a sad student holding books sitting on a staircase

I am a full-time college student. I also have an anxiety disorder, and have had one for as long as I can remember. This certainly isn’t an uncommon occurrence; a large portion of college students experience mental health issues.

Many people who struggle with mental health issues have done so for a significant portion of their life before college. On the other hand, the young adult years are a common time for mental health issues to first present themselves. Whether these issues are old or new, college is a unique environment. For me, a major part of adjusting to college was learning how to deal with my anxiety issues in this environment, knowing that it would look different from when I was in high school or at home.

As of now, I have completed three semesters of college. There have definitely been many difficult anxiety-related moments. I have had episodes of severe anxiety, complete with symptoms like dizziness and abdominal pain, during four-hour labs  I couldn’t escape. I also knew in these moments if I didn’t accurately complete the lab, it could turn into a much bigger ordeal, which only added to the anxiety. On multiple occasions, I have had panic attacks that demolished my energy just hours before a major deadline. As a result, I have turned in a fair number of late and lower quality assignments over my three semesters. These types of incidents have often made me question my worth and potential for the future.

However, over these three semesters, I’ve worked out some ways to better manage my anxiety in the college setting. I won’t pretend there are no longer rough moments, but compared to a year ago, my anxiety issues don’t feel like they’re as much of a barrier to reaching my goals.

I hope I will only continue to find other strategies that work for me in this environment, and I know the strategies I use may need to change over time depending on other factors. I also hope with work and continued treatment, my symptoms themselves will decrease.

I don’t expect the same strategies will work for all college students struggling with mental health issues. Every school is different, mental health conditions vary in symptoms and severity, and everyone has different life circumstances. In many situations, people decide the best choice for them is to take time off from school entirely, and that’s perfectly OK. However, I’d like to share some things that have helped me navigate college with an anxiety disorder so far, in the hopes that it will be helpful to someone else.

1. Contacting my school’s accessibility office.

Though I was already registered with my school’s accessibility office for another reason, I decided to also talk to the staff about my anxiety issues. Somewhat to my surprise, I was offered certain accommodations, both academic and otherwise. The office gave me a letter explaining my accommodations to give to my professors, and I was given the option to include or exclude my diagnoses from this letter. I will say having a note from my doctor and other documentation was critical for this process. If you want to register with your school’s accessibility office, I’d recommend trying to obtain documentation as soon as possible. In addition to being necessary to receive certain accommodations, working with the accessibility office has helped me to communicate better with my professors about my needs without providing too many uncomfortable details.

2. Working when I can.

In many cases, mental health issues can be unpredictable. I don’t fully understand all the factors that trigger my anxiety (though this is something I am working on). I’ve realized that even when I set aside adequate time to complete an assignment, unexpected bouts of anxiety often interfere. Recently I’ve been trying to get extra work done during times that I’m feeling good, even on assignments that aren’t due in the near future. In order to do this, I’ve asked my professors for assignments and readings ahead of time (here’s a big example of where that accommodations letter comes in handy), which most professors have been happy to provide.

3. Talking to an older student who’s been there.

During my second semester, I decided to ask an older friend if she had any friends who might be willing to talk to me about their experiences dealing with mental health issues in college, since I know they are so common. I immediately worried that this was a silly question, but the end result was that I was able to talk to someone with much more experience handling mental health difficulties at my school. I was able to get a lot of invaluable tips specific to my school, and it helped me to feel less alone.

4. Exercising.

OK, so maybe this one isn’t quite so specific to the college environment, or specific to mental health. However, for me, being in college has made different types of exercise way more accessible, which has been important for my overall well-being. I have access to a variety of facilities and some free classes, which is helping me to find new forms of exercise that make me feel good physically and mentally. I know there are times when mental health issues drain your energy and exercise seems impossible. I’ve definitely had those days myself. But if you’re feeling up to it, I’d recommend taking a look at what types of different exercise options are available to you.

5. Identifying physical places I can go to feel more comfortable.

I know when I’m anxious, being in a room with too many people or too much noise can greatly exacerbate it. That said, sometimes a bit of background noise and being around others can actually help relieve some of my anxiety. It really depends on the circumstances. During my first semester, I spent some time looking for places where I could be alone and have some quiet time, when necessary. I’ve also discovered certain public places where I can feel a little more comfortable when I’m having bad anxiety.

