Content note: this article contains detailed discussion of anxiety. 

In a high-stress environment like Cambridge, it’s inevitable that you will come across some difficulties. There are the usual challenges that everyone is familiar with: making friends, learning to cook, getting work done, and so on. But for those dealing with mental health issues, university can be hard for different reasons. I have had anxiety for about ten years, and this, coupled with a phobia of sickness, has had a heavy impact on my life. Coping with endless worries without the immediate support of my parents during first year has been both a tricky but enlightening experience. I have learned that being honest about my anxiety with friends is surprisingly helpful, for me and for them.

When I was little, I over-analysed everything. My perpetual worrying (and increasing fear of sickness, now my phobia) affected every decision I made. If my best friends from primary school knocked on my door asking me if I wanted to come and play with them, I would almost always refuse. My parents would get frustrated with me; they thought I didn’t want to socialise, and couldn’t understand why I would choose not to spend time with my friends. What they didn’t know was that I desperately wanted to go and play with them. I wanted to so badly that it hurt. The thought of leaving the house without my parents was too overwhelming for me to deal with, and my anxiety won. 

In secondary school, I struggled even more. Every morning, I would get to school and lock myself in a toilet cubicle. There, I would frantically text my mum — whom I had last seen only twenty minutes before as I left the house — all of my worries. Silly things like "I’ve forgotten to bring a pen" caused me terrible stress. I struggled to focus in lessons, and was often worried to the point that I felt ill. I was always on the verge of tears and was so sensitive that even the slightest inconvenience could push me over the edge. I would cry on the phone to my mum, begging her to pick me up and take me home. I was very quiet and probably came across as shy and withdrawn. But I wasn’t, at least not really. I seemed distant because I was trying both to protect myself from and fight the anxiety monsters that were always raging in my head. 

When I was little, I over-analysed everything

Anxiety prevented me from being myself, and my first years at secondary school are marked in my mind as my darkest times. Not even the amazing support from my parents and the help that I received from my counsellor, who taught me ways to cope with my phobia, could prevent my worries from controlling me. 

Once I started sixth form, I was determined to become a new person. I felt freedom like never before when I left secondary school and finally met people who didn’t know the shy, scared me from before. My change in attitude, and determination to challenge myself and overcome elements of my anxiety allowed me to become the person I knew I should have been all those years before. I was far from perfect — my anxiety affected me every day, but I became more able to deal with it, precisely because I put myself in situations that proved my fears wrong. I had to unlearn my rigid superstitions. 

But I had not yet learned to be kind to myself. Intent on getting into Cambridge, I worked myself so hard and stressed and worried whenever I wasn’t revising. The feeling of not being in control constantly triggered my anxiety. I punished myself with guilt, then punished myself some more by fretting and not spending time with family and friends. Once I got my place at Cambridge, I realised that once again, things had to change. I had improved, but I had a long way to go.


Mountain View

When self-care becomes self-sabotage

At university, regardless of whether you have anxiety, it is always good to be reminded to look for comfort in friends and in turn offer them your shoulder. Being open is hugely helpful in such an intense environment. I decided to talk about my anxiety with my new friends at university; I was living with them after all, so they’d have to be prepared in case I had a panic attack. I was amazed at how therapeutic it felt to tell someone about an issue I had always kept quiet about. Our conversations about both my mental health and mental health as a whole were a source of great help. Being open made me feel more genuine. I felt like if I was having a moment of particularly bad anxiety, I could just say so and not feel alone. I was never judged, and never felt the need to pretend that everything was always okay. I could be myself. For those of you with anxious friends, I advise you to talk to them about it, asking them how you can help and what you can do when they are distressed. This can really help to make them feel safer.

Self-compassion is vital. Essentially, do unto yourself as you would do unto others. We are easily compassionate towards our friends, but we deserve kindness from ourselves too. For worriers like myself, it is vital to keep in mind that one day the desire to do the thing you want to do will be stronger than the worry about doing it, and that anxiety can be overcome. In this academically brutal environment, it is important that we forgive and accept ourselves. In this way, we can deal with whatever life throws at us. We should talk about our experiences, be aware that we all face personal challenges, and create a network of compassion so that no one falls through the cracks.

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