Living with Anxiety in Academia: The Importance of Acceptance and Support by Carla Aranda

When you feel death getting closer, you inevitably reminisce about your life: your best experiences; your worst moments; the things you said you were going to do but, in the end, didn’t; the things you did not expect to happen, but did. And if you contemplate on these things a bit, you will likely come to the same conclusion I reach: our life is ruled by the values we hold, which help to determine our priorities and the choices we make. For example, going to that concert instead of studying for a math test, attending that family gathering or staying home, and even bigger things like moving abroad alone or staying in your country of origin with your romantic partner. Priorities dictate our experiences, and if you don’t have much time left, you will most likely think of those hours you wasted on allegedly important (but truly irrelevant) matters.

In this blog, I will discuss my experience as an undergraduate student suffering from anxiety and how the current educational system’s flaws affect many students’ mental health and self-worth. Additionally, I will stress the importance and impact of having – and being part of – a supportive, non-stigmatizing environment, as well as share my ongoing recovery journey and what has been helpful during it.

Providing Perspective

During the pandemic, I found myself thinking on how I am a student, but I am also a daughter, a friend and a girlfriend. I have always looked for academic validation, so my grades became my measure of self-worth many years ago. Because of it, I never minded skipping meals with my parents at home or not doing anything on the weekends other than going to the library. To me, that was just the “path to success”.

However, being on lockdown made me realize how much more present I want to be in my beloved ones’ lives, and how I was giving an excessive portion of my life to my degree. On top of that, in September, I started having sudden heart palpitations, shortness of breath, heart rate rises and sweats, while also losing appetite and having trouble sleeping. I was having anxiety attacks, and when my doctor and I came to the conclusion they were triggered by my studies, I was shocked but, at the same time, it made complete sense.

The thing is, with the pandemic, the way we study has changed, but what is demanded of us has not. What before was commuting to class, sitting with your friends and having the teacher in front of you, has been replaced by non-engaging Zoom classes in your room and without the fun of being with your loved ones. For many people, we feel that we have to work as hard as possible,  even though university study has now become a lonely and remote activity, and this has inevitably affected our mood towards our studies.

In my case, it’s a constant battle between my two mindsets: The one which is always telling me that, as long as I maintain or enhance my grades, it doesn’t matter how much anxiety I have, how much I self-isolate from my friends, or how desperately unmotivated everything makes me feel or how much I feel I am wasting my youth. The other mindset tells me, “Yes, you have good grades BUT you have anxiety, you feel like crap all the time, nothing makes you feel excited, and happiness has become a much more infrequent emotion”. Having to decide which part of you is going to rule your behaviour is mentally draining, but feeling that your problem is nowhere near to being solved is even more fatiguing.

An Unsympathetic System

The education system has many flaws, but one of the most damaging for me has been some educators’ unsympathetic regard for their students’ problems.  I find this ironic given how many universities impart classes about how students can reduce academic stress and how important it is that we sleep and eat well. At the same time, in my experience, I have been constantly bombarded with messages from my professors like, “Being a bit stressed over your studies is not a real problem, wait until you have to make ends meet!”, or “Motivation is not that important, just pull yourself together and do your assignments!”, or “Only excellent people will make a living of this”, as well as belittling comments on my performance on an exam or a being belittled for asking a “dumb question”. 

For example, I once had a professor tell me my answer in an exam could have been written by her aged and uneducated father, implying it was trash and a waste of time for anyone reading it. I had been studying for that test for two weeks, while I coped with multiple anxiety attacks daily and an internship as well. I know I did my best, which was less than what I could offer for other exams, but still my best. Yet, for some time, I thought of dropping out, because she made me believe I wasn’t cut out for my degree, even though I have a deep passion for what I study and often achieve great grades. It is understandable that if an answer on an exam is not what the professor expects; the grade given reflects this. However, humiliating students to express that an answer is not entirely correct is way off the mark and, sadly, an approach me and my colleagues have witnessed more times than we would like to admit.

Many professors portray this kind of mentality, and it makes students feel like we have “champagne problems”, or that to achieve what we want, we have to sacrifice our mental health. However, we are not simply machines; we have feelings, personal issues, and some of us have significant mental health issues. Many of us are more burnt out and unmotivated than before, yet we are still held to the same standards, and in some cases, expected to do even more. For some students, being at home decreases their productivity and can limit the resources available, and without being able to focus or have access to the necessary resources, students can struggle to perform well.

Additionally, many students have had to juggle university with taking care of relatives or coping with grief during the pandemic, diminishing even more the level of attention they can direct to their courses. This is something that needs to be taken into account when considering how much universities demand of students. The environment we are in while studying affects us enormously, and its impact cannot be ignored: if the conditions are not the same as before the pandemic, schools must adapt to the situation. Otherwise, students will suffer the consequences.