6. Adjusting my ideas of success.

Out of all the items on this list, this one has been the most difficult for me. It will always be a work in progress. I can sometimes be overly self-critical, and it can be really easy to fixate on GPA. I’ve learned a lot in my classes so far, and that’s a big success. I’ve also learned about what environments I work best in, and which ones aren’t as great for me. That’s also an important success, and is invaluable for the future. Some days, even getting through the day is a huge accomplishment. It’s easy to forget that success is contextual and relative.

Just remember that if you are a college student living with a mental health condition, you are not alone. Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, it’s not something that’s frequently discussed. Fortunately, this appears to be slowly changing. Mental illness is much more common than it’s made out to be. Chances are, there are many people around you who are struggling with something similar.

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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.

Adele:

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. 

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I’m afraid of the people I love in my life leaving me. I suppose you could call that “abandonment issues” or whatever popular catch phrase you would like to go with, but it’s the truth. Moreover, I’m afraid that the reason they will leave me is because of me. I’m too needy, weird, crazy or complicated to deal with, and because of all these factors they will pack their suitcases and run to the nearest airport. I am the reason they left, and there is something profoundly wrong with me.

One of the biggest lies anxiety tells us is that everything is about you or because of you. 

There is nothing wrong with me. I have a chronic anxiety disorder, and it tells me lies all the time. It’s an annoying nuisance, but it manages to convince me that everything is about me, I caused terrible things to happen to the people I adore in my life, and because I did such awful things, they have chosen to abandon me.

There’s another crucial element involved in this situation; I have a nagging, seemingly never-ending voice in my head that I am bothering people. Anxiety tells me that every time I reach out (whether it’s for help or simply to say hi to my friend) that I’m unwanted and unwelcome. The tricky thing about this, is that sometimes anxiety causes me to compulsively contact someone to make sure they’re still there, to ask if they got my invoice, to tell them I appreciate them or to check to make sure they don’t hate me. Some people find this behavior irritating at times, while others are graciously patient with me, and understand when I’m anxious I might reach out multiple times.

I’m not proud of my compulsive contacting, but it happens from time to time and I’m working on it in therapy. However, it makes me believe that (in the end) people will look at me as too quirky, weird and unhinged to be friends with or love. That’s a big one — I do not want to feel like I am too crazy to be loved. I know that isn’t true, but anxiety causes me to believe this about myself sometimes. Anxiety says, you’re too crazy for anyone to stick around, and you’ll never find love.

I’m working on my abandonment issues, and I am also working on not saying “sorry to bother you.” I’m not a bother, a nuisance or a burden; I’m a human being who deserves to be understood, loved and valued. I won’t let anxiety tell me anything otherwise, no matter how hard it tries.

This piece originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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I tend to view my anxiety negatively, because I often feel inhibited by it. I grow discouraged when I reflect upon experiences I might have missed related to my schooling, job search, and friendships as a result of my over-analysis and fear. In those anxiety-ridden moments, I question my self-worth. I ask myself if I am enough, if the efforts I make are satisfactory enough. The word “enough” echoes in my mind every day, causing me to contemplate what more I can do to feel adequate. I since have discovered the answer. I cannot hold myself to unattainable standards and expect to feel fulfilled, because I will consequently always be striving for something just beyond my grasp. I realize it will take time to minimize the strength of my perfectionist tendencies, yet in the process, I will come to know my best is enough and I am enough.

It can be very difficult to find the positive in anxiety when it seems like only a negative weight I carry. Yet, in accepting my anxiety, I have come to see it differently. I used to think my need to be early and have everything just so was burdensome. These are some examples of questions that would fill my mind: In the effort of reducing my worry about being late, am I inconveniencing the person I’m meeting by arriving in advance? Do the expectations I aspire to uphold cause me to unintentionally strain myself or put a strain on others? In time, I have recognized being punctual and striving to do my best are positive attributes. In this light, I am able to see my anxiety encourages me to be a good planner. My family and friends value this organizational trait of mine and I have started to identify its importance, too.

