Balancing anxiety and school.

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I am currently working on my application for a bachelor’s program in social work. I applied last year, and due to a reference problem and average grades that couldn’t compete in the program I was declined. I had to tell myself that I had been finally diagnosed that year and I had significant difficulties adjusting – especially with medications. It was okay to try again. I am trying again this year with some boosted grades, fantastic references from some wonderful people and more volunteer experience. My application certainly looks a lot better.

So the question here is – why am I approaching this like I have already failed? I have put off my essay requirements of my application, even though I’ve already done the hard work of asking for references and volunteering with a club on campus that promotes mental health awareness (if you’re on campus, check out their events or consider volunteering! MHA UCalgary). I’ve done the part that requires me to hang up my anxiety for a little while, take a step and ask for what I want or interact with others about mental health, which at first was extremely emotional and difficult to do. And yet, I still discredit my work and knowledge and start the snowball of anxiety every time I sit down to finish the last piece of the application. I had given myself a deadline for the first week of February, and look at where we are now.

I’ve spoken before about letting go of the outcome. In practice, it is a great deal more difficult to accomplish, I understand. If you’re stuck on the outcome like I am right now, here are a few things to remember before you give up.

1. Take a break from it for a little while, but don’t avoid it. Make a cup of tea, watch ONE episode of something you enjoy on Netflix (Downton Abbey, anyone?), take a walk with a furry friend or cuddle them for a little while, write it down in a blog or a journal and get your feelings out in a healthy way, or check out some positive blogs/vlogs that encourage you to keep going. I really feel a lot better after I’ve read something from The Mighty as it encompasses people who are trying as hard as I am – and in a lot of cases, even harder. Other times I’ll watch some beauty gurus like Kathleen LightsJaclyn Hill, or Glam & Gore, who are all talented and beautiful ladies who are open about the importance of mental health, being good to yourself and reminding you how beautiful of a person you are.

2. Make yourself a list of what you have to accomplish, but also include what you have accomplished. Some days, getting out of bed is the best accomplishment that I can award myself, and being a gold star person, you bet your ass I’m going to be giving myself a gold star for that. Remember that any indication that you are trying is going to be a huge step over the days where you can’t try anything.

3. Talk to someone, even if it’s in an anonymous situation. R/Anxiety is a tool I even used last night and woke up to a response this morning of a total stranger reminding me that it is okay and that I need to breathe, remember that if I don’t get in and have to find a job – interviews are hard for everyone, and interviewers totally understand that. This isn’t the end of my life, just a bump in the road. Do you still feel like you have no one? You’re reading this blog right now, send me a message. I’ll be your person.

4. Take care of yourself. If you’re stressed, you’re likely going to forget to eat, drink, and shower. Or maybe you will overeat, drink more wine than you initially set out to, and still forget to shower. Set down whatever is stressing you and grab yourself a shower. I always feel like a whole new person when I get out of the shower, and I spend a lot of time thinking in the shower – but calmly. Being around water seems to really help me and I hope that you will find it helps you too.

This advice may seem similar to what I’ve posted about before, but it’s important to keep repeating it – especially for myself when I feel like I should just give up. At the end of the day, remember that if you give your best, that is all anyone can ask. But you have to be honest with yourself about what your best really is. I know that right now, this empty word document is not my best, and today is a new day, right now is a new moment, and I am strong enough to finish it. Now that my break is done, I hope that you will join me in mustering up some courage to finish this paper off, know that I did my best with it and let go any anxiety about what they will think or if they will accept me because I know that I have given it my all.

Finally having a ‘normal’ sleep.

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My anxiety visits me without fail every night. I enter the battle of snowballing about things I have to do, things I didn’t do, things I should have said or things I should not have said. I am often unable to fall asleep before 3am, and even more often it’s 6 or 7am before I am finally able to fall asleep. Unfortunately, I also crash pretty hard when I finally sleep, so I end up missing the majority of my day. This often results in missed classes, appointments and other social things. I usually wake up in the late afternoon, guilting myself for missing everything I should have accomplished that day and feeling frustrated that I slept through 5 or 6 alarms.

Last night I was able to sleep before 11pm. I wasn’t sure what came over me, but I was actually tired at night. I got ready for bed before my boyfriend had even gone to bed, which is a feat in itself because he usually tries to go to bed early as he works early. I managed to fall asleep fairly quickly and even though I woke up a few times during the night, I was able to fall back asleep instead of waking up and staying awake for hours. I woke up at 9am today and I don’t remember the last time I saw 9am from this side of the day.

If you’re reading this and you cannot relate with my troubles sleeping, I don’t think I can put into words how amazing it was to fall asleep at a ‘normal’ time and wake up at a reasonable hour. I opened my eyes to see the light shining through my window as usual, but when I looked at my phone to see the time – it was still in single digits. I felt a rush of relief wash over me because I had the whole day ahead of me to do whatever – even if I just took the day to read and cuddle with my dogs, I had the whole day.

