Ever since I was old enough to have tasks and assignments and best friends, I have suffered from crippling anxiety. I now remember why I have so often found myself with no obligations, bored, searching for things to do with my life half-heartedly. It’s not because I am apathetic about life; it’s because I instinctively avoid innate stress triggers without consciously knowing it.
I coasted through most of middle school, junior high, and high school with flashes of brilliance but with little effort and only above average results. I knew I was smart and not lazy, but once homework really started pouring in, I was unable to focus on it enough to get it thoroughly finished. If I actually wanted to do it, it would take me all night because of the focus issues. Instead, I put in 3/4ths effort and spent the remainder of my time playing or watching sports and enjoying adolescence and friendships. I realized that spending 2 hours or less doing homework at a B to B+ level was much better than spending 8 hours or more doing homework at an A- to A level. But things changed when senior year of high school rolled around.
I realized I needed to actually try, to put my all into tough classes to increase my GPA for college applications. Most senior schedules are a joke, but mine consisted entirely of AP or some form of advanced classes. Just one class alone meant a significant amount of work outside the classroom for anyone, but six of them? What was I doing?
I was on Zoloft by the time senior year had ended…
College applications and essays, standardized tests, scholarships, growing insecurities and social anxiety, college credit classes, senior year bureaucratic stuff, graduation, church, college visits, a bittersweet awareness of friendships that will end or be altered, work, extracurriculars, senioritis, joint custody, family apprehension about losing me soon, etc. These are things we all have to face, but I don’t know how anyone is able to tackle it all and stay sane. My mind amplifies the stress by stressing over stress.
I knew this year would be a ton of work. I was fully prepared for the amount of homework and studying I would need to do, even on weekends and/or at the expense of hanging out with friends. What I was not prepared for, however, was the mental toll that would take place. Here is how a typical day would go: wake up, eat breakfast, fight back nervous feeling in stomach about schoolwork and what classes would have in store for me today. Brush teeth. Fight back nervous feeling about the girl I kind of liked. Stress over it to the point where I make myself think I have a huge crush. Drive to school. See the girl. The stress in the back of my mind tells me I obviously am crazy about this girl since I think about her so much (even though “thinking about her” is just quantity of thoughts, not quality or magnitude of crush). First class. Focus on listening and taking notes and retaining as much information as possible. Imagine test questions. Second class. Think about first class while also listening and taking notes and retaining information for tests. Third class. Think about first and second while focusing. Think about girl. Think about thinking about girl. Think about thinking about homework. Lunch. Think about all the homework I need to do. Last three classes. Bell rings. Think about how much work I will have to do when I get home. (Everyone else’s day is over, and they’re all smiling and sigh in relief. My day is just beginning. I can’t smile or think about being relaxed). Think about getting home and being anxious. Get home. Anxiously think about girl and homework. Eat a quick snack if there is time. Go to quiet place and do work. Eat quick dinner. Say no to friends who want to hang out. Do homework until it is all done. When it is all done, do work for the future. Study notes for future tests to keep my mind fresh. Lay in bed. Think about girl. Think about social anxiety and friends. Think about work that still needs to be done. Combine thinking about girl, social anxiety and friends, and work that still needs to be done into one overwhelming consolidated thought. Try but fail to sleep. Think about anything else that causes stress, which leads to less sleep. Focus on breathing in order to sleep, which leads to even less sleep. Get up and do some more studying to reduce the stress I’m feeling. Go to bed somewhat relieved. Sleep a few hours if lucky.
It seemed like I was more anxious when I had very little to do. So I just gave myself more to do. There’s always something, unless you have the entire year’s work complete. I would dream about practice problems. I would wake up answering tough Western Civ multiple choice questions. I would triple-check the homework my Precalc teacher never graded.
I had hidden anxiety: during every single second of my day, I was thinking about something I needed to do in the back of my head. At first, it was a simple reminder to get a certain thing done. But my mind built it up until it was “something to do” and then “a bunch of stuff to do” and then “so much stuff to do” and then “stress.” By this point, I forgot what the original thing was. These constant thoughts overwhelmed my mind. I wouldn’t usually be able to pinpoint a specific task I needed to do (if there was one at all), but because my mind kept reminding me I had things to accomplish and be stressed about, I became stressed. When I actually did have a lot to do, my mind would go into overdrive, and the stress would be augmented. By the time I actually got to a test or a quiz, I felt like I had already taken it multiple times in my mind. That’s good for knowing the material, but the mental strain involved in “taking” that many tests is agonizing.
