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5 Realizations That Helped Me Cope With My Anxiety in College

Here's what my struggles with anxiety at Harvard taught me about the human mind, and how I learned to deal with it.

Zhur Sa/ Shutterstock
Zhur Sa/ Shutterstock

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

I remember standing for two and half hours at the immigration checkpoint at New Delhi airport with my heavy backpack. I remember the immigration officer questioning the person standing in the parallel queue at the Boston airport. I remember walking into the lanes of Harvard nine months back wondering if I will ever feel at home at a university in a foreign land. When you look around and realize most of the people do not look like you or sound like you, what is it that you tell yourself?

As I prepare to graduate, I ask myself what has been that one emotional experience that my mind has frequently and almost reflexively visited, the most as I came to study in America. Turns out it has been anxiety. As much as I live with happiness, sadness, and immense gratitude, I also live with ever pervasive anxiety.

The Webster dictionary defines anxiety as “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill,” whereas if we look at anxiety as a disorder, one of the many ways in which the DSM IV and V describe it is as “excessive worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).”

As a lover of psychology, an educator, and a graduate student studying human development, the first promise that I made to myself (which I learned from some of my amazing professors at Harvard) was to never pathologize human emotions, behavior, and experiences. Behavior is highly contextual in nature and as reflexively as our evolutionary minds might do it, we must not be quick at arriving upon conclusions and judgments of our own emotional experiences and inner lives.

However, easier said than done, it took me time and enormous patience to realize how I had pathologized my personal narratives of living with anxiety.

Just like depression, anxiety is a kind of psychological distress that is very nuanced and personalized to our own self-expression. Which means how anxiety colors my world viewpoints and life experiences might be completely different from how anyone else might experience it.

However, over the course of my time here, here are a few ways in which the ways in which I look at my own anxiety has evolved as well as realizations that have helped me to live with it:

1). Recognizing that difficult emotions are real, an inevitable part of life, and that we all have our personal narratives of what is difficult for us.

Famous Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David in her work on Emotional Agility (I love her TED Talk on the same subject) talks about how “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.” Difficult emotions are real and brushing them aside or pushing them under the carpet and trying to excessively optimistic even when difficulties appear in our life is one of the many ways in which we forcefully color-code our inner lives and is one of the root causes of ever-pervasive anxiety. As Susan gracefully states, “Tough emotions are a part of our contract with life. You don’t get to build a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort.”

A graduate student life at one of the most world-renowned universities would not have happened without my contract with difficult emotions. However, being sincerely cognizant of these difficult emotions and recognizing their presence in my life and learning not to inadvertently shame myself from having them has not just helped me survive, but emotionally thrive during my time here.

2). Reminding myself that it’s OK to be not OK, and that the current state of my mind is not going to be a permanent state of my life.

It is my personal favorite narrative of self-compassion and has helped me tremendously in the past as well as during my challenging times here at Harvard.

Being a graduate student at a top-tier university can also been a constant reminder to one of their privileges in life and how you must constantly be grateful for your experiences and count your blessings and opportunities instead of being worried or anxious.

What I have realized and understood during my time here is that it is almost impossible and humanely unjust to expect yourself to be all cheerful, grateful, and optimistic all the time. Instead if you take moments of quiet contemplation to remind yourself that it’s OK to be not okay from time and again, you will end up being way less anxious about your life experiences and narratives.

3). Taking time to build trust and looking at vulnerability as a strength.

Any human relationship takes time to build trust and for an authentic connection to be built vulnerability is one of the most important traits you need to demonstrate. No wonder famous Professor from the University of Houston, Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability has been one of the most popular researches on human connection in the present day world.

If you don’t take time to be vulnerable, you are missing out on your abilities to connect with your fellow human being, and if you don’t take time to trust another person or expand your human network of authentic connections, there will be a part of you that will start believing that anxiety is very specific only to your life narrative, which will conspire with your abilities of developing trust and building connections with yourself and others.

4). Planning your life but remaining open to possibilities.

The anxious mind continuously looks for the perfect answer to not face difficult emotions and thus design a life avoiding difficulties or future possibilities in life. Which is why we often try to plan every single day of our lives. Routines and rituals are essential to these planning and help us survive. But what we must also remember is that life is full of possibilities, and that in our very finite existence we must remain open to planning as well as possibilities.

Being consciously mindful of our personal anxieties that mostly stem out of fears and our abilities to deal with uncertainties, and reminding ourselves that our existence is very finite and that we must plan a life based on our values but also remain open to possibilities, is one of the most important reminders that will help us in thriving despite the ever anxious nature of our human mind.

5). Developing a deep sense of appreciation for your own existence.

We often appreciate others way more than we appreciate ourselves. It is easy to mix up our understanding and practice of self-compassion with our narratives of selfishness, self-loathing or being narcissistic. In a world that applauds perfectionism, it can be very difficult to sincerely appreciate ourselves as we constantly compare our lives or life choices with others. However, reminding ourselves that we are very unique in our own ways and that we have a very finite existence, the fact that we have come to this world alone and will be leaving it alone and that it is our foremost sacred duty to be compassionate towards our own life experiences and our inner emotional lives, is one of the best self-talk we can practice to develop the abilities of self-compassion.

Take moments of your everyday life to cherish your own imperfect humane existence and it will be one of the best muscles you can develop to calm your ever anxious mind.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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