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What My Typical Day Looks Like as a College Student With Anxiety

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9 a.m.

My first alarm goes off. I have probably lay awake well into the early morning hours the night before and waking up is difficult. I now have two hours to shower, get ready and make it to my first class of the day. I roll over in bed.

9:15 a.m. 

My second alarm goes off. I roll over again.

9:30 a.m.

My third alarm goes off and on a good day, I will sit up in bed for a few minutes, attempting to work up the courage to get up and out.

9:45 a.m.

My fourth alarm goes off. On a good day, I’ll already have made it out of bed. On a bad day, I’ll finally drag myself to my feet. Thoughts of homework assignments I haven’t completed yet and my ever-growing list of to-do items swirl around again and again in my head and I try to push these thoughts away. I’ll start playing YouTube videos on my laptop just for the sake of background noise, since I’ve found too much silence in the morning will usually set off particularly strong anxious thoughts and feelings that will stay with me for the rest of the day. Every day is a learning process.

9:55 a.m.

I finally make it to the shower and end up rushing to finish my morning routine in order to leave on time for class.

10:45 a.m.

On a good day, I’ll leave for campus and make it there by the time class starts. On a less than good day, I’ll be 10 to 15 minutes late to class after finding different things throughout the morning to worry about and attempt to fix. On a bad day, after I’ve gotten ready and am about to leave the house, I’ll sit on the end of the bed with my head in my hands and my heart in my throat and think, Maybe I can make it to my noon class…

1 p.m.

After reaching my first break in the day between classes, I’ll generally find something to eat. On a good day, I’ll order something in the food court without a problem. On a bad day, I’ll stumble over my words a little at the front of the line and think about it for the rest of the day.

3 p.m.

During my last class of the day, I’ll try to pay attention while also hoping my professor doesn’t directly ask me a question or ask us to get into groups for an assignment. It’s not that I don’t know the answer or don’t think I’ll find a group. It’s the constant worry I’m going to slip up and people are going to notice. And that’s the last thing I want. On a particularly bad day, I’ll sit in class as feelings of unexplained dread build up in my chest, before I’ll eventually have to excuse myself from the classroom. I’ll wander the building, looking for an empty bathroom, before locking myself in a stall in order to calm myself back down before I can attempt to return to class.

4 p.m.

My last class ends and I go to leave campus. On a good day, I’ll go home and talk about something funny a professor or classmate did and I’ll make some dinner and watch Netflix. Most days, I’ll sit in my car a few extra minutes before leaving campus, feeling like I’m in a safe place for the first time since leaving the house. I’ll obsess over every little social interaction I had during that day, go over what I did wrong and how stupid, stupid, stupid I am for existing this way. I’ll try not to cry, try not to start hyperventilating and usually fail. I’ll hate myself for crying for no reason.

4:15 p.m.

I arrive home. If someone else is home, I’ll have pulled it together by now, because there’s nothing anyone can do to fix this and I don’t want anyone to worry. I don’t want my irrational thoughts to be a burden to others. If I’m home alone, I’ll crumple into a ball on the bed, exhausted from simply existing.

And tomorrow I’ll do it again. And again. Reveling in the good days. Trying to learn from the bad days. Because for now, that’s all I can do.

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Thinkstock photo via Connel_Design.

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When Anxiety Is Like Driving in a Sudden Thunderstorm

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Picture this. You are driving your car, it’s a beautiful sunny day, the birds are singing, your windows are down and the warm breeze is blowing your hair. You feel happy, content. You know where you are going and what your purpose is.

Suddenly, a storm comes out of seemingly nowhere. The peaceful warmth of the morning is suddenly replaced by strong winds, thunder and lightning and pelting rain. You can’t see. Your vision is obscured by the water cascading over the windscreen of your vehicle. You can’t hear, the sound of the drops pounding against the thin metal of your roof is deafening. It is suddenly cold; you are shivering.

You pull over to the side of the road, heart pounding, fear racing through your veins. You wonder how you are going to get through this — up ahead you can see the water is creeping across the road, and behind you the lightning has struck a tree, blocking the road in that direction. The sky that was blue only a few minutes before has gone dark. Everything seems hopeless; you are trapped.

What will you do? Will you stay where you are, hoping that help arrives? Will you try to drive through the rising floodwaters in front of you and pray to get through safely? You ask yourself out aloud, “Why is this happening?” After all, 10 minutes ago everything was perfect.

