Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Kelsey Vita, student body president at the College of William & Mary. She, along with the rest of the student assembly, is working to expand access to mental health resources at the college level. She plans to study law and hopes to pursue a career in human rights advocacy.
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Growing up, I constantly sought perfection; after my parents separated, it allowed me to escape the shifting unknown of my home life. I didn’t realize it until years later at college, but I was suffering from generalized anxiety.
Academics became a source of distraction from whatever was bothering me in my personal life, but it was a tenuous one that demanded constant excellence. Thoughts of anything less than an A sent me into a spiral of negativity, making it increasingly difficult to communicate with others and keep up with my to-do list.
Somewhere along my development into a young adult, I began to equate success and self-worth. As a college sophomore, my anxiety was at its worst; I experienced attacks weekly.
Now, I am in such a better place. I have been on a medication for over a year, and my symptoms are under control. I see a therapist semi-regularly, and my anxiety attacks have grown much more infrequent. As student body president, I am an advocate for better mental health resources at the college level. I have an amazing team working alongside me. And while I believe I could have made it through college ignoring my symptoms, I wonder, what kind of experience would it have been?
My anxiety is a shape-shifter. Sometimes, it appears in the form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Other times, it manifests as a strong urge to cry, which lasts anywhere from 10 minutes to a few hours. Usually, it involves shortness of breath and headaches. When my physical symptoms are more intense, I try to center myself with deep breaths. Sometimes, I am able to lie down and sleep it off. When my day is too busy to lie down, I try to find time to slip away to a restroom or outdoor nook to get some personal space.
Mentally, my anxiety presents as unfounded and persistent fears — fears that I know are irrational but nevertheless slither into my brain space. The most commonly recurring fears involve tiny mistakes leading to insurmountable obstacles that prevent me from reaching my goals, whether the goal is getting into law school or getting through the day without any issues. During these episodes, I experience repetitive self-blame and criticism. Other common fears involve making small mistakes in simple conversations, forgetting to lock the door despite checking multiple times, and bad things happening to those I care about.
When my anxiety was at its worst, episodes of emotional sensitivity interfered with my ability to focus and interact normally with others, leading me to cancel plans and meetings if my usual coping mechanisms were not working. These were the days I usually needed to wait at least an hour for the wave to pass, which could feel isolating.
I have a few good go-to coping mechanisms, and most of them involve being outside.
I love to wander off someplace in nature with a book and tea and unplug from the rest of the world for a little bit. Deep breaths make a big difference for me as well. Focusing on the movement of my breath, in and out, takes my mind off of anxiety-inducing thoughts. Yoga also does wonders and leaves my brain feeling aligned with my body in a peaceful way.
Millennials and Generation Z-ers face extensive societal pressure to meet this mysterious, undefined definition of “success.” I strongly believe this is related to the increasing percentage of young adults with anxiety. We seek fulfilling careers and financial security, yet we’re in the midst of a student debt crisis and toxic political climate. We get labeled as “snowflakes” when we become overwhelmed by the world around us, leading us to fail to achieve conventional indicators of success: high GPAs, high salaries and high-profile positions. The constant presence of technology and social media further complicates our development. No generation before us has been bombarded with news so quickly or so frequently.
There is a positive flip: College students are mobilizing to promote mental wellness. We are refusing to accept that anxiety is a necessary symptom of success culture and redefining success. We are advocating for a country where every student and every person has access to the mental health care they need.
I hope the Anxiety Chronicles’ small, kind corners of the internet encourage others to seek the care they deserve and be content with imperfect progress.