Hi! I’m a 21 year old graduate having studied Photography at university for the past three years. This is the same duration which I have knowingly suffered from anxiety. I’m now living away from home in Nottingham with four friends, seeking a job, and I’ve never been happier - nor more anxious. But the difference between me now and at the start of university is that I now know that I can do it… whatever it may be!
The Trigger and Early Days
I always had a nervous and shy disposition but never knowingly suffered from a mental health illness, until university. Three years ago I travelled four hours from my childhood home in Kent to student halls in Nottingham, waving my parents and all that I was familiar with goodbye. The first two months seemed unbearable. I cried all the time and struggled to fully socialise with my new housemates, despite their best efforts at trying to make me feel as accepted and comfortable as possible. Leaving the flat was especially difficult, attending lectures and seminars, even going to the shop. What used to be controllable and ‘normal’, was becoming all-consuming until one day I could no longer leave the flat at all.
I started having panic attacks at least once a day and my body began to get ill. I didn’t want to accept it but deep down I knew I was suffering with extreme anxiety. Over the past three years I’ve come to realise that suffering with anxiety is not like suffering with nerves; it is not always rational and therefore not as easy to control or detect. Often I will feel ill and think I am coming down with something but it may just be because I am anxious and other times I will start having a panic attack without a trigger. For instance, I could be my most comfortable and safest, sitting at home on the sofa watching TV with my family and a panic attack will start.
Therapy and Grounding
Though first year was tough, I managed to stay at university and complete the year. A lot of this was thanks to the support of my friends and family. Once I came home my mum encouraged me to go to therapy, as although I was on the right track with university, I still felt like I was struggling to win control over my own body and mind.
I was skeptical regarding therapy. I felt if I couldn’t take control of my own mind, how could someone else help? However, I am so thankful to my mum for insisting as it really did help me. A massive element I took from it was the idea of grounding oneself. When you start panicking it's very easy to spiral and lose all rational thinking. Grounding is a method whereby you focus on what all your senses are experiencing; for instance, what can you smell? What can you hear? This should help to calm you and bring your body back to reality… to a situation which is easier to deal with. I also find lavender to be a soothing scent and so I have a small lavender oil which I take everywhere with me. A couple of drops on my wrists help to ground me during times of feeling anxious.
Relationships and Better Times
University has been the best experience of my life. In general I would say my life is better than it ever has been; I have a newfound independence and confidence. But it’s also the hardest it’s been with all the uncertainty and unknowns.
What I would love to share from my experience is that it’s ok and in fact perfectly normal to still feel down or anxious when your life may otherwise seem ‘perfect’. You can’t always choose or fully control which days are going to be good days and what ones are going to be bad; you just have to try and stay positive and know that the bad days aren’t a representation of everyday life.
Being independent and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is extremely important but do not feel guilty about needing to rely on others from time to time or stay in your ‘bubble’. I am now in my first serious relationship which has been the best experience of my life so far but it too comes with anxieties. I now am conscious that my anxiety is no longer just affecting me but to an extent him also. I’m lucky to have a partner who is beyond understanding and extremely supportive. When I sometimes feel like I’m letting myself and others down because of my mental health, he will turn to me and say that I am not and that I am the bravest person he has ever met. I personally would’ve never described myself as being brave so it really is encouraging to know that someone else thinks that about me. I’m very critical of myself so to have someone else have such a strong, positive image of me really builds me up and helps me to see how far I’ve come. It reiterates that I am not defined by my anxiety.
Another point I would like to share about my experience is to not feel ashamed about the days where you feel you can’t cope. It is sometimes difficult to explain a personal mental health disorder to others, especially those who do not suffer themselves. I found this metaphor about physical pain helpful to explain to others at times; you wouldn’t ask someone to walk a mile when they have a nail in their shoe, you would say let’s sort out the shoe and try again later. That’s what my anxiety is like. Sometimes it is bearable and other times it isn’t and I just need to stay in for a while and try again later. The different between years ago and now is that my anxiety isn’t winning. Having the odd bad day isn’t being defeated, it’s being human.
Key take aways for me were...
Don’t be ashamed of your mental health but equally don’t let it define you.
Try grounding yourself when times get difficult.
Be proud of your accomplishments, no matter how small and/or trivial they may seem. (I’m proud of myself if I get out the house once a day even if it’s just a walk around the neighbourhood).
Surround yourself with those who are supportive.
It’s not necessarily a matter of beating mental health but learning how to deal with it and still living your life!
You can read more of our articles on anxiety here.