Worrying about Worrying

“I’m so stressed!”

This is something we’ve all definitely heard from someone or said ourselves.

But what does it actually mean? I used to assume that it was a trivial thing, just said when you had “a lot on your plate”, and then it went away – whatever “it” was. I mean, stress is just a temporary feeling, right? It’s something we all have to deal with, and when the work’s done, it’s over. Just get on with it and stop panicking!

This is exactly the sort of thing I would say to myself whenever I felt the pressure of exams or coursework become overwhelming. Newsflash: it didn’t help me at all.

And, let’s be honest, university is stressful, for everyone. Did you catch that? EVERYONE. When you feel low, it’s easy to assume that this is just a problem you are having, and everyone else is miraculously getting on with their perfect lives, effortlessly juggling uni coursework, exams, social stuff, a job. In fact, it’s easy to assume that you are the problem – you’re just over-reacting to the demands of university. Your mind says: you signed up for this, so deal with it like everyone else is – but the work piles on, and your mood is steadily deteriorating, and everything is just getting worse, and oh, God, I can’t do this, I’m going to fail-

Does this sound familiar to you? I’m sorry, it must not be very pleasant to read if this is what you’re constantly telling yourself. And this is exactly the kind of thing that would be constantly repeating inside my head, my own harsh, critical mantra that would never stop.

And, this is where I’ll get a bit more serious. While stress is not a mental illness in and of itself, left unchecked, it can cause and aggravate anxiety and depression.

Many of us are affected by the stigma still surrounding mental health. We instinctively view the world in black and white: you are either ‘totally okay’ or ‘totally not okay’- whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The thing is, mental health is a spectrum. And, the idea that there is a gulf of separation between the ‘well’ and the ‘unwell’ is really harmful. It can cause people who are struggling to put off getting help or hide how they’re really feeling. They believe their thoughts are ‘wrong’ – how dare they be feeling like this, when those who face x, y and z have it so much worse… And that spirals into more guilty thoughts, thinking that they’re just self-indulgent for wallowing in being ‘a bit down’. Self-esteem lowers, and to top it all off, they can experience worrying physical symptoms. These often include difficulty breathing, grinding teeth, insomnia, chest pains, dizziness, headaches. But, they dismiss all of this, believing that they’re just over-reacting, and need to pull themselves together.

Why do I know this? Because all of these things were my own thoughts and experiences. I hid my stress for so long that it turned into anxiety. And, I’m writing this to let people know that if, for whatever reason, you’re feeling overwhelmed or just not yourself at all, and that’s scaring you, it’s going to be okay. You might not believe that right now, but it will be, I promise.

Personally speaking, my stress and anxiety was partly triggered by a constant pressure I put under myself to perform well at university, setting ridiculously high standards so that, no matter what, I was always disappointed in myself. And, when you think like that, it’s often easy to believe that your course work and results are what define your worth as a person. So it’s very demoralising if you put one foot wrong in your work.

It’s obvious to me now that attitude wasn’t healthy and I wasn’t treating myself with the kindness I deserved. But, when you’re in that mind-set of racing, anxious thoughts, it’s difficult to realise how hard you’re being on yourself.

So, to anyone who is reading this and thinks ‘oh, that’s me’ – even just the tiniest bit – then please, please tell someone how you’re feeling. Honestly, you will feel so much better just by talking to someone. And don’t feel guilty. Your happiness is important.  Half the battle for me was the relief of no longer bottling up my own thoughts.

At the end of the day, all of us are going to feel stressed at some point. But, if it feels like it’s getting a bit too much, then say! There is support available – from family, friends, your GP, the student counselling service. You deserve to enjoy your time at university. You don’t have to struggle alone.

[Jenna Burns – @Jenna_221b]

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