My Experience with Anxiety
This past week has seen a great deal of discussion around the subject of mental health as it has been Mental Health Awareness week. Dealing with anxiety is something I've mentioned briefly in previous posts on my blog but is something that affects my life significantly, so I thought I'd take the opportunity of this week being specifically dedicated to mental health awareness to discuss my experience with anxiety. The photos I'm sharing alongside this post don't really have anything to do with the topic of mental health but I wanted to write about this topic and share these photos on my blog so it made sense to include them together. Plus they were taken in one of my favourite places that I like to go to to de-stress. I want to share this because I'm very aware that social media and blogs only present the best bits of life, which can be really disheartening if/when you're feeling bad and so I want my blog to be a space that is honest and really reflects me as a person. I'm also hoping that in sharing my experiences I can help anyone reading this who might have struggled with similar experiences feel less alone. I thought I should also mention that I know people have it worse than me and I'm really not writing this post to complain but just to bring awareness to the fact that all mental health struggles are legitimate and you should always try to look after yourself and those around you.
That brings me nicely onto the beginning of my 'journey' with anxiety, as I dismissed my feelings as 'nothing' for some time. My anxiety is very much linked to the education system, as I will discuss a little bit more later on, and they began when I started sixth form and studying for my A-Levels. From day one of sixth form, I was prepared to do crazy amounts of work because I had been warned again and again and again about how difficult A-Levels are. And from day one I pushed myself very hard to do as much work as possible. For the first few months, I thought I was coping fine and for most of the first year of sixth form, I felt like I was. It wasn't until after my AS exams that I realised the extent to which I'd exhausted myself mentally and was left feeling a little empty (I know this sounds vague but I can't explain it in any other way). I don't think I'd really developed anxiety at this point but I'd definitely planted the seeds. By setting my standards so high in terms of work, I became so overly-organised, becoming overwhelmingly angry and disappointed in myself if I didn't reach both my daily and long-term goals, which, in turn, inevitably led to lots of feelings of stress.
Going into my second year of sixth form were when things started to get really difficult, with the stress of applying to UNI and, of course, the exams. Again, I worked myself crazily hard from day one but, both because of the standards I had already set up for myself, the exhaustion I was still getting over from the previous academic year and because this year's exams were much more important than the ones I had just sat, the pressure and the stress really started to get to me. The 'work-life balance' I had managed to mostly maintain in my first year of sixth form fell through the roof and the only thing I could focus on was work. I declined most plans because I was too busy revising and if I did do anything social, I spent most of the time resenting myself for leaving my desk and worrying about how I would fit all the work I had to do in around it. It's important to mention that, at the time, I really did not think my academic habits were unhealthy because totally overworking yourself to the point of exhaustion has become such a norm within society, especially within the education system, that I thought what I was doing was normal.
Basically, to cut a very very long year short, I spent the entire academic year working towards my exams whilst feeling rubbish about my life and constantly worried. The only thing that was getting me through my exams was the thought of a couple of months off for summer; this thought, though, only further justified the amount I was working because it allowed me to maintain the mindset that I would have time for rest and relaxation later, which, as a mindset, is fine for a week or two but not for two years. During my exam period and the months leading up to it, I was so stressed that social interaction was genuinely too much for me. Having to even talk to anyone who wasn't my boyfriend or in my family took so much energy that I felt like I was going to cry. I really didn't understand this at the time and had no idea where this feeling was coming from and it obviously really damaged my friendships, which I endlessly regret now, but all I knew was that I couldn't do it and that I would rather walk to my boyfriend's house (mine was literally too far away) during sixth form lunchtime hours than simply sit in the common room for half an hour. This time in my life honestly feels like a blur and I can't even remember if I had started having panic attacks at this point. But if I had they were infrequent and it was the general anxiety (feelings that my head might explode at any moment, sickness in the back of my throat and the constant holding back of tears) that affected me more.