After I reveled in the time of day with the hallelujah chorus playing in my mind, I frantically tried to remember everything I did last night to make myself fall asleep quickly so I can try to replicate tonight. That’s my experience with sleep. It’s often such a battle to quiet my mind so that I can fall asleep, so when I do have a good sleep, I need to remember everything that I possible can about what I did so that I can try my best to do it again. I’ve always had troubles sleeping and I’ve always envied those who can hit the pillow and fall asleep. Especially if they can wake up with only one or two snoozes of the alarm in the morning and still attend things before 11am.

In taking the advice of my recent post – I’m going to celebrate the crap out of this day. No matter what happens today that may stand in my way, at least I was awake to experience it. It may seem like a small feat, but I can’t begin to express how proud of myself I am right now. I don’t have to make an excuse for why I can’t meet up before 3pm if I have days like this.

For when you can’t catch a break.

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Lately, my anxiety has been an unwelcome visitor that won’t go away. I have been stuck at a 5/10 on a scale of no anxiety-all the anxiety and I can’t seem to lower it. This also means that when my panic attacks come, they seem more intense and make me more exhausted than ‘normal’. I have a few go-to tricks for when I’m stuck in this rut and I want to give up.

1. Let go of the outcome.

My anxiety loves it when I’m making mistakes. It will nitpick and laugh at everything I’m doing wrong and will push me right down that hill of snowballing until I am in full panic mode. It might just be that I am cooking dinner, dropping things, burning things, overcooking or undercooking, but that somehow ends up being a reflection on who I am as a person. When I start to notice that I’m really reacting to the mistakes I am making, I remind myself to let it go – cue Idina Menzel.

It’s hard to admit that you can’t control the result of what is happening – because you have either already overcooked your spaghetti noodles or you’re waiting on someone else to act, but it is necessary. I remind myself that this is just a moment in my day, I can choose to fix what has happened, or I can adapt to a new solution, and it doesn’t reflect on me or control the entirety of how my day goes.

2. Celebrate everything, no matter how small.

Since I’m on reading break this week, I had high hopes of catching up on readings, working on my application to social work, and really deep cleaning our entire messy house. I spent most of the day in bed, beating myself up for not being able to sleep the night before and feeling exhausted. But, I managed to get all the dishes that were piling up in massive stacks done. I had to give myself a gold star and be proud that I got out of bed, I did something to improve my environment and that was good. When Jeff got home tonight, I even made spaghetti – his favourite dish and one I haven’t made in a long time. I took a second to look at what I was doing and I looked over to him saying “I’m COOKING!” with a giant smile on my face. I finished off cooking dinner feeling like a badass, knowing that I haven’t cooked a real meal in weeks.

I’m really lucky that I have someone who understands that these little things are giant steps some days and that it’s important to celebrate with me. It took a while for him to understand, but now that we are on the same page, it is so so so helpful. I often make a mental list of things that I did during the day that I can be proud of myself for. Sometimes, it’s as small as showering or taking the dogs out when I’ve been feeling extremely agoraphobic, but it’s important to remember that you are worthy of that little celebration.

3. Reward yourself with things that make you happy.

I am all too familiar with those days where I feel like the elephant is sitting on my chest and making his home there. Getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and attending to responsibilities are way too much to ask on those days, which starts a whole new branch of self-guilting and many unkind thoughts. I try to find something that I look forward to – whether it’s binge watching some bad reality TV, picking up that new lip colour I really, really want, or playing some nerd games. When I have completed something, I will give myself some time to indulge in what I enjoy. I have found a new love for following makeup gurus on YouTube and feel really calm and engaged when I am watching a new video, which encourages me to get out of bed and grab my computer to see if they have uploaded a new video this week. It also often inspires me to go have a shower and try out a new look I just watched. I’ve seen a huge difference in my ability to girl since I have started following them and it makes me proud to see how I can accomplish new looks – and I have been getting so many compliments!

Before I give up and fall deep into that hole of anxiety and depression, I try these things. Most of the time, I will feel a little less at war with myself when I try them, even if that feeling only lasts an hour. Relief is relief, and I hope that any of these suggestions will help someone else who is experiencing the same thing I am.

Healthy anxiety?

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I remember sitting in my abnormal psychology class and my professor comes out with this phrase of ‘healthy anxiety’. I was instantly confused – how is an increase of heart rate, shallow breathing and higher blood pressure healthy for you? What he meant by this was a moderate amount of anxiety that pushes you to perform well at things. Would you have scored that goal if you weren’t a little nervous that your giant opponent coming after you was going to take that chance away from you? Would you have aced your last exam if you weren’t just anxious enough to make sure you studied as hard as you could?

