As I moved into college for the start of my freshman year, I had no idea what college had in store for me. I had some ideas: new friends, late-night adventures, maybe even a bit of self-discovery. One thing I wasn’t planning on: anxiety and depression. But that’s exactly what I got.
The evening before classes started, I was sitting at my desk in my newly-decorated dorm room when an uneasy feeling overtook me. This feeling I now know to identify as panic. It was all encompassing. My heart was racing, my throat was tight, it felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was having chest pains, and my mind was racing “what’s wrong with me?” “why is this happening to my body?” I felt like I had to get out. I don’t know why, but my immediate impulse was to walk myself to the counseling center.
So that’s exactly what I did. On the way there I was extremely self-conscious. Couldn’t everyone I walked past see that something was wrong? I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest—surely anyone who glanced at me could see that right?
I’ve since come to realize that walking around with anxiety is a common occurrence, especially on a college campus. Although it may feel like you’re walking around with a big red ANXIETY stamped across your forehead, it usually goes unnoticed.
When I got to the counseling center and explained my body’s betrayal, the counselor gave me a knowing look and chuckled. “You’re experiencing anxiety,” he told me, “just breathe with your stomach and try to quiet your mind. Anxiety feeds upon itself.” Giving it a label satisfied me a bit but I was still skeptical. “I’m not someone with anxiety,” I thought to myself, “this was just a one-time thing.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. As the semester progressed my anxiety persisted and gave me new symptoms in the form of stomachaches and worried thoughts I just couldn’t seem to shake.
In addition, I began to have depressive symptoms. I’d find myself with the overwhelming urge to cry for no reason I could explain. I started to feel hopeless. I wondered if this was my new life. Maybe I’d feel this way forever and the best days of my life were already behind me.
Feeling alone and at a loss for what to do, I started talking to people. I confessed to my friends that my college experience wasn’t going so well and that I was struggling with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
And then something incredible happened. Many of them said they could relate. I was blindsided.
Here I was, feeling like I was the only person on earth going through this, and nobody had it worse than me (that’s the nature of the illness), yet here were some of my seemingly perfect and successful friends going through it too. Once I realized this, I was able to take ownership of my mental illness and start seeking help.
I told my parents what I was going through, and started going to the counseling center on a regular basis. I started painting and running more often, utilizing the activities I’d found calmed my mind.
As winter break approached, I decided to plan my vacation around getting better. I went to therapy twice a week. I did yoga. I tried acupuncture. I went on medication. I painted, spent time with my family and friends, and volunteered at my old elementary school. And during those five weeks, I watched my symptoms slowly disappear. By the end of the break, I was ready to tackle the new semester with a toolbox of new tools to combat my mental illness, the most important of which was a positive mindset.
Do I still experience symptoms of anxiety and depression? Of course. Mental illness isn’t something that goes away overnight. Especially in a stressful environment like college. But now when I feel my heart begin to race, I don’t panic. I think to myself “I know what this is.” I call a friend to distract me, or roll out my yoga mat to find some peace.
If you are experiencing mental illness, know you’re not alone. Remember that it’s ok to ask for help. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak, or that there’s anything wrong with you. In fact, it means the opposite. It means that you have courage. It means you’re a fighter.
As my freshman year comes to a close, here are some things I’ve learned from my experience with anxiety and depression:
Internalized Stigma Sucks
There’s an incredible amount of stigma surrounding mental illness. It’s so prevalent that often times, we internalize it. I did, which made accepting that I was experiencing mental illness even harder. It became an extra hurdle to seeking help. Instead, try to reject the stigma. Be kind to yourself, or a friend you know is struggling. Try to treat it as you’d treat a physical ailment. No one chooses this. It’s not their fault.
You’re Never Alone, No Matter How Isolated You Feel
At this stage in our lives, it can be easy to feel alone. Everyone is focused on themselves and what the next step is for them. If you find yourself feeling alone and convinced you’re the only one going through what you’re going through, try to take a step back. What people project is never the full story. Just because someone’s Instagram feed looks like college is a dream come true doesn’t mean it is. If you open up, you might be surprised to find your friends and peers can relate to what you’re going through.
You Need to be Your 1st Priority
Your mental, emotional, and physical well-being should come before all else. That sounds like a no-brainer, but there are so many classes to take, internships to get, and check boxes to fill, that we often get caught up in what we think we should do. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to differentiate that from what we actually want or need. Remember to take the time to check in with yourself. Are you happy with what you’re doing? Is it getting you closer to where you want to be in life? Are you simply doing what you think you should do because everyone else is doing it? Make changes accordingly.
There is Strength in Vulnerability
This seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. It takes courage to be vulnerable, and the more you try it, the stronger you get. There’s something empowering about putting yourself out there completely–if nothing else just to lessen the burden by having people to share it with. It can be scary, but give it a try. You might be surprised by how good it feels.
Image via Arianna Torres