This post is by Matthew of Matt’s Mishaps.
How college bested me and my anxiety
Prior to attending postsecondary school, I was completely clueless as to what being a college student was, or what going to a university for four years entailed for my future. Living away from home, taking harder classes, networking and everything else associated with earning a bachelor’s degree felt extremely overwhelming as an eighteen year old. Truthfully, I do not feel like I was emotionally ready or mature enough to be a full fledged college student by the time I graduated from high school. However, I was lucky enough to get into a pretty decent school. I was also consistently told how important getting a college education was for my future career (whatever the heck that meant). So I ended up attending college right after finishing high school.
I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to school. Not everyone gets the luxury of obtaining a college education. Additionally, earning a degree takes a lot of hard work, and I feel pride in the fact that I graduated. I was also able to set myself up decently enough in terms of landing a job once I left school. To say that college was a strictly negative experience would be a flat out lie. That being said, college ended up exposing me to the ugly truths of how inept I can be when it comes to handling different aspects of my anxiety.
On the one hand, I felt extremely stressed when it came to my classwork. Which I don’t believe is an abnormal feeling. Learning class material, writing papers and taking exams always blows. While in college, I developed an unhealthy attitude towards my different academic responsibilities. I refused to take a day off from doing homework. Whether it was the weekend that a friend was visiting me, the day of my cousin’s wedding or the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I always managed to do some sort of homework. I convinced myself that I needed to complete every assignment on all of my syllabi, even though I knew that wasn’t true. Additionally, I believed that I couldn’t take a day off from doing school work, because if I did I would fall behind and get terrible grades.
A part of me knew how detrimental my line of thinking was when it came to studying. What bothered me even more is that I couldn’t stop obsessing over my school work. I didn’t enjoy reading articles or creating study guides every single day. However, I convinced myself that the only way I was going to pass my classes was by never taking a break. This led to my school/life balance being completely one-sided, which took a pretty negative toll on my mental wellness.
Aside from school work, I also consistently struggled with creating and maintaining friendships while in school. Part of that was due to the amount of time I spent on studying. But I can’t blame my lack of a social life solely on school work. I am an incredibly awkward, introverted person. Being introverted and awkward doesn’t mean I am incapable of making friends or having a good time. One of my biggest problems back then (and still to this day) is how anxious I got when thinking about being around other people. More so, how I let my social anxiety ultimately prevent me from putting myself out there.
I get extremely nervous and shy around new people, or people that I don’t know well. I overthink every little word I say or every reaction I have. Despite these flaws, I did join a few clubs in college. However, I was always so nervous whenever I went to a meeting or a club event. I was there, but I never spoke up due to being fearful of how I was going to present myself. Despite always attending club meetings and gatherings, I was never present or outgoing enough to make any real friends from the student orgs I joined.
Even though I didn’t make a ton of friends, there were some really great people I met from living in the dorms and from some of my classes. Unfortunately, I am terrible at initiating plans. I always worried that my suggestions for hanging out would be lame, or that my friends would say no. My friends also had their own friends, and I felt needy and intrusive asking my friends to spend time with me instead of their own friends. I also totally could have asked my friends if it would be okay for me to tag along with their friends. But making that request also made me feel needy and intrusive. I perceived tagging along with my friends and their friends as if I was undeservingly inserting myself into other people’s plans. All of these thoughts constantly circulated in my head. What was even worse is the fact that I let those negative thoughts stop me from reaching out to the friends I had despite feeling lonely.
I knew that the anxious feelings I had towards my school and social life were not healthy or productive. Despite my negative mindset, I was scared to confront my issues and get help. Gaining emotional guidance from a trusted professional would have been immensely beneficial for me in understanding my anxiety, why I obsessed so much over my school work and why being around people terrified me so much.
At the same time, talking about my anxiety made my problems real. I wasn’t ready to admit that I had problems, nor was I ready to confront my mental health issues for the first two years of school. I wanted to blame all of my stress and sadness on college. School may have been a cause in why I felt so anxious and lonely. Realistically though, there were a lot of internal problems I had. The only way for me to responsibly and effectively work on my issues was to admit that I did not approach school with a healthy mindset. I avoided that conversation for as long as possible, but by junior year I knew deep down that I needed help.
Thankfully, my school offered free counseling for students. From this service, I met an amazing counselor that I felt super comfortable around. I was limited to ten free sessions throughout the school year, which averaged out to about one session a month. Even with that limitation, I got in the habit of being able to express myself verbally to someone who I felt cared about my issues. I also felt like I had a safe space to express my concerns and worries, which was extremely helpful in terms of getting through the last two years of school.
In a lot of ways, I feel like I did college wrong. I didn’t make a ton of friends and I didn’t create a lot of those memorable moments that you hear people talk about. I let my anxiety get out of control, and I worried more about school work than other important aspects of life like having a healthy school/life balance or making friends. I wasn’t proactive with my mental health, and because of that my college experience was nowhere as enjoyable as it could have been.
With that being said, just because college wasn’t great for me doesn’t mean that college has to suck for everyone who struggles with anxiety. That is why I encourage people who may struggle with anxiety like I do to have a different approach towards school than I did. Allow yourself to have a day off from school work. Devote a certain amount of your time to hanging out with friends and creating precious, awesome memories. Seek out different support systems early on so that you have a good network of support around you in case you are struggling. College is a really special time where you can be reckless, get to know yourself better and ultimately become a better person. There is no need to self-sabotage yourself and ruin that experience due to struggles with mental health.
Matthew has struggled with mental health since he was in middle school. He has recently become very passionate about expressing his journey with mental health through writing. Matthew hopes to use writing as a way to connect with others who also struggle with mental illnesses. In his free time, Matthew enjoys exercising, video editing, and binge watching movies and TV shows.
Visit Matthew on his blog Matt’s Mishaps.