The Blog

University Alleviated My Anxiety

Anxiety has a nasty habit of controlling your life, and I feel education is one of the areas in which people suffer most. For me, at least, university turned out to be something of a cure, albeit of the toughest order, rather than the devil's own work.

Sitting in a cramped room at my local university's History Open Day in Preston, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to handle uni. I was feeling all the effects of a nicely germinating panic attack, trying to keep myself together and hoping nobody would think too deeply into my perpetual leg spasms, while feeling like the man from the Lynx adverts, ejecting sweat. At this point I'd suffered from Anxiety for about six years, and it had blighted my school and college education. I'd been spouting all the self-defensive bullshit to anyone who'd ask, claiming I didn't see the benefits of university and that there was no point in it, convincing myself as much as them that this wasn't a decision dictated by Anxiety. I decided to flirt with an Open Day, just in case it changed my mind.

It didn't.

I was sat in a room with fifteen other people, falling to pieces. Some lovely chap was enthusiastically talking to us about all the programme had to offer, and I probably absorbed one sentence throughout the entire ordeal as my mind ran off, chasing down scenarios of my imminent death. It was frustrating, but by this time I was resigned to my fate. Anxiety had emerged victorious and my life would be curbed. I'd been through NHS counsellors, private counsellors, CBT, beater-blockers, serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitors, sedatives, and some drugs I've forgotten. I wasn't for fixing.

Two months later I was on the motorway in my parents' car, my worldly possessions stashed in the boot. I was on the way to Newcastle to move in before university. I felt sick for the entire journey and I'm pretty sure my mum and dad wondered what the fuck I was playing at. 'Shit, or bust' went my grandfather's poetic take on the motto 'do, or die', and I'd opted for the former. I'm a stubborn individual, some say arrogant, and I was putting my foot down. I knew I was in for hell, but if I was going to die in a lecture theatre, so be it.

This wasn't a brave decision, or me being strong, it was a basic human instinct. If you're stuck in a bleak room, and between you and normality lies a minefield, you'll stay in that room. Probably for quite a long time. But the day will come when you decide you'd rather lose some limbs sprinting for freedom than accept your situation. I was making a run for it.

My first semester was a shocker. I attended as many lectures and seminars as possible, but I was constantly uneasy. I would sit with my hundred or so co-historians sweating, going dizzy, considering making a dash for the exit, having multiple heart attacks, and dying several times over. Then the lecture would finish and life was a bit better, until the next time. Then I would die some more and have a couple more heart attacks and lose my own body weight in sweat, all over again. This went on for months, and I was actually starting to wonder whether my counsellor had been bullshitting me when he said exposure works.

But then the feelings became less severe. The sensation of having a heart attack wasn't constant, I was having some respite between peaks in my anxiety levels and could concentrate on the lecture more. A month or so later, I was concentrating more on the lecture and the heart attacks and falling roof, or the collapsing floor and internal combustion were almost a sideshow. It wasn't a smooth process, and some days were a step backwards. Perhaps I'd have mild anxiety throughout a lecture on Jimmy Carter, then revert back to a well-matured panic attack while learning about Calvinism and the Reformation the next day. The setting often determined my anxiety levels, a short, fat room gave me more problems than a longer, gradated room. My progress was a fluctuating upward trend, growth was slow, hard to predict in the short term, but generally moving north.

In the second semester, I felt more confident and I had noticed how far I'd come, but I couldn't seem to shake it off completely. I would be sat in lectures with, at the very least, an underlying humming of anxiety and worry that was so annoying! It was somewhere between a resurgence of Anxiety Disorder and a sort of defiant last stand before it fell. I couldn't figure out what I had to do to bury it. I went to see my GP and we discussed the possibility of a low dosage of sertraline to take away these last feelings of anxiety completely. I'd been pretty wary of medication since my failed experiments a few years ago. I had a slight concern that I would then only be starving the beast and it might rear its ugly head further down the line if I came off medication. But I decided as a short-term solution, so I could focus on studying, it wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Since the second semester of first year, I have been on sertraline which has really helped to get me inches from the finishing line. A combination of exposure, perseverance, and a little help from 50mg sertraline per day have brought me within sight of that line. The real test will be coming off the sertraline, however because of the progress I've made I'm almost certain I will make the transition smoothly and that Anxiety need define me no longer. I've also been reassured by the fact I frequently forget to take my pills for up to a week on end and never feel anything more than a rogue pang of self-awareness when walking across my packed library computer room.

The success I've had at university, though not complete, has also been transferred into other areas of my life, like social situations and simple things like going to watch the mighty Clarets at Turf Moor - something I couldn't do for a very long time without dying in the process, of course. I can cross bridges without floating off into the sky (a misconception brought on by Anxiety and not Acid, would you believe) and I don't drink anywhere near as much alcohol as I used to, in pursuit of numb paradise: a sure sign I'm not suffering like I was.

Anxiety has a nasty habit of controlling your life, and I feel education is one of the areas in which people suffer most. For me, at least, university turned out to be something of a cure, albeit of the toughest order, rather than the devil's own work. Perhaps it won't be the same for everyone, but thinking of how close I came to missing out on university and the opportunities it brings, purely because of Anxiety, makes me wonder how many others face the same decision.