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Dec 29 2015
by Tally DeLong

When College Compromises Your Mental Health

By Tally DeLong - Dec 29 2015
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The first time I experienced a severe episode of panic was at age 11. The memory of the event is still just as vivid to this day, nearly a decade later.

I was at summer camp, playing an enthusiastic game of capture the flag l with my friends, when, all at once, I was overcome by indescribable feelings of terror.  

Flashback to a few days prior, my week at camp had been one of sun-soaked fun and copious amounts laughter. Yet, in a split second it seemed, all of the memories made on those days became meaningless. My heart began palpitating. I could scarcely speak or move, let alone breath. As overplayed and dramatic as it sounds, the world as I once had known it felt as though it was closing in on my small form, my mind swimming with indescribable feelings of darkness and despair. I was losing virtually all control and feeling of rationality. Nothing made sense. All of the vibrant trees, flowers and sunshine surrounding me melted together, as my vision became blurred by the streams of tears erupting from my eyes. The scariest thing was that I couldn’t stop myself from sobbing. Gasping for air, my legs began to shake furiously beneath me before finally buckling. My tiny body collapsed in a heap in the middle of the crowded soccer field.

There was no obvious reason for any of it. I just laid there in the fetal position, speechless and catatonic until a counselor called my mom, who escorted me home, where the sobbing continued for several subsequent hours.

To define the whole experience in a single phrase would to say it was as though, in the moment, I genuinely feared for my life, yet somehow feared the broader vastness of life itself. In the aftermath of the the event I was confused, feeling equally bewildered, embarrassed, and most of all: mystified. Where had it all come from?

The same, irrational fear I felt all of those years ago continues to pervade my conscious mind today, as frequent emotional episodes of similar nature continue to add stress to my already panicked existence at age 18. Thanks to many visits to a psychiatrist's office, I now can recognize it as a form mental illness. I received a diagnosis at age 12 of severe panic disorder, in addition to generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression. That said, those individuals among us who also suffer from variations clinical anxiety, depression and other disorders, would likely agree that living with debilitating mental illness adds yet another dimension of terror to the already stress-fueled first year of collegiate living.

The question remains: what can be done? What can be done to help the people like me, and thousands of others, who live their lives in near-constant fear? What is there to do once the antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications fail to kick in? When one is simply out of ideas and devoid of motivation, not to mention away from home and. for many,  away from what is comforting and familiar?

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that, really, there is no end-all cure for the mental illnesses over 10% of the country lives with. To believe that is to be unrealistic. Self-help books tend to spew the same narrative that anything is possible through the sheer power of will…but this is not the case. Mental illnesses are chronic conditions, and the transition from high school to college is one of considerable magnitude and stress, both of which are potentially exacerbating factors. However, while depression, anxiety symptoms and panic or manic attacks have no easy, speedy remedy for many, there are certain measures that can be taken to help yourself during those times when you find yourself curled up in a ball in your dorm room, frozen with fear. Here are 6 things I like to do to help myself.

1. Make yourself comfortable.

This a broad statement, as comfort is often a subjective phenomenon among people. It could come in the form tangible objects, such as a soft blanket, comfy pajamas or a mug of hot tea, or in other forms, like a video call from a loved one or a favorite song. Keep whatever brings you comfort close at hand in your dorm, and on the go, so that when the time of an anxiety attack arrives, you have something to combat it with initially.

2. Find a non-overstimulating distraction

Distraction goes hand in hand with comfort. When you begin to feel anxious, find something simple to, in a sense, remove yourself from your headspace. Some of my favorite distractions are lighthearted conversations with a friend, a good book, or even physical activity, like running or swimming. But, when choosing your distractions, the one thing I must stress is the importance of keeping it uncomplicated. Don’t choose anything with too complicated, fast-paced or busy, such as these things, whether you think it or not, only hinder your ability to overcome anxiety, as they further stimulate your already anxiety-stimulated brain. I’ve found challenging schoolwork and electronics to be examples of “bad” distractions.

3. When you’re cool enough, leave the space you’re in.

When you feel secure enough, find a communal space in your dorm or building. Go to the library. Take a walk around campus. Distance yourself in some way from the original site of your attack or ill-feeling. It will serve you well in moving past your fear, as one’s environment is a large contributor to one’s emotions. Take someone with you if you don't feel or trust that you can do this on your own, which segways into the next item on the list...

4. Find someone to talk to, in some form.

Whether it’s a roommate, a friend, a family member or teacher, find someone to explain your circumstances to. Pick up the phone, set up a video call, or meet face to face. Have a conversation. Let someone else into your world, and help them understand.

5. Treat yo'self!

Forget that raw vegan diet you’re on. Go find the nearest fro-yo spot or treat yourself to some delicious pizza. Low blood sugar is never a good thing to have when you’re struggling emotionally, so comfort food is the name of the game to help make even the darkest of moods feel a little less unbearable. Although, to be clear, indulgence in the area of food, among other things, is not something that should become a regular coping mechanism for anxious individuals, as it can be extremely harmful in excess.

6. Involve your school and professors.

Don't fall victim to stigma. You should not be afraid to talk to trusted individuals about how you feel. Contrary to seemingly popular belief among young people, professors and faculty are people too, and collegiate institutions have an obligation to aid students in need of help. Don’t be afraid to shoot someone an email, explaining what’s up, should your anxiety give you any trouble in the classroom or during times of study. Odds are, they will be more than sympathetic. Mental disorders are real medical conditions, and allowances can be made for those who suffer from them in many different sets of academic circumstances. No collegiate institution wants to see it’s students suffer.

Disclaimer: Despite the items on the list working for dealing some people’s anxiety, there are times where self-help is not enough. One should not rely solely on the above items if they suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder or depression, and should be in communication with a mental health professional.

Furthermore, if you or anyone you know is experiencing noticeable anxious, depressed or suicidal feelings beyond their control, contact a responsible adult, such as a dorm advisor or faculty member, on campus and be sure to utilize counseling resources if they are provided by the student health services. Extreme cases should be made known to an individuals primary care doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist.

In addition, severely depressed individuals can speak immediately to an operator at any time by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK.

Interesting, relatable resources for educating yourself and others about mental illness can also be found at the following webpage: teachingeveryoneaboutmentalhealth.com


Lead image Credit: Pic Jumbo

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Tally DeLong - University of Southern California

Tally DeLong is a freshman at the University of Southern California (FIGHT ON!) double majoring in economics and computer science. She has a deep love for all things literary, feline and chocolate-coated and hopes to one day own her very own pet pygmy marmoset (Google it).

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