When did your panic attacks start and how did they impact your studies?
I was about eight years old. One day it just hit me, and things didn't feel "normal" anymore. It’s been off and on ever since. During my junior year of college, my anxiety got really bad. It started to affect every part of my life. This is when it developed from anxiety to panic disorder, which meant I had panic attacks over the course of the day, one wave after another, until my body exhausted itself enough to feel relaxed but also drained. That semester I had to drop out of a few classes to really regain a lot of myself.
What triggers your anxiety?
My anxiety is often triggered by times of extreme change, like moving or family issues, where my environment feels different. I'm also a late reactor, meaning I can keep it together during the actual shift and then as I settle into a routine with those changes, the growing pains affect me, and it takes me longer to adjust.
The thing about anxiety is while it may start with an actual fear or worry, once you have one panic attack it’s a ripple effect. You start worrying about worrying. Maybe you started worrying about not being okay, and then the anxiety became the thing you were worried about – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What resources did you use to manage college while dealing with your illness?
I found a therapist who gave me tools that really worked for my way of thinking, which was to break down the anxiety in steps and phases to isolate the physical feelings of an actual panic attack. I also made the decision to go on a low dose of Lexapro. Also, even though I chose therapy and medicine, the best long-term solution for me has been exercising. Diverting my energy into something more productive made my panic attacks far less severe.
What were your personal challenges and saving graces?
One of my biggest challenges was trying to bottle everything up and tie it in a perfect little bow so no one saw what was going on. For a time, it worked to pretend nothing was happening. I would be sitting in a living room with people, having an anxiety attack, and no one could tell. But my anxiety was never triggered from social interactions. I've always been extroverted, and often my anxiety attacks were triggered from being completely by myself.
Talking it out with people around me was and is my saving grace. I, like many, was ashamed of how I felt, which is a huge part of the stigma associated with mental illness. I was so wrong. Opening up to people, whether it was my mother or my therapist, changed the course of my college experience and saved me from falling even deeper into a hole. I came out of that experience knowing how to best manage my mental health for the rest of my life.
What tips do you have for other students attending college with a psychiatric disability?
Speak up and realize that pretty much every single person deals with a mental health issue in their lifetime. Our lives depend on connecting to each other emotionally, and our mental health is an integral part of that. Talking to a professor about your struggles can help. Chances are they will get down in the trenches with you and help you figure it out.
Also, take a step back if you need to. I never thought I would need to take a few steps back on my education in order to manage my mental health, but it was completely necessary. I will never regret decreasing my workload during that time yet persevering to continue my education. We all hit a point where we need to lay out our issues and pick up the pieces, and that is completely okay.