Anyway, I got through the exams. But the feelings of relief that I had expected after sitting my last exam on a Wednesday morning (I remember this very vividly) just didn't come. After finishing my GCSE and AS exams I remember feeling so relieved and happy to spend the bed in day catching up on TV and sleeping. But this time I could not relax. All the feelings of anxiety that I had been pushing away throughout my time at sixth form because I had 'more important things to focus on' now materialised. I don't know if you've ever experienced this but I often find that, during the winter months, when you feel a cold coming on, your body will keep holding it back whilst your busy. But as soon as you have a lie in or let yourself relax in whatever way, the cold develops. This is what I think happened with my anxiety. My brain didn't even have time to process it during sixth form so as soon as that was done with I had 2 years worth of worries and stress to deal with.
At the time I didn't realise that this was why I was having almost daily panic attacks though. I was so confused and had no idea what was wrong with me because I was supposed to be happy now exams were over, wasn't I? It didn't help that the people closest to me were constantly asking me 'What's wrong?' or telling me 'I don't know why you're worried- everything's fine'- not that they had bad intentions (I am so grateful to them for offering me support and help) but one of the worst things about anxiety for me is that often there is no reason (that you can identify) for it, which makes you think something is wrong with you, which leads to more worrying- it's a vicious cycle.
I guess this constant anxiety throughout the summer months culminated on results day. I got into my first-choice University but I just didn't get the grades I wanted and I was devastated. I understand that I was in a much better position than lots of other people and I totally sympathise with that- I wasn't, nor am I now, comparing my position to theirs. All I could think about was the hell I put myself through with the end goal of the grades and I was just gutted because I felt like it wasn't worth it- and all I wanted was for those terrible years to be worth it. I've been waiting for something good to come out of those feelings that I felt last August as that is what I would describe as the worst I had ever felt and recently I feel like it has. That day and those feelings made me realise that nothing is ever worth damaging your mental health for. Nothing. And if you're in the midst of exams right now, please remember that.
Anyway, after this very emotional day, I had a few sessions with a counsellor. I don't think it helped very much because my head was still in too much of a mess to be able to process my own problems and I generally spent most of the sessions crying and feeling shit about myself.
After this, I left for university and the first couple of months were great. There were some panic attacks and moments of anxiety but generally, I enjoyed them so much and felt the happiest I had done in a long time. But, once again (will I ever learn??) I had started pushing feelings of anxiety, to one side, which led to frequent panic attacks throughout the months of November and December. When I say I pushed them to one side I did so to such an extent that at one point, I had to leave a seminar to run to the bathroom (to avoid not having a panic attack in front of everyone in the room) and then miss all of my other classes that week so I could go home for a few days to recover. So the end of first semester was a little bit rocky. But, unlike during my A-Levels, I now felt comfortable talking to my family, boyfriend and close friends about how I felt and treated my mental health as something that was important, which helped a lot.
After returning to university after Christmas, and a difficult first week or so back, the first thing I did was book myself in for an appointment with the university counsellor. I had around 3-5 sessions with her and they helped me so much. I can tell you right now that before these sessions, I would not have been able to write this post because, firstly, I would have been too worried about what people thought about me but, mostly, because I had absolutely no idea where my anxiety came from or what caused it. My mental health has been much much better over the past few months and being able to talk through my experiences with the counsellor with a clear head allowed me so much clarity.
So now, here we are. My mental health is the best it has been in a long, long time and I'm learning (if slowly) not to push myself too hard. I've enjoyed my first year of university so much and feel like I have cultivated a really good 'work-life balance', whilst also being able to do other things that I am passionate about and enjoy, such as running this blog, plus a part-time job. I'm lucky enough to be heading to Corfu in a few days and will be spending the entire week before my only university exam there. This is really going to be a test for me of how far I have come in terms of allowing myself to become more relaxed about academics and right now I'm feeling great about it so let's hope for the best. First year doesn't count anyway, right?
Anyway, this has been one hefty post and I still really feel like I could have gone into much more detail... I'm bet you're glad I didn't! But if you are feeling like you're struggling with your mental health in any way, please tell someone. Even if you feel like your struggles aren't legitimate because they're not on the same scale as some other people's, they are and you should treat them as such because, as you can tell from hearing about my experiences, they can build up and get worse very quickly. Everyone struggles in some way or another and you should never feel embarrassed about your own struggles. Speak to anyone, just speak to someone because holding things in only makes them worse. My DMs on Twitter and Instagram are always open if you want to talk about anything you might be struggling with at the moment!