This is what life with anxiety can be like. You can be traveling along fine, you know where you are going and what you want to do. You are feeling positive and you are sure things will work out. Then bang, the storm can hit out of seemingly nowhere. Suddenly the world is going dark, and everything feels frightening, your heart races and your thoughts are zipping along a million miles an hour. Things seem to swirl around you, much like they do in the midst of a raging hurricane. It can be overwhelming, hard to stand, terrifying in its ferocity.

But remember that just like a thunderstorm, this panic will pass. Find higher ground and bunk down, be gentle and kind to yourself. Take a slow breath, wait and watch the world pass by for a little while. Wait and it will be OK, the storm can only rage for so long before it runs its course, and afterwards when the sun comes out, you will be thankful that you managed to make it through.

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Thinkstock photo via mdesigner125

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The Emoji I Use to Describe My Anxiety

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When I was an undergraduate psychology major, we often asked what certain mental illnesses “looked” like. Some had fairly visible symptoms, but one illness always seemed to stump myself and my companions, and that was anxiety. It is hard to place a particular visual element to an illness that is so different for so many different people. While I had not had debilitating anxiety during college, I did experience a particularly scary health event that allowed me to experience what millions of people experience around the world every minute of every day of their lives.

For me, anxiety was more than just feeling overwhelmed. It included the process of becoming overwhelmed. I had specific triggers and pain points. When they got particularly bad, I could often find myself gasping for air and sobbing quite uncontrollably. But still, my anxiety was hard to describe. I imagine it could look like an amalgamate of Emoji symbols, each one harnessing and detailing a small part of what I was experiencing.

The sad face with the tear above his eyebrow. That one clicked first for me. It was able to visually represent my physical symptoms. The tears and the strife I felt were reminiscent of that.

face with cold sweat

The face that has a zipper for a mouth. That one represents how closed off I felt. I was not able to describe to others how I felt at times, especially when I started to spiral. I was in a place where I felt as if no one understood the pain, both physical and emotional, I felt on an everyday basis.

zipper mouth face

The emoji of a man in disguise. This is my ultimate favorite. Anxiety, for me, acted like a big old trench coat. It wrapped me up, made me a different person, with different feelings, different likes and dislikes, and a different demeanor.

sleuth or spy emoji

While I know it is not typical to use emojis to describe how I felt, it was difficult to pin one particular image on anxiety as a whole. For something so multifaceted, it was if I was not doing it justice. There are so many different experiences one can have when struggling with anxiety. Everyone’s choice of emojis to represent anxiety can be different. We do not all fit into the same mold with the same symptoms and the same effect.

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A woman with colorful paint on her face

Anxiety Is...

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Anxiety is…

Sneaking in to whisper “I love you” into each child’s ear for the 50th time, just in case it’s the last.

Endless thoughts of what will happen next, and when, and why and how…

It’s asking God for forgiveness 500 times for the same thing, because you want to be sure.

It’s having night terrors at 30 years old, and waking up gasping for air.

It’s seeing the worst case scenario in your day dreams, instead of a white, sandy beach.

It’s spending the end of the day seeing wasted moments and broken hours, that could have and should have been spent more wisely.

It’s praying over your babies as if you will never pray over them again.

It’s writing these words at 1:17 a.m., because if you don’t, you may never get to write them.

Anxiety is the endless comma in the world’s longest run-on sentence, because a period is too final, and you’ve got more to say.

And what if you don’t get to say it?

Anxiety is a thief. Of joy. And peace. And love.

Because I have to get this done.

And it has to be this way.

And I don’t have enough time.

And please forgive me.

Anxiety is not…

The answer. Or the ruler. Or the end.

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Thinkstock photo via fyb

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My Anxiety Feels Like a Plant Trying to Squeeze the Life From Me

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It starts as scattered seeds. Kernels anchored by anxiety and waiting for the right conditions to sprout. Some days they are fertilized by memories. Some days by fear. Most often they germinate themselves, arriving with a lunchbox of sunlight and water as they feed one another.

They don’t grow up and out, freeing themselves. Instead they grow in twisted, circuitous paths around my body. From a seed into an invasive vine.

Most of the time I have no idea why I feel anxious. No idea why my brain is trying to prep my body for flight. The more effort I put into getting to the roots of the creeping briar, the deeper they dig and the faster it grows.

The tendrils move behind my eyes and squeeze. They continue down into my lungs. Unlike most plants, this one eats oxygen and exhales adrenaline. I have to remind myself to breathe. Dizzy and tingling, exhaustion creeps into my fingers and fills my churning stomach.

