When Anxiety Strikes

Thump thump thumpthumpthumpppppp. The erratic staccato of my heartbeat cresendos into a dull hum, vibrating in my skull and blurring my vision. My breath is short and shallow. My head is pounding. My skin is stretched too tight across my entire body.

I scream.

I cry.

I panic.

I haven’t had a panic attack since 2012. In the last four months, I’ve had three. I teetered on the edge of my anxiety, crippled beneath a skewed work-life balance, thanks to an overactive social life and a summer internship at an Edmonton festival. I wanted to leave my mark on the industry, pave the way for future opportunities by making the most of this initial one, while still preserving a healthy personal life. The entire time, as I was poised on the precipice of panic, I asked: is it just me?

***

It’s normal to experience a certain amount of anxiety. Even the most well-adjusted people admit to feeling nervous, stressed, or anxious at times. The moments before an exam, a performance, or starting a new job induce anxiety in all of us—it’s referred to as state anxiety, and it’s normal. It’s a feeling that exists in the moment and is triggered by our environment; it’s an adaptive reflex to change. This type of anxiety can actually be a healthy thing, though, if it is pushing us to succeed or thrive. Anxiety can also protect us from the unknown: Freud theorized that anxiety is a response to danger, and that a certain level of anxiety helps us survive. But what happens when that anxiety is a response to danger created up inside my own head? What if anxiety is preventing my success by protecting me from failure?

My curiosity led me to the internet, where I stumbled upon a self evaluation for something called the Spielberger Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI). It’s a series of 40 statements, half of which evaluate your anxiety level in the present moment–state anxiety–and half of which evaluate your overall level of anxiety–what’s referred to by Spielberger as trait anxiety: how much your reactions to stress are hardwired into your personality. It’s scored out of 80, with a higher score indicating a higher anxiety. On state anxiety, I scored a shattering 71. Trait anxiety left me with a more manageable (and surprising) 54. This eased my worries–slightly. As an anxious person, I am always looking to the future, juggling the what-ifs and worst case scenarios, planning for my ultimate demise. It gives me a false sense of security, like if I already lay the foundation for an escape plan when the inevitable awful events actually unfold, I’ll be fine.

Scoring 54 on the trait anxiety was a good thing, but it was a bad thing too: it lulled me into thinking that I was already fine. An assurance that will only last until the next bout of panic hits. And, trust me, it always does.

Scoring 71 out of 80 on the state anxiety portion of the STAI gave me something new to worry about, putting a fresh wave of panic right around the corner. I was functioning at a high level of stress, and had been for the last few months. What had pushed my normal level of anxiety up a notch? It didn’t take a lot of soul-searching for me to admit that the newfound pressure in my life was thanks to my internship. Anxiety and internships aren’t a novel pairing, though. And the anxiousness I attributed to my role as an intern wasn’t as rare as I thought.

I’m an undergrad, which means I’m already pre-disposed to a level of stress–being in university is a period of transition ripe with anxiety and, with the added stress of academic performance and financial worry, it’s the perfect breeding ground for even the most levelheaded individuals to lose their minds a bit. Among undergrads, anxiety is ranked first as a presenting problem for students seeking counseling, with academic and work-related concerns coming up right behind in second place. When an already stressed student is put in a position where both academic and work-related standing are at stake, it’s no wonder that she cripples under the pressure.

Although anxiety can be paralyzing, there’s evidence that suggests a positive relationship between anxiousness and academic performance—as long as the anxiety is managed correctly. The secret is finding the sweet spot between ultimate productivity and strung-out listlessness. Let the anxiety drive you, but keep it from directing you over the edge.

Waves of anxiety course over me, and the blood inside my skull crashes around my veins. My body is drowning itself in sweat. My metabolism is in overdrive. I am in fight or flight mode, but there’s nothing to battle, nothing to run away from.

***

During my internship, I organized, researched, read, wrote, and acted as sounding board for the festival’s executive director—my boss. It was my first experience working in the industry—what if I messed up and ended up blacklisted in the Edmonton arts community? It seems farfetched, but for an individual with anxiety it barely scratches the surface of worst case scenarios.

This fear tainted everything I did. I might take an entire day to pen a newsletter because I was scrutinizing every word, perfecting every piece of punctuation. I’d cringe as my boss proofed my work, agonizing over each sigh or intake of breath, paralyzed by the fear that I might have misplaced a comma. When I mentioned my editing-related anxiety, she said, “You don’t need to feel nervous. Proofing, editing, it’s a very real part of the industry. There’s always going to be a person looking over your shoulder, telling you what’s working and what isn’t.” She continued proofing, nonchalantly tossing out this piece of advice, “Everything’s a draft at one point, anyway.”

My boss and I went over a feedback form provided by my university towards the end of my internship. She was overwhelmingly positive with her praise, and provided helpful critiques. She highlighted my strengths: writing, editing, creative management–whatever that means–and pointed out things I needed to work on. She reminded me that I’m still learning, &, although I’ve gained a lot of knowledge over the summer, I’ve still got quite a ways to go.

Everything’s a draft.  Everything starts out incomplete, and sometimes it takes a few passes with another set of eyes and a red pen to turn it into the finished product. I am unfinished. I am imperfect. But that doesn’t make me a failure–that makes me a work-in-progress

***

The thing I’m scared of is something I’ve constructed in my own mind—like a child afraid of the monster under the bed. Everything looks different when you flick on a light, but how do I cross the gap between hiding under the covers and the light switch on the wall?

Coming down from a panic attack isn’t easy. But it isn’t impossible.

For me, it is about acknowledging that I’m in a state of anxiety: I let myself be scared. I don’t force myself to calm down, but I take ownership of my panic and let my body slowly tell my brain that there is nothing here to fear, but fear itself. It’s all about dismantling what you’ve created inside your own head–control your emotions by not allowing them to control you. Let yourself be scared, let yourself try, and let yourself fail. And when the panic passes, pick up the pieces and do it again.

References

Al-Qaisy, L. M. (2011). The relation of depression and anxiety in academic achievement among group of university students. Inter J Psychology Counseling, 3(5), 96-100.

Bellini, L. M., Baime, M., & Shea, J. A. (2002). Variation of mood and empathy during internship. Jama, 287(23), 3143-3146.

Spielberger, C. D. (2010). StateTrait anxiety inventory. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

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