Tuesday 4 August 2020

Tips for not Letting Anxious Thoughts Get in your Way

Emma shares her tips for keeping anxious thoughts under control amidst the business of university life.
- Emma

My first year of university was harder than it should have been due to anxiety which involved a lot of obsessive thinking. It would have been okay if I had been obsessing over my subject, I used to joke that if I thought as much about chemistry as I did irrational things I would have a Nobel Prize by now! But unfortunately I couldn’t make this mental shift and my brain stayed focussed on the anxious, irrational thoughts rather than on anything useful. It got to the point where I was seeing my advisor at university about deferring a year as I couldn’t concentrate on my work and could only manage to do practical things, like doing the laundry, as this didn’t require much brain power meaning I could do it with the hoard of thoughts still present. It was exhausting having to deal with this constantly full inbox in my head. I felt I couldn’t manage both the anxiety and chemistry course together. But having now finished the second year of my degree and had the best year I could have ever imagined (despite it being cut short by Covid-19) I want to share how I got to this much better place:

Opening up to People at the University 

Phone calls with my parents would often end in tears (on both ends because they hated to hear me crying when I was so far from home). So after Christmas break in first year, I took the plunge and opened up to my flatmate and academic advisor about my anxiety. The reason I had held off speaking to my advisor about it, was because I worried that as an academic, he would think less of me. I expected him to see me as less clever or capable because my thoughts weren’t practical, like how you’d expect a scientist to think, what nonsense! Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of capability, just like physical illness can. Opening up to them helped me to feel less alone in it all. Just knowing that there were people nearby who knew how I was feeling was a big comfort and a critical step in establishing university as my second home.

Don’t Speak to Your Thoughts

When I would sit down to complete some coursework or lecture notes I would end up throwing in the towel shortly after as I just couldn’t focus. It was like in school when you sat beside someone who was intent on distracting you from your work. But I eventually found that the way to push through is to not give up with these tasks, as even if they took me twice as long as normal and weren’t up to my usual standards, it was still progress. It was still better than not doing anything, even be that just scribbling some words down from the lecture slides, you’re still taking far more in than if you didn’t do anything. So I tried this and immediately felt much better about myself and more in control. Yes, my progress was slow, but the point was that I was doing something, despite having the thoughts yapping away beside me and trying to steal my pen. It showed me that I could make progress despite the thoughts, which stopped me from getting into a panic when they started getting loud. Losing the fear of my thoughts has taught me that I can do anything, even physical chemistry (which uses a tonne of my brainpower), despite them, so I no longer panic whenever Mr. Thought chooses to take the seat next to me in a lecture or in the library as I know that he can’t stop me anymore.

And remember that just like you were told by an adult when someone was bothering you, “Ignore them, and eventually they’ll get bored and leave you alone. Giving them attention just encourages them.” This same tactic can be used for annoying thoughts. Don’t talk to your thoughts. Don’t even try to get rid of them by “solving them”. I finally realised that I never got anywhere by giving the thoughts attention and so now I just accept that they’re there, but I don’t look at or interact with them so that eventually they fade away.

Please don’t give up if you feel like you’re constantly battling with your thoughts, they can’t stop you, you’re so much bigger than they are. And opening up to someone at university can be life-changing, as mental illness can be very isolating and heavy to carry by yourself. Anxiety doesn’t have to stop you from achieving your goals and once you realise this, you’ll be unstoppable. 

Check out Student Minds for more advice on looking after your mental wellbeing at university.

Hey! I’m Emma 🙂 I’m in my third year studying Chemistry and want to share my story of dealing with anxiety, especially during the transition from school to uni, to inspire those struggling to not let their anxiety prevent them from getting the most out of the university experience, and to reassure them that things will get easier.

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