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The Two Words My Professor Said That Changed My Perspective on Anxiety in College

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Many college students belong in a world where the only suitable way to maintain a good GPA is to let mental, emotional and physical health fall to the back burner.

Freshman year, I was certainly a part of this world. My mental, emotional and physical health absolutely suffered freshman year of college, complete with daily anxiety attacks. It was during that year I realized it was time to go to therapy. Therapy changed my life (which I discussed in my previous post).

The semester after I started therapy was the beginning of my junior year and I thought I was finally capable of getting straight A’s while maintaining proper mental health, specifically keeping my anxiety at low levels. I felt like I had finally overcome the system and belief that I couldn’t have both sides of the same coin: health and grades.

But my confidence quickly dropped when junior year kicked in, giving me multiple exams each week for weeks on end and little time to breathe. However, I told myself I had this in the bag, because I always managed to squeeze out information in desperate times. Also, I had gone to therapy which gave me confidence and better management skills with my daily anxiety.

So, the first of many exams came and I sat in that lecture hall, legs restless, head suddenly void of all information, breathing fast, so incredibly aware of the ticking clock behind me and so anxious about the students surrounding me, who obviously knew the material, because they were smart and I felt I was stupid. There was also this new pain in my chest I couldn’t shake, just above my heart. Nonetheless, I managed to get through all my exams that week, praying my guesses were correct and that I hadn’t selected “B” multiple times in vain.

Later that week, I saw the grades come in: “C,” “C,” “F.” You get the idea. I saw those grades, the percentages and class averages (all of which, I was below) taunting me, telling me I was worthless and incapable of succeeding in my major.

Yes, I was overreacting, but the thing is, anxiety won’t stop playing with your head even when you know it’s feeding you lies. When you’re vulnerable, anxiety will strike.

I called my sister crying, telling her I was a failure, how I wouldn’t be able to get into graduate school with grades like the ones I got today. My sister consoled me, listened patiently and then told me to go to the professor of the test I had failed and talk to him, tell him what happened and see what could be done.

So, I went. I felt ashamed, because it seemed like I was the only student who couldn’t “college.” However, I still walked into his office, sat down and told him everything that had happened and how anxiety was pulling me underwater and I didn’t know what to do. Then, my professor looked straight into my eyes and said two words that rescued me from self-destruction: “I understand.”

I wish I could talk for paragraphs about our conversation in their office that day, the encouraging words he gave me, little jokes to make me smile and advice he gave me for the future. He didn’t treat me as simply a student, but as a human.

But all I can say in a brief few sentences is that my professor gave me a new perspective on how I could do college: grades don’t matter if you aren’t in a healthy place mentally first. So, yes good grades can be achieved, but at what cost? Maybe I would have to sacrifice straight A’s for my mental health, maybe the two sides of the coin weren’t equal.

My professor advised me to go to our university’s Disability Services and request accommodations for exams and quizzes (i.e. extra time, a quiet environment, etc.) At his suggestion of disability services, I thought, “I don’t have a disability that deserves accommodations, right?”

But the thing is, I do. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely ways I am privileged because I am an able-bodied person. However, when it comes to mental health, it can often be pushed under the rug, hidden from prying eyes. But mental health is invaluable and must be preserved during college if you want to reach your full potential. If you think you need accommodations then you deserve them. Simple as that.

So, I took my professor at his word and got accommodations (which was surprisingly simple). No one laughed at me or told me I didn’t need the accommodations. People seemed to take me at my word, because we know ourselves best, after all.

So, almost a whole school year with accommodations has been gone by and it has literally changed my life. Exams have become less daunting or overwhelming. I still have anxiety, yes, but I have the comfort of knowing I have resources that give me the opportunity to show professors my true potential and knowledge rather than a confusing mix of anxiety and guessing.

I have come to accept the reality that I am intelligent and capable when I have anxiety and when I do not.

Don’t be ashamed of putting your mental health first. You, yourself are permanent and everything else, like grades, the opinions of others, are only temporary.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure. 

Originally published: August 17, 2017
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