Healthy anxiety pushes you to perform well. Where we go wrong is when it stops you from doing well. My anxiety changed from worrying about my grades on a test to being unable to even study. I felt cross-eyed and I couldn’t focus on any of the words I was reading in my textbook, even if the concepts were simple. I had to read the same sentences over and over again to even comprehend what the topic was about.

Since my experience is within an academic setting, I can only suggest methods of alleviating some anxiety that relate to resources available for students. Also input disclaimer that I am not a medical professional, so my advice is simply based on my experiences. But here’s what worked for me:

1. Ask for help.

What I first did was gathering the courage to speak to my family doctor. Here in Canada, I was able to make an appointment with her and get the referrals I needed to focus on mental health. I signed up with my school’s student accessibility services, had my family doctor fill out the required forms, and the SAS was able to make accommodations for me. They are there to help you, and are usually extremely creative to find out what works for you the best. My accommodations were things like having a program that reads my textbook for me, so I could focus on listening to the words instead of reading them. I also write my exams in a distraction-free environment, where I am able to take breaks if I get overwhelmed and they won’t count against my time. Things like these accommodations really took a load off.

2. Let music pull you forward, but not distract you.

The things that I did outside of school to help my anxiety really helped as well. I created a music playlist of songs that had no lyrics, were calming and had a steady, slow beat. Studies since the 1950s have looked into the detrimental effect that high tempo music has on studying and reading comprehension. Music has the ability to influence your emotions, and when you’re dealing with anxiety – you really don’t need anything else that is adding an obstacle. These studies have shown that soft, relaxing music has no obvious change to performance in studying and reading comprehension, but can help with mood. (If you want to look into this more and do not have access to a scholarly journal database, you can check out this article).

3. Take control of your environment.

Another thing about those who struggle with anxiety is that we are often stressed out by our environments. When I can’t control my environment, my desk is out of control or I am completely disorganized, I can’t focus and I get both irritated and even more anxious. The best thing that I can do in that situation is clear off my desk, sort out my books, articles, writing tools, etc. in a way that they are all easily accessible and light a candle or pull out my essential oil diffuser. Aromatherapy has done wonders for my anxiety. I began looking into it after wandering in to a store in a mall one day and haven’t looked back since. I do not ingest the oils, but I simply have pleasing blends diffused throughout my home so that when I get particularly anxious, I can take a deep breath and focus on the smell.

4. Build a support system.

Because I had kept my diagnosis quiet at the beginning out of fear of being stigmatized, I felt like I had no where to go except to my boyfriend. A friend directed me to Reddit to get involved in the r/Anxiety community. I read threads of other anxietybrain-type people and started to feel like I wasn’t alone. Soon enough, I made posts of my own and managed to get a lot of advice through their community. This support group helped me get through a lot of obstacles that I was going through in a way that offered outside/third-party advice. Sometimes I convinced myself that Jeff was telling me what I wanted to hear instead of what I needed to hear, and I would often bring the concern up in r/Anxiety and 9 times out of 10 got the same response. It was a way to deal with what I was going through with people who also were going through the same thing. Though I lean on Jeff a lot, r/Anxiety was always there when he was at work, when it was late at night, or when I just needed the opinion or advice of someone who is going through the same thing.

The biggest thing to remember is that you’re not alone. There are resources out there that you don’t even have to leave your bed to use. That knowledge in itself will help a great deal.

Every story has a beginning.

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Maybe you can relate. I was always a high-strung, worry wart kind of child, but the first clue should have been the chest pain that started when I was 12. It would come out of nowhere – the sharp scalpel ripping through my lungs, making it harder and harder to inhale. I always felt like I was going to run out of air, like I was drowning on land.

I’ve had tests done. All the tests; tests on my lungs in small glass rooms, tests on my heart with cold goo, and all the X-rays I could dream of. My doctor kept ordering these tests to figure out what was wrong with me physically. Of course she asked if I felt stressed or anxious, but no – no I was normal. I didn’t have anxiety. I was a young teen and I just had normal young teen problems: my crush liked the prettiest girl in my class, I just wanted to be kissed and I was constantly running out of black eyeliner.

When I started dating Jeffery and the episodes would happen, it always seemed to help when he rubbed my back or gently wrapped his arms around me. I had gone through 5 years already of these chest pains and finally something made going through them a lot easier. Even still, no one clued in. I had gone to emergency several times, short of breath and feeling like this time was it, I’d be finished. Each time I had a new suggestion of where the pain was coming from. The muscles in my chest were spasming and I should just take ibuprofen. I slouch too much and I’m overextending my muscles. It’s a symptom related to my Asthma. They always made Jeff sit in the waiting room, a precaution in case he was abusing me. That was the worst of it, though. Hospitals and I are not the best of friends and my person was separated from me.

