When I turned three years old, my family held a party in my childhood backyard as the last of summer's rays began to fade into fall. A large group of people had come to celebrate my third trip around the sun, but that day under the blue sky among the fading green hues and festivities something in me violently flickered on. I don't remember it well, but my mother remembers it distinctly. All of the people, noise, and stimulation quickly became too much for me, so I ran to the only place I knew I could find solitude: the forest. Even at a young age, I knew that nature was my safe space. I ignored the calls from people coming after me as ran as fast as I could towards the safety of the trees while tears streamed down my face.
Since that day almost twenty years ago I have dealt with anxiety. Anxiety has shaped my life in many ways and has dictated a number of decisions in both my academic and personal life. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have said "no" to an opportunity because it terrified me. I also don't talk about my anxiety. I can count the number of people I've talked to about it on one hand, and it took years for me to even tell them. It was never something I felt I needed to talk about, it was my problem and I would deal with it on my own. I didn't want to burden others with my problems and I certainly didn't want them to see me as "weak" or "crazy." This was especially important in academic spaces and places where I performed research and/or dove. It was critical that people saw me as competent and unbreakable, not as a scared girl withdrawing into herself. Most of my life I kept my anxiety and my personal issues to myself. I suffered alone. I was a strong enough woman, I could handle it without needing to involve other people.
But what do you do when you are suddenly thrust into a place where virtually everything that makes you nervous is thrown at you at the same time while you are simultaneously fighting through mountains of work and other personal stresses? What do you do when it's so much at once that you feel yourself starting to lose your grip?
Being a scientist with anxiety can be so incredibly difficult. I worked so hard during my undergraduate years to actually learn and understand the material because I knew it was important, and I know that I understand the concepts. Sometimes, however, working in a laboratory when you are still in the process of learning the specific protocols can make you doubt yourself tremendously. I constantly find myself doubting things that in university I would have never doubted. That self-deprecating cycle spins itself mercilessly as I find myself panicking because I don't get something right on the first try. I'll feel my heart rate rise as I worry because I don't automatically know how to do a technique that, quite frankly, I shouldn't know how to do since I haven't been working here all of my life. I feel the pressure to be the perfect scientist, the perfect Spanish speaker, and the perfect social person. All of my anxieties and self-doubts race around in my head alongside my stress and sometimes it is all just too much. Sometimes I simply feel lost in an endless sea with no one to help me, a lone sailor with no stars to guide me home.
Being a human with anxiety can be so incredibly difficult, too. At the end, we are all humans with emotions, backgrounds, and motivations that shape who we are and how we think. Everyone is different, everyone handles things differently. Everyone moves at a different pace, and that is okay. You should never judge your progress based on someone else's progress. Progress is still progress, regardless of the speed. For me, I often find that it takes me substantially longer to do something that is often considered "normal" for others. It took me two years to use the bus system in Chile because it terrified me, but eventually I did it in my own time on my own terms. A flower blooms when it is ready. You will achieve it, but it will happen when it is time.
It is so important to have a support system. For years, I thought I had to do it completely on my own. I thought if I opened up to someone, it would bother them, burden them, or make them think less of me. I didn't want to place the exhaustion and strain I constantly felt onto someone else, and so for most of my life I remained quiet and never said a word to anyone. No one knew, and that was exactly how I liked it. I held onto my secrets so tightly as if they were diamonds instead of hot coals that were burning my skin and tearing me to shreds. But sometimes, life becomes too much for one person to handle on their own. After years of silence, I finally opened up to a few trusted people. Hearing the precious words "I understand you" is like cool water in a vast, wind-beaten and sun-stricken wilderness. People who care about you want to help you, and they want to help you become a better person. Having someone who understands that maybe parties make you anxious or that "normal" activities are sometimes too much for you can make a tremendous difference. Opening up was one of the best things I ever did, but I'm still holding back a lot. I still fight the feeling of burdening or exhausting people. I still restrain myself from talking about most of my anxieties and issues for fear that people will see me as someone who is exhausting to be around or has too many problems. Why is it that when I use the phrase, "You can talk to me about anything you need, I'm always here for you," I mean it with the utmost sincerity, but the second someone tells me the exact same thing I doubt myself and feel too terrified to tell them anything? I fight that feeling every single day.