However, I believe that some institutions and professors have a false belief that they are entitled to judge who gets to be “ill” and who is faking it. As a result, if you come forward, express your struggles and request any kind of accommodation to ease your struggles, you may have it denied because the teacher may think you are inventing it. In my view, this happens due to professors’ prior experiences, ignorance or simple arrogance. I find this frustrating: what is the harm of believing what you are told? What is so good about taking the risk of hampering someone’s life, just because you found out one person lied to you many years ago? Professors need to truly understand that many of us combine our degree with work, with mental health conditions and economic problems, and these can impact our performance significantly.

Improving The Situation

What I have realized through this past year with an anxiety disorder is the following: in many ways, the educational system is messed up. It was already messed up before, and now it is even more important that we try to improve it because of the pandemic and its increasingly negative impact on students’ mental health. I believe that one day it will get better, but in the meantime, solutions must come from aspects that we can control. For instance, we can insist our faculty to demand that professors complete a training course on students’ mental health struggles. We can also try to focus on improving other things in our lives other than the educational environment, like how gentle we are with our own struggles or who we surround ourselves with in our leisure time. In some cases, the educational system is not the only detriment to the students’ mental health and there are some factors that are easier to address than the academic culture. In my case, I have been trying to focus on improving my self-perception and working to understand my anxiety and my triggers. For me, the more I understand, the better I manage my struggles.

I try to imagine my situation as a road trip: I am the car, and my destination is recovery from this disorder, but on the way there I may encounter a simple straight highway or a winding one. I may even go wrong and get in a diversion, but in the end, I will reach my goal.

For me, the process, the road trip, is still ongoing. Being aware that I have an issue to be addressed was my first step. You can ignore your problems but that won’t make them disappear; thus, it’s better to face them. The next thing for me was identifying my triggers: I needed to know what caused my panic attacks in order to: a) avoid them, and b) manage them. For me, knowing what gave me anxiety didn’t mean having fewer panic attacks but rather a feeling of peace that came with understanding myself better. From that moment on, it has been an exercise of finding what calms me the most (painting, breathing exercises, repeating statements, etc). I also found comfort in knowing there are other people feeling how I feel, as well as being aware that there are more academics who think the same way I do about higher education. However, above everything, I found comfort in accepting I have anxiety and slowly getting rid of the shame associated with the diagnosis.

There is a huge amount of stigma around mental health conditions, leading people to believe they should mask whatever they are suffering because they may be perceived as weak or make people uncomfortable. Stigma can lead to social isolation, reluctance to seek help and lower self-esteem, hence aggravating psychiatric symptoms. 

Supporting Ourselves and Others

Luckily, I have a very supportive family environment, as well as understanding friends, so initially I didn’t feel ashamed about having an anxiety disorder. However, I realized this was not completely true when I had a panic attack during an internship. I was filling a beaker with water, with my post-doc next to me, and my heart started to race. I was completely freaked out on the inside (bear in mind being in the lab usually calmed my anxiety, so this was my first time having a problem with it there), but I kept filling it until I got dizzy and couldn’t continue anymore. I had to tell my post-doc, with whom I had never discussed my condition, that I was having a panic attack and needed to stop to take a pill. He was super understanding, told me to take as much time as I needed and offered me food and drink. However, I still felt very ashamed throughout the entire day, so it got me thinking: if I, with a very nice and understanding workmate, was ashamed to show I have anxiety in the workplace, how would it have been if I had a different post-doc, with a negative opinion about people with mental health disorders?

There are countless people who suffer the consequences of having not only an unfavourable work environment, but also an unsympathetic family and little to no social support; many of these people don’t speak up, seek treatment or get better. Stigma around mental health illnesses must end, and it will only do so if we talk openly on these matters. It is also important that we educate both ourselves and others, and acknowledge that mental illnesses are as important as physical ones and we normalize their treatment. Speaking up about stigma is also important. If someone from your university has discriminated you for having a mental health condition, please report them. If you read a news article using stigmatizing language, call the author out openly. Change and progress will only come if we speak up and make sure it happens.

So please, if those around you are struggling with mental ill health, believe them and choose your words carefully. You will have a lasting impact on your relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and students –  make it a good one.

Carla Aranda

Carla is a 4th year Human Biology undergraduate student, a degree in which she has found a growing interest for cancer research. She is especially interested in the factors determining a patient’s prognosis. Based in Barcelona, Spain, in her spare time she enjoys sunrises at the beach, watching ocean documentaries and going to concerts.  She is also passionate about travelling. You can find her tweeting at @lightsoncarla