Worry does accompany each step of mine, but worry indicates I care a lot. All of the commitments I make in my life are meaningful to me, especially the relationships I share with my family and friends. Because I care, I worry. I know negative terms exist to describe the feeling of anxiety, such as “worrywart” or being “uptight.” These labels are hurtful and we must not define ourselves in this way. An anxious mind is a beautiful mind, too. As a person with anxiety, I understand it is a battle we fight every day. An invisible battle, yet so real and intense. Just because our struggles are invisible, it does not mean we are. Even when you may not feel like this, always remember you are fighting valiantly and you are never alone.

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My heart was pounding like it was coming out of my chest… I could almost hear the thumps echoing through my ear. I finally arrived at the Disability Resource Center at my college to take my math exam.

The DRC specialist asked me how I was doing; I smiled and told her I was doing great. I knew I was telling her a lie because I myself would not believe that for a second. As soon as I sat down on the desk and stared at my exam I started to shake. It would have not been to noticeable to others, but I felt it.

I felt it on my hands, my whole upper body, my legs, my lips, my nostrils, and even my teeth. I tried to control my shaking, but I could not. I began to space out, and I could not remember how to do the problems. My mind froze, and all I could do was stare blankly at my exam. All the numbers and wording seemed overwhelming to me. I thought maybe if I just sat there, it would all come to me but nothing did. I flipped through the pages, silently begged myself to remember and do something for partial credit. I did what I could, and finally I let out the F-word, perhaps because of the frustrations I felt or because I was angry at myself. My eyes filled with tears, and I just decided to get up before I started to completely lose it, and I gave my plain test to the specialist and left.

As soon as I arrived home I went to the bedroom, laid in bed and after crying and discussing what had happened with my significant other, I decided to let it go and see what happened. Another failed exam, another failed math course. I will try again next semester. I am hoping for a better outcome this time around. Anything is possible.

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When you are unable to look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the darkness.

Alone, afraid, empty, exhausted.

That is how the constant struggle of bipolar disorder and unrelenting anxiety can feel to me. And, as if these feelings are not enough, they also combine to create another feeling, one which makes them all so much worse. The feeling of being a burden. The feeling that those people around you who you thought and hoped were your friends actually wish you would disappear. The feeling that you are worthless and you do not deserve their support, love or care.

As much as I yearn to just drop a friend a text or give them a call and say, “Hey, really struggling right now and need a chat and a hug, are you free?”

There is always something that prevents me doing that. Well several somethings…

Fear.

Worthlessness

Self-hatred.

The fear is what hits first. The fear of being judge or criticized. But this quickly passes as I remember true friends would not behave this way. But then it returns: are my friends true friends? Do they actually see me as a friend? Or am I just some “crazy woman” who is only ever stressed and depressed? This fear builds again, but this time it is the fear of rejection. And this fear is much, much worse. At least if I don’t know what they think, how they really feel, it can’t hurt me. I can continue to pretend. But as soon as I ask them directly for help and support, they could refuse or make excuses and then I might see things how they really are, how I am really am. Alone, unloved and worthless.

So what do I do instead? I try to reach out in other ways: text messages about more general things, questions about their day, suggestions to catch up as we have not done so for a while. Sometimes excuses are made about why they cannot catch up or the conversation is quickly killed as they are busy or uninterested. Sometimes they will ask how my day was or what I have been up to. Often this feels like my only chance to reach out, so I panic, fear takes over. I blurt. I blurt without thinking, say things I don’t intend to, muddle it all up. Avoid the real issue.

Cue more feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred.

I begin to feel as if I am saying too much, I begin to feel that they are starting to resent me, to wish they had never met me, that I am more trouble than I am worth. And still I do not feel any better. I have still not reached out. Not in the way I needed. I needed a chat, to have someone to listen and not judge, to cry and have someone hug me and tell me my feelings are valid and it will get better. Instead I am left feeling like a burden, like I am weak.

This is not what I want. I want real friendship. I want to be there for my friends and have friends who are there for me.

And despite this feeling hard and impossible, I cannot give up. I cannot give up because if I do I truly will be alone. And you cannot give up either because friendship is important and worth the fight.

Keep reaching out until you find someone who will say…

“When you are unable to look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the darkness.”

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