s, Emma Stone got her first panic attack further back in her youth. Just last September, she said she still deals with panic attacks once in a while but has found she’s developed healthy coping strategies to deal with them. Which have allowed her a continuation of success as the brassy and witty woman we often see on-screen.

Emily Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson was introduced to me as one of America’s most beloved literary figures and was a talented and famous poetess. I was only recently introduced to her work through a poetry anthology.

What I discovered through research, however, was that almost as well known as her poetry, is Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature. Through letters and historical records, experts and researchers have speculated that Emily Dickinson began to limit her interaction with other people to her family members after leaving Mount Holyoke Seminary. Although Emily Dickinson conversed with journalists, other writers, and editors during the time that she lived, she limited the majority of her interaction to writing, refusing to meet many of them in person. As she grew older, she began increasing lack of interaction with others. As a result, it has now been agreed that Dickinson may have had some type of an anxiety disorder, possibly agoraphobia or social anxiety disorder.


The most famous British singer in the world has openly experienced not only panic attacks but also social phobia and severe stage fright. Performing in front of crowds of thousands can give anyone stage fright, but there is a some speculation that her anxiety and stage-fright attacks may have been an issue long before fame and large crowds. Most lovable is her openness about this. While she is extremely talented, the want to hide away indoors and live a private and peaceful life is still there. Which is a relevant point: never let success or popularity get in the way of your comfort zone. And she does so with grace.

Lastly, I would like to ask personally for some response to this article, which may form the basis of a future one but also allows this article to end on an encouraging note: Have you done well regardless of mental illness or personal difficulties? Have you gone against the odds? If so, I’d like to hear your story below in the comments. 

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by shironosov


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