I started doing poorly in university. I began my academic journey strong, a student of Psychology, with high hopes of becoming a child psychologist. That soon changed to an elementary school teacher. But then my grades began to slip. I felt like there was an elephant sitting on my chest most of the time. Sometimes he would make my chest hurt and make it hard to breathe, but most of the time he just made it difficult to get up. My grades fell dramatically, mostly because I wasn’t attending classes. Finally I just gave up and quit.

I really don’t remember much of that year. I do remember my friends graduating. Photos were shared across Facebook of proud young students holding their shiny new degrees, excited for the promise of what was in store for them in the next few months. Many of them were entering the professional world, moving out and starting to figure out who they were as adults. Many were taking their end of university trip around the world. I was stuck in bed. Social media was like another elephant that sat on my chest and weighed me down, reminding me how much I had failed.

Jeff and I fought a lot. He accused me of being distant and lazy – which to a great extent I was. I was jealous, I felt like he was going to leave me at any second. I was stuck in a loop of worst-case scenario all the time. I started to try to make more of an effort, but it was hard. It was like trying to run underwater. We decided to get a dog together and we adopted a rescue mini Aussie that we named Loki.

Loki began to make a difference in my life. He was extremely aware of my emotional state and often came over to me with kisses or asked to play when he knew I was upset. I went everywhere with him and enjoyed every second I was with him. He followed me around like a lost puppy and we seemed to be inseparable.

I started to feel a little better. I signed up for classes again and was determined to finish my degree. I had changed my degree so many times, each time going to easier and easier programs. I was now in a communication and culture arts degree with no direction, but it was something and I would work to get back into psychology. I met up with an academic advisor with high hopes and bright determination. I knew that the requirements to get into psychology were higher now, but I was determined that after this semester, I’d be able to get back into it because I was going to go back to my A-student, gold-star ways.

The academic advisor told me that I’d have to get an A in every class in order to even think about getting into psychology. I started to panic. That was a lot of pressure. I was still hopeful and I lifted my chin and took on the challenge. But then I got my first test mark back in Brain and Behaviour. It was a B. The advisor told me I had to get an A in every class and all I could look at was that mark – it was a B. That wasn’t good enough. I thought I was panicking before, but nothing could have prepared me for the spiral of panic I was about to go down.

I started freaking out at every mistake. My anxiety began to develop in ways that I hadn’t recognized to be anxiety. I lashed out easily, irritated and angry. My brain didn’t have enough space for anything but the constant snowball I was in – If I don’t get an A on this test, I will fail this class. If I fail this class, I will fail this semester. If I fail this semester, I won’t get into psychology. If I don’t get into psychology, I won’t amount to anything. If I don’t amount to anything, I’ll die alone in a hole with rats because no one will love me.

I decided to see a counsellor at the wellness centre. It wasn’t working. I was panicking right now, but he was focusing on my life history. He focused on my family issues: living with a sick mother, who later became bound to a wheelchair for the foreseeable future. My issues with my father and all the fights we had. This wasn’t helping the now, though. I was panicking right now and my grades were failing and I was snowballing all the time. I left my psych midterm half blank because I was so caught up in the snowball. I gave up and went to my family doctor. Maybe she could help me.

Immediately, she put me on an antidepressant, got me registered with my student accessibility services for anxiety, and referred me to a psychiatrist. Officially, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, social anxiety and OCD. And it was scary. I grew up with mental illness in my family and knew how quickly they were ostracized. “She did well despite her issues“. “— isn’t doing well today, Erin. Be extra kind”. It was a disease to tiptoe around and make excuses for. And all I thought about was that I was going to become my diagnosis, and I would stop being me.

Jeff really stepped up to the plate. He became my rock and learned how to help me calm down from my cycle of panic. It was a work in progress, but it was helping. Loki also picked up on my struggling and he began to help me as well. We started to teach him to also help me come down from a panic attack, and it was like he already knew what to do. He would come over to me, give me kisses, nudge me, and eventually come up for a hug. Often he would try to get me to lay down and he’d lay on my chest, which offered a release from the anxiety loop I was stuck in.

Although this beginning has been long, it was a real testament to how easy it is to shove aside mental health as the root of the issue. Now 24, I spent nearly 12 years trying to figure out the cause of my pain and the reason why I wasn’t keeping up with my peers. Though my journey isn’t finished yet – as it has been over a year since I was diagnosed and I’ve been on a whirlwind of trying out new medications, therapy and figuring out what works, I can at least put a name to it. I hope anyone out there in internetland who managed to stay with me through this long-winded tale and is struggling as well can feel a little better knowing that they aren’t alone. I hope to use this blog to offer my opinions, resources and be real about my anxiety, even if no one else reads it. I tried to write things down in a journal, but I feel more at home with my laptop where I can write as quickly as my brain is going – which let me tell you, it goes a mile a minute.