The people who care about you want to help you. If someone thinks less of you because of your anxiety, they are not worth your time. "Don't feel ashamed about your anxiety," a friend told me. I am slowly learning that people do care and that you don't have to suffer alone. Anxiety is not a mark of shame and it doesn't mean something is wrong with you, it's just the way that your mind processes things at the moment. It's a coping mechanism. We can't control the things that happen to us in our lives, but we can certainly control the way that we respond to them.
Over the years I have taken steps to soften my anxiety. I needed healing, for myself and for no one else. I tried to educate myself on different mechanisms for coping and I confronted myself to find out what was triggering my anxiety and the root of it. I watched TED Talks, read information, and took classes on the subject. I learned breathing techniques and methods to subdue myself. There are small steps that you can take to decrease anxiety, and many of them are simple. I learned that whenever I felt too nervous, I needed to stop, take a moment of composure, and breathe. Sometimes you need to take yourself out of the situation and escape it for a few moments. It is okay to leave an event early if it becomes too taxing for you. If a party becomes too much for my nerves or there is too much stimulation, I make the decision for myself to say goodbye and leave because I am important. My mental health, my feelings, and my general well-being are more important than my perception of how others view me. In moments of anxiety, focusing on small things or doing things that are pleasant to you can help lessen the degree of nervousness. A still moment in the sun with a warm cup of tea helps to reduce the shaking in my hands and my fluttering heartbeat. Perhaps tea works for you as well, or maybe listening to soft music helps pull you out of your head a little bit.
I find that things that remind you that you are capable are also very important. We recently had a guest speaker who talked about a subject that truly fascinated me, and for the first time in a few months I felt as though I was an intelligent, engaged scientist in my field. I was able to anticipate what he would say before he said it, and I was able to follow everything he discussed. I didn't feel insecure, I didn't feel lost. For the first time in a long time, I felt intelligent and felt the rush I got from engaging in research in my field. That was a beautiful, healing day for me. Seek out opportunities that remind you that you are fully capable of whatever you try to accomplish.
Activities that relax you and take you out of your head tend to be helpful aids in combating anxiety. SCUBA diving is one of the few things that relaxes me. As I heard someone say in a TED Talk, I am relaxed during SCUBA because I "only need to focus on one thing." I don't need to think about grad school, my projects, money, personal issues, or self-doubt, I just need to focus on the dive. I breathe better when I dive, and seeing the animals and the world that I love invigorate and rejuvenate me. Painting relaxes me, too. A few weeks after arriving in Chile I was so exhausted and anxious that I was starting to let my anxieties and irritation slip, and so I sat myself down for an entire weekend and only painted. I returned to work a changed woman. Finding hobbies or activities that allow your mind to rest are critical for combating anxiety and can mean the difference between moving on or staying stuck in the same place.
I find that anxiety has helped me to be kinder to people. I understand what it feels like to be in their position, and thus I can be sensitive to their feelings and help them to overcome the situation. People are important, and their thoughts and feelings are important. If I can help someone avoid pain, heartache, or self-doubt, I want to do everything in my power to do so because I understand that feeling. Something that struck me recently is a particularly beautiful poem by Rupi Kaur:
how is it so easy for you
to be kind to people he asked
milk and honey dripped
from my lips as i answered
cause people have not
been kind to me
I want to be kindness. I want to be love. I want to be a refuge to someone.
Perhaps I will never fully overcome anxiety. But, I have come a long way. I am better than I was ten years ago, or even five years ago, or even five months ago. Progress is not a straight line, and sometimes progress goes backwards a little or a few steps to the left. But, as long as you make sure to get up, brush off the dust and continue moving forward, you are making progress. I am progressing. I am healing. I am better than I was, and I will become better still. Talking about my anxiety is hard, but I hope that perhaps it will help someone feel less alone. I know what it is like to feel so alone, but listen to me: you are not. There is still kindness to be found in this world. I know it may be hard and it may feel endless, but your sea is not empty. Anxiety is not your captor, and you can overcome it. You are stronger than you believe, and you are deserving of love, happiness and peace.
Darling, you are not alone, and you are understood. I promise.