I look for a problem to solve, only to discover my mind is rootbound and unsure. I try to tease it apart, to get to the “why.” Lightheaded, I pull harder. Eventually, I’m just hacking at it with desperate fists and hoping to figure out something, anything. And so it grows.

It spirals and twists, over and under, through my body. Forcing its way out via my skin and stealing all of my uneasy energy for itself. I wonder if it’s going to take me out with it as my skin vibrates and crawls, electric. Every nerve ending is fragile, every touch spreads cracks along the surface. My muscles twitch, a whole body version of restless legs. My daughter gives me a hug and it’s all I can do to not scream.

Finally, the vine slows and I pull the thorny infrastructure apart, once again able to think. I know this bramble will eventually starve itself. I know this, but I am equally convinced this will be the time it just keeps growing, unchecked. I know this plant is nothing but over-watered anxiety. I know this, but I am equally certain its roots are more sinister and deadly. I don’t even need WebMD to catalog the potential maladies.

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I swing back the other direction. Maybe I just drank too much caffeine. That would be preferable to anything else, but man would I feel stupid.

But what if…

What if my brain is just… broken?

I am shaky and weak when it finally dies back. There is still a lot of work to do to get rid of all the rotting vines and I’m too tired. Weary and hungover and achy from misplaced adrenaline. I step around the wilted and spent anxiety, worried it is only becoming mulch for next time.

I am forever looking for any signs of movement within those seeds, but somehow they always, always surprise me when they finally sprout. I wish I could tell them they aren’t even real, but how do you call out the nonexistence of something when it is actively hurting you? How do you detach yourself from something clinging like kudzu? How do you separate yourself from something that, in the moment, feels like it is you?

It feels impossible to look at something objectively while it is pulling you apart.

It sure does have interesting flowers and look at the color of those leaves!

Oh. That’s right. It also has thorns.

And isn’t that a cute swarm of killer bees…

Follow this journey on Rhiyaya.

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Dear Professor, Here's the Real Reason I Missed Your Class Again

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Dear College Professor,

There’s something I would like to let you know. I woke up this morning, got dressed and ate, but as you took role, I’m not in your class. It took everything in me to get out of bed this morning, and I planned on going to class. The moment I went to leave my house I felt paralyzed. The world around me started to spin, I felt my heart drop and I couldn’t catch my breath. I knew exactly what was going on, but yet I was still scared. As your taking role right now you probably called out, “Alizabeth Stachlinski,” then once it was silent you thought to yourself, “What a surprise.” As I’m sitting on the floor in my living room trying to get the strength to walk up the stairs, thoughts are going through my head.

“I’m going to fail.”

“I should give up now.”

“I’m missing something important.”

“Everyone thinks I’m a failure”

“People don’t think I care.”

“I can’t do this.”

“I need help.”

“Should I call someone?”

“Should I go to the doctors?”

“I’m fine, it’s anxiety.”

“I’m fine, I’ve felt this before.”

“I’m not OK.”

“I won’t be OK.”

“I need to take notes.”

“I need to read the PowerPoint.”

“I have to get upstairs.”

“I can’t miss another class.”

“Breathe.”

Most importantly, professor, I’m thinking of a lie to email you about. Anxiety doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. Should I be honest and tell you or should I lie? If I’m honest I’ll probably be looked at like a “freak.” Professor, you probably wouldn’t understand. You would most likely think it’s just an excuse I came up with. That I needed to get over it and push through it.

Well, professor, I emailed you and it went something like this: “Professor, it’s Alizabeth Stachlinski from your ____ class. I just wanted to let you know that I missed class again today because I’m still sick. Could you please let me know what I missed? Thanks in advance, Alizabeth Stachlinski.”

I then feel guilty because maybe I should have just told the truth but I feel society doesn’t treat anxiety or mental illnesses as valid excuses. They are a lot like physical illnesses, just harder to see. Anxiety isn’t just an excuse to get out of certain situations. It is a real health issue, that doesn’t get easier even when I know what it is.

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Professor, I missed your class today, but yet I’m sitting in my bed trying to calm my breathing down sitting with my notes open. I missed your class, but I’m sitting here doing the same work. I go over the PowerPoint and I take the same notes as if I was in class. I feel more comfortable here because I’m not being “judged.” I missed your class, but I’m already punishing myself enough for doing so. I hope you understand that I do care. I want to be successful, it’s just harder for me. I wish I could email you and tell you the truth, but I feel you wouldn’t understand.

Sincerely,

Alizabeth Stachlinski

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