Because of this, I started losing my mind. I went through the first quarter or so with relative ease. But when the winter approached, nothing was natural anymore. I started overanalyzing. I got obsessed with doing more and more work at a high level. I was burnt out by midterm finals.
When the second semester started, I had nothing left in the tank. I somehow managed to get all A’s and one B, but the quality of work was much lower, and I had to try harder to do easy things. I started having physical issues. I never had eye issues in my life, yet I began to suffer from vision loss. I forgot how to walk up and down stairs, and I frequently tripped. My left eyelid no longer closed completely when I wanted to sleep, so I slept on my left side to push my cheek up to cover the eye. I started losing a little bit of hair. Everything that could possibly twitch on my body began twitching. I had heartburn and chest pains. I forgot how to breathe, and the more I thought about breathing, the less I could do it naturally. I started having horrible memory. Words stopped having meaning unless I thought about them a few times, in which case I was behind in whatever else was said. I started having horrible sinus headaches. My heartbeat could be seen and heard more from random places, like my thumbs and ears. I forgot how to eat. I even forgot how to spell as well. Much of this was the constantly increasing obsession over thinking stemming from schoolwork, which simply translated to overthinking in otherwise simple areas of my life. Other issues, though, were not that simple to me.
I went to the doctor over the physical ailments – nothing like this had ever happened to me before. He told me it was extreme stress and anxiety. I laughed. I wasn’t stressed at all, in my mind, and it scares me I was actually able to justify it. Regardless, he put me on an antidepressant.
College was almost the inverse: I worked pretty darn hard for three years, then senior year rolled around. I stopped the antidepressant for a while, and I was faced with extreme apprehension. Because of the burnt out feeling I had experienced before, I took the opposite approach and stopped trying at all. I skipped classes on a regular basis. I was an Economics senior project away from a Finance and Economics double major, but I dropped out of it. I hung out with friends more and cared about important finance classes less. I put little work into group projects, contrary to all of my beliefs on the subject. I was okay with mediocrity if it meant sanity. My nearly perfect GPA took a hit, and it was luck that barely kept me in the summa cum laude range. I did not care at all about my future or my major. Part of me felt great to have no worries, but part of me was immeasurably depressed because I had no life plans.
My grad school experience in SF was more of a malaise than stress. Nonetheless, it was very difficult, I was extremely stressed, and I did drop out for a while.
(Technically) the same grad school in a new location, a new environment, and a number of failed drugs later (and 1 year removed from all antidepressants), I am once again facing the beast. Grad school is tough again. This internship requires a ton of thinking. The CFA is a future challenge that can never be studied for enough. Et cetera. I’m kind of burnt out – this is similar to my high school senior year, the last time I had this much stress while not on an antidepressant. I don’t have time for any obligations. There is uncertainty regarding graduation and jobs. My lease ends in May. Instead of seeing my friends on the weekends, I do work. When I have some time for myself to watch sports or get some exercise, I am only 20% into it; 80% of my mind is thinking about everything I need to do in one collective unfocused stressful thought.
My take: I need to find an extremely low-stress environment. If there is even a remote semblance of stress, my mind will make it a big deal and I’ll burn myself out. If stress is going to be an issue, it better be with something I love so I can handle it.
The positive: It’s temporary. It will all end by June. I won’t ever have school again in my life, most likely. Yes, other things will take over, but I’m assuming they won’t be as stressful.
I know what you’re thinking. Every grad student and young adult goes through this trying period, and I’ll look back and laugh when it’s all over. That is partially true, but not every grad student goes through this period doubled, or tripled. My mind is taking this challenging, productive, and exciting period in my life and turning it into a job. In this job, I’m working first shift, second shift, and part of third shift.
I don’t know how some of you do it. I wish I had the key. I wish I could think about tasks and duties and stressful situations only when necessary instead of constantly. I wish I could see what I had to do clearly instead of having a foggy notion that I always have something unknown to do. I don’t plan on taking antidepressants ever again, but I need to find a solution somewhere. This real world thing is just insanely hard to handle; I need to get a grip on it before it eats me alive.