Wednesday 16 March 2016

Anxiety: Reflections on university life and how far I've come

Lottie writes about her struggles of anxiety at university.

- Lottie Naughton

When I embarked on my student journey, I was probably at my lowest point emotionally. After a few disappointing A Level results and a deferred year due to my inability to make my mind up, I was finally committing to the biggest decision I had ever had to make. I was moving away from home, I was going to do a degree I always had a passion for and I was doing it all by myself.

Before university I had no direction, and didn’t intend on carving out my own path either. I was content with my part time job, my college group of friends and my cushy life with my family at home. Why did I need to leave when I had everything I could’ve asked for right where I was? But of course, that time in my life was only temporary. My friends and boyfriend left for university, my family needed rent money if I was planning on staying and my part-time job was simply not enough. I was alone and facing pressure from all sides (including myself) to figure out who I was.

When I finally made my mind up and settled on Plymouth as my home for the next 4 years I was excited. It was a new huge chapter in my life that finally meant I could understand what all my friends were experiencing first hand for myself. I decided I would join every society available to me, be the captain of at least three sports teams and leave university an adult with a First Class degree under her belt. Unfortunately, these expectations and goals I set for myself were completely unrealistic.

When my parents left me alone in my new room for the first time I had my first panic attack. I ended up hiding under the bed in floods of tears on the phone to my boyfriend. I didn’t venture into the kitchen for four days because I didn’t know how to start a conversation with all those new faces without hyperventilating. I made every excuse I could think of to not leave my room during Freshers’. My only saving grace was my phone and the contacts I had left behind at home. That was my first real experience with anxiety and how debilitating it can be. I was hungry, lonely and desperate to make friends, and yet I could not bring myself to simply walk down the stairs.

As the year progressed, I slowly came out of my shell and became close to another housemate who also did my course. She supported me and helped me immensely in making up for the time I had missed in my first few weeks. By the end of my first year, I was happy and finally feeling confident about my life. Unfortunately, this feeling again was only temporary.

My anxiety slowly crept up on me in places I never expected it to- I was able to present a research question to my tutor group with full confidence, but couldn’t face going out for drinks with my friends without feeling dread in my stomach and obsessing over every move I made, every facial expression I made just to make sure everyone liked me. I could attend each of my lectures and chat one on one to supervisors with a smile, but when my boyfriend asked me to go to a party with his friends I ended up in bed, in tears not being able to explain why I couldn’t face it and feeling that panic, dread and fear I had felt in my first few days as a student. Was something wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be a social butterfly like everyone else?  Why did every social situation feel like hell to me, when it never had before? They looked so confident. It looked so simple! But I could not bring myself to face large groups or social situations that were new.

When I reached my third year I decided to do a work placement back home to give myself a break from the pressures of university and move back in with my family for a year. I became close to a colleague there who explained to me how she also suffered panic attacks and anxiety so similar to what I had gone through. I understood then that I wasn’t some strange human anomaly. I understood that I wasn’t just simply a shy girl. I was suffering and I needed help. When I finally reached out to my family and my friends I felt a weight lift. My anxiety didn’t magically disappear, but I had shared the burden and I was being listened to. My feelings were valid and my experience was not rare.

I went into my final year at university with a new perspective, a support network cheering me on and a new found belief in myself. I was happy to be back and raring to go. My next chapter in life is starting to rear its head with my graduation creeping closer every day, and I must admit it’s ugly. It’s unknown and frightening; truly my worst nightmare. I’m facing what I faced when I first left home, but I’m also not carrying as much baggage as I was before and I’m carrying the right equipment to see me through. I don’t know what the future holds but I’m looking forward it regardless. 

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