I’d always been a fairly anxious person, but it was during my postgraduate degree that the daily grind of worry really got on top of me. Having survived three years of malnutrition and weeknight drinking in Newcastle, I decided to take a more serious approach to my studies. I applied to study an MA in Manchester, beginning in the autumn of 2007. This transition involved living with my parents and embarking on a daily three hour round trip to and from University. It was a lonely commute. Added to this loneliness, I didn’t connect with any of my course mates. I used to talk to a few of them before or after seminars but never struck up any friendships.
I felt isolated. No housemates, no course mates, and my home friends were mostly still scattered far and wide doing their own thing. Unwittingly I had stumbled upon a dangerous outcome – too much time to think.
Negative thoughts are the lifeblood of anxiety. They attack your self-esteem, keep your body tense and never give you a moment’s peace. It seemed to happen gradually; the thoughts in my head grew louder and I, without other people around me, was a captive audience. Four months into my course I was experiencing constant rumination which was mostly centred on my lack of confidence. I blamed myself for my loneliness and inability to connect with others:
You’re not confident enough. No one will ever give you a job when you graduate. You look like a mess. You’re boring. You’re body language shows you’re afraid. You’ll never be able to speak well in front of people. You need to work harder. You’ve got to be more successful. No girl will ever find you attractive.
At the time I didn’t know what was happening to me. I made the mistake of believing my thoughts and I strove to be a more self-assured person. I put so much pressure on myself that it became exhausting. I went to bed every night shattered yet convincing myself tomorrow was going to be different. Tomorrow everything would just click into place and I’d go out there and wow the world.
Things began to change on an idle weekday when I happened to see that the student welfare service was doing a session on boosting self-esteem. To my dismay it was fully booked, but I also saw that they ran individual counselling sessions. By this time I knew I needed help so, after plenty of deliberation, I made an appointment.
The build up to my appointment was nerve wracking. I’d never really spoke to anyone about my feelings before. I don’t know what I expected to get out of the session, perhaps some advice on being a more outgoing person. Within a few seconds of me fidgeting in the chair and attempting to mumble what was wrong with me, the counsellor said ‘you seem to be very anxious’.
I can’t remember much of what was said in that meeting. I do however vividly recall being taken through a body scan meditation. First I was asked to close my eyes and focus on my breath, which felt a little odd with a stranger sat opposite me, then I was guided to relax each of my body parts in turn and let go of any tension there.
I immediately felt different. I was calm for the first time in ages. I’d tied my body up in knots with my anxious thoughts and I didn’t realise it until now. The counsellor told me there were a couple of meditations on the university website that I could try for myself, so I downloaded a breathing exercise and a body scan and began doing them before bed. To quieten down a mind that has been chattering away all day is a beautiful feeling. I finally felt like I had a defence; body armour to block the arrows of negative thought.
I also researched further into anxiety and stumbled across social anxiety. I realised this was what I had been experiencing and it wasn’t uncommon. It helped to understand my thought processes a little better: dreading social events before they’ve happened, feeling self conscious during interactions and then berating myself afterwards for a poor performance. I began to realise what I was doing to myself – by wrestling with my negative thoughts and striving to be more confident, I was actually strangling all of the qualities that had made me a likeable person in the first place. I’d never truly understood the phrase ‘be yourself’ before then.
I began to see my own qualities as a person. I couldn’t talk in front of a group for fifteen minutes and keep them interested, but I could sit down and write a well-worded essay that received a good mark. I couldn’t instantly charm everyone I met, but with the right person I could have an in depth one on one conversation about a subject like conflict diamonds or why England failed to qualify for Euro 2008.
I began to loosen up and enjoy life again. A quiet determination had kept me up to date with my study commitments so I was able to graduate with a Merit. A month later I got my first full time job and now I am currently living happily with my girlfriend of three and half years.
Looking back I am glad I went through what I did. I’m a much stronger person now and when I do experience feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem I know what to do: I am kind to myself, I accept what I’m feeling and I don’t strive to change my personality.
But I doubt I could have done it all on my own, talking to someone was the first step to my recovery. It didn’t have to be one my family or friends, just confiding in a stranger helped me see things in a completely different light. I can’t remember the name of the counsellor but I am thankful everyday for how they helped me.
University life can be hard but most will have a student wellbeing service that you can turn to in the darkest times. You may just look back on it in six years like I do.