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5th December 2016

How to cope with anxiety at university

If you suffer with anxiety at university, you’re not alone and there are so many services that can help you to manage it whilst completing your studies

It’s 8am and my alarm goes off. I have had ten minutes sleep all night. Anxiety has taken such a strong hold of my life that on this particular morning I’ll stand in the shower barely being able to breathe. I’ll have no choice but to skip university, crawl back into bed, and try to calm down. Every time sleep nears, my body responds with a huge surge of adrenaline, my palms are clammy, and my heart is pounding. My boyfriend is fast asleep next to me and has been all night — a part of me feels so bitterly jealous that he will wake up well-rested and hasn’t spent the last 9 hours staring at the ceiling worrying about everything in the entire world.

One of the most difficult aspects of explaining what it’s like to live with anxiety to those who have never experienced it is the way it manifests itself so physically. It’s not just the butterflies that everyone experiences when they’re nervous, it’s not just the cold-sweats that we’ve all had before an important interview. It feels like a full-on near-death experience. When I have a panic attack, or even a half-panic attack, it is physically painful. Sometimes it feels like crushing chest pains and a complete inability to breathe, sometimes it feels like I’m floating out of the room. Sometimes my vision goes completely blurry, sometimes I get a migraine, I almost always feel completely unable to sit still.

In many ways, though, I only have myself to blame. I hope to offer some advice to anyone who may be in the same boat, advice that I didn’t take myself. Firstly, see a doctor as soon as possible. If possible, see multiple doctors. I saw one doctor and found that he wasn’t very helpful at all, and so decided to stop seeking medical help altogether. This was my first mistake: I thought that I knew better than him and that I’d be able to cope on my own. See a doctor as early on as possible, and work with them until you are truly better.

The next step you should take, a step which I never did, is informing the University of your problems. They are here to help, and can offer you academic support such as extensions on essay deadlines and will be far more understanding if you can’t make it to seminars and lectures than if you simply don’t turn up. I always thought it felt too much like cheating, I didn’t want to have an unfair advantage over my classmates. However, it’s not an ‘unfair’ advantage at all if you’re genuinely struggling. Speak to your academic advisor or another member of staff that you trust, no matter how awkward or embarrassed you might feel.

Finally, make use of the support that is around you and be truthful both with yourself and the people who are there to help. The University offers its own counselling service, and it’s often easy to get an appointment within a couple of weeks of requesting one. I used this service a couple of times before completely disregarding it, as at the time I felt that my problems were not due to underlying causes as the counsellor had suggested. I felt a defiance, and a sense that nobody out there would understand what I was going through, especially not a stranger in a clinical room. Not only this but I lied about various things: my lifestyle habits, my personal relationships, how well I was coping with the stress of University. Perhaps if I’d been truthful at the early stages then the whole thing could have been nipped in the bud, rather than escalating to the extent that it has now.

Although this may all seem like a hugely pessimistic view of what it’s like to live with anxiety and panic disorders, I just want to provide an honest account of what can happen if such things are ignored. It’s so important to get help, and there is so much help out there but you have to be proactive and seek it out. Some of the services on offer, like the University Counselling Service, Moodjuice, and No Panic, were extremely helpful for me and I’d strongly recommend looking into them if you are struggling with anxiety or other mental health problems.

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