Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 28, 2021

Examining my anxiety and how I can manage it

By ZUBIA HASAN | October 17, 2019

How would I describe anxiety? Like thoughts but on steroids, on overdrive. Each one hits you like a knife slicing through your brain. Like this blackness that you swim in. You want to come up for air but you can't. It’s like your chest is made of a thousand stones and a rib cage that seems to be rigidly attached to your heart. Like something is itching inside of you. But instead of itching, it’s like someone is ravaging your insides and you can't stop it.

But honestly none of these descriptions are adequate for what anxiety feels like or what a panic attack feels like. I had always been an anxious person, but this anxiety in high school seemed like a good thing. It was something that drove me. This was until I had my first panic attack. My first time was the day before my chemistry lab final. I sat with the textbook in front of me, and suddenly I couldn’t read. I couldn’t breathe, and everything in front of me was black. The textbook seemed like this immense black hole that I couldn’t hold. My body was heaving and shaking, and it was like something or someone else from inside me was doing this shaking. And it really felt like my body, my thoughts and my life were not in my hands and like some unknown force was driving this. That was the first and the last time it had happened in high school. So I didn’t seek help.

Then I came to college and these instances became a lot more frequent. My grades suffered because I would panic during an exam, and I would not be able to think or write. Because I did badly in exams, I would get a mental block against the subject. When I picked up the textbook, I wouldn’t be able to hear anything other than the sound of my heart beating. It was a cycle. I couldn’t study because I would panic when I studied. So I couldn’t do the exams. And so on.

When I was told to register with the Student Disabilities Services (SDS) I was so ashamed. I felt like I was cheating. Why should I be given extra time? Why should I receive special treatment? And it was shocking. As soon as I registered with SDS my grades were improving overnight. Flexibility with assignment deadlines did not make me feel like I was suffocating under the sharp-edged sword of a fixed date.

It was more than that, though. If I could feel the onset of a panic attack during an exam, I could take the time to calm myself down without looking up to find that time had run out when I was only self-soothing. Education exists to test us on what we know. But how can my professors evaluate me when I’m unable to read or write during an exam because of a panic attack?

I struggled to come to terms with my “disability.” That struggle aside, I actually want to talk about how my anxiety now manifests and which small habits can keep it under some control. It’s weird. Now that I’m not panicking about studies, of course my mind has picked a different thing to be stressed about. When I fixate on something, I notice how that thing is usually indicative of a larger problem.

For example, recently I got a nose piercing which became infected. I obsessed over the pustule that formed on my piercing until I was at a point of cutting it off with a knife. I didn’t, but I came close. I would sit down to study and remember that my nose was infected, and then I would check it in the mirror and inspect the veiny bump with more and more concentration, until in my mind it became the most disgusting thing I had ever seen. That night I had to take sleeping pills to fall asleep, because otherwise my nose ring bump would have kept me awake all night.

The next day I realized what I was really worried about was something completely unrelated — graduate school. Something that is far, far away and out of my control. But when my mind realized that graduate school admissions were not in my control, it tried to grasp onto the little things that it wanted to control — even unrelated things like nose-bumps. It’s really a pattern that I have noticed over time. If I’m worried about my family, I’ll suddenly find myself fat-shaming myself and obsessing over my weight. In my mind, if I have a semblance of control over these small things, I’ll have control over my life. But of course that’s not true. There is no such thing as control. There is only our ability to make the best of the situations that are already happening.

I have been trying to do one thing in particular. I have really been trying to re-enforce this single thought, “I will not worry about what I can’t control.” I can’t help that my nose ring is infected. Besides cleaning it, I cannot make it go away. I can’t help that graduate school admissions will be looming soon. Other than doing my best, I cannot control the process. It’s out of my control, and that is okay. It is okay that every detail of my life is not planned out. If I obsess over it, I will not change the outcome. I will just ruin my mental health.

It is not a perfect science. Sometimes this fails. But when I repeat it over and over again like a mantra, sometimes it sticks. If you are a religious person, seeking help in prayer can also help a lot. For me this is very helpful because in a way I feel like I’m giving over control to a higher power, so it takes away the accountability of my personal tasks, like acing my exams. 

But you know, different things work for different people. Maybe meditation is your thing. Maybe taking a walk is someone else’s. The point is, anxiety affects way too many people for us to not be taking it seriously. Take some time out everyday to check up on yourself, because your peace of mind is the single greatest thing you can have. 

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