I had my first panic attack in Kindergarten. I was cast as the Mayor in our elementary production of The Pied Piper. Shortly before I was to be on stage, I found myself flat on my back, out of breath, and terribly nauseous. What we assumed at the time was a little stage fright was actually the start of a lifelong struggle with anxiety and panic disorder.
Throughout my youth, I hid my anxiety behind good grades and confident staged performances. I found comfort in the rigorous routine of study and practice. As I went through high school, my panic attacks became more and more frequent and I clung to my books and my French horn to drive the scary emotions away. I worked so hard that I even graduated high school a year early because there were no more courses for me to take.
When I graduated high school and left for college, I was confident that my anxiety was under control. My teachers told me that, in college, I would be surrounded by people who were more like me; that I would have more control over my life and my courses; that my anxiety would subside as I embraced adulthood. I became a music major so that I could continue to use my rigorous practice and performance schedule to hold myself together. Unfortunately, anxiety had other plans.
The thing about anxiety is that the longer you ignore it, the harder it hits you. During my undergraduate career my anxiety would rise to such high levels that I began to struggle in subjects that had always been a breeze. I missed classes because I was locked in the bathroom having panic attacks. I failed tests because the thought of entering the classroom was so anxiety provoking that I couldn’t function. At the time, I was averaging nine debilitating panic attacks a week and as I watched my scholarship get stripped away and my grades continue to plummet, I didn’t think I was going to make it to graduation.
I felt betrayed by school. My intellect had always been my refuge in the past and now it was fueling my downfall. In my sophomore year I sought help for my anxiety from a local therapist and it turned my life around! With her help, I instituted five lifestyle changes that helped me regain control over my schooling and find success in academia. In May, I will begin classes for my fourth degree program and those same five changes continue to influence my lifestyle of success. Here they are:
1. Get plenty of rest.
It is so easy in college to plow through the day and well into the night without any sleep. Between the study groups and social gatherings I often found myself turning in to bed at one or two in the morning. By prioritizing my own health and getting a full eight hours of sleep every night, my mind was fresh and better able to tackle the next day.
2. Write things down.
Towards the end of my sophomore year, I started an intense journaling habit. I wrote down everything. I documented the meals I ate, the emotions I felt, the tasks I needed to complete, and the places I needed to go. By writing things down, I found that I didn’t have to hold as much information in my head, which made my cluttered and anxious brain easier to navigate. It also helped my therapist to identify trends so that she could better direct my treatment.
3. Set clear deadlines.
When you are a full time college student, the flurry of assignments, group projects, presentations, and student organization meetings can run amuck. By setting clear deadlines, you are able to better prioritize your time and tell your anxious brain to focus on one thing at a time.
4. Talk to someone you trust.
People with anxiety often struggle in secret. I certainly did. I thought that if I told anyone that I was struggling to get through the day that they would think less of me or think that I wasn’t smart enough or strong enough to be in college. I started by talking to a trusted professor who eventually helped me to find treatment from a certified professional in the area. You cannot do it alone, and there is no shame in asking for help.
5. Prioritize yourself.
In college there are many competing priorities and tons of things out of your own control. It is easy to push yourself to the bottom of the list – but that is the worst thing you can do. Regular self-care is vital to long term healing. College will take care of your mind, but you must make time to take care of your body and spirit. Exercise regularly and eat healthy. Learn a new hobby. Go to a comedy club and laugh your butt off. Do something every day to take care of yourself – it will allow you to better take care of everything else on your list later.
As I head back to school, as a grown adult with a family and full time job, these same five lifestyle choices will continue to guide my decisions. In my experience of living with anxiety, the best path towards healing is one that is rooted in long term changes not short term gimmicks. I still battle with my anxiety every day. I know that when I return to school, I will once again be faced with competing priorities, uncompromising deadlines, and a wide range of new burdens. I also know that by following these five simple lifestyle choices, I will once again thrive in the land of academia.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: Matthew B. Courtney is an author and creator of Anxiety My Friend. Matthew is on a life long journey to recovery from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). After years of hard work, Matthew has learned to love his anxiety and considers it one of his greatest strengths. Matthew’s personal mission is to help others to re-frame their anxious thoughts into useful tools.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc.
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