In this blog post, Carly Johannson shares her experience with anxiety, the challenges it brought throughout her undergraduate degree, and how it’s affected her transition into the professional world. 

This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing personal stories, journeys, and insights about mental health and anxiety from members of our community.

Meeting Anxiety & Panic 

I remember my first panic attack so clearly. At the time it felt like a dream. I was at home studying for my second-year final exams, and all of a sudden I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was overwhelmed with a sense of fear and panic I had never felt before. What I thought was just typical exam stress morphed quickly into two full hours of shaking, crying, and gasping for air. At the time, I didn’t know a thing about anxiety and I had no idea what was happening to me. I was terrified. I didn’t know if the panic would ever end. Like any terrible thing in life, it eventually subsided and I started what became a very long and, at times, painful journey to understanding myself and what’s going on in my head.

Change, Fear, and Feeling Lost  

When I headed off to university, I was so excited to start a new chapter of my life, and quite honestly first-year university didn’t disappoint. The novelty of all the new experiences kept things fresh and fun. The whole year sort of feels like a blur now. I think the reality of being in a new place with so many new people and new expectations didn’t really sink in until I reached my second year. I moved off-campus, joined a sorority, and took on an enormous course load. I quickly started to feel exhausted from trying to fit in and trying to do it all. After I had that first panic attack, it was like I opened up the floodgates, releasing all of my anxieties. Suddenly I was consumed with more self-doubt, worry, and fear than I had ever experienced. 

Having never been taught about anxiety, or mental health, I was confused and lost. I had never experienced much anxiety growing up, and I just didn’t understand why I felt the way I did. No one seemed to understand what I was going through. Eventually, my panic attacks became more frequent and began disrupting my ability to get anything done. I finally went to the doctor and was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. I thought being given a diagnosis would provide me with clarity and understanding. Instead, I felt even more confused. The moment I felt the tiniest bit uneasy, my anxiety would consume me and I’d be overcome with panic that wouldn’t subside (cue constant panic attacks). I wasn’t just scared, I was terrified of everything. I was terrified of failing, of letting people down, of what everyone else thought, of not being good enough, of making mistakes, of feeling too much, or too little, or nothing at all. Once upon a time, I made choices with my heart. Now, most of my choices were made with my head. I would calculate each and every word or decision carefully, weighing the consequences. I would then ultimately back out of anything that may have put me in that uncomfortable place. My entire life felt dictated by fear.

Coping Enough to Make it Through

Trying to navigate my mental health while being in school full time and working to pay my rent was utterly overwhelming.  The anxiety I felt often left me paralyzed. My grades took a hit, I nearly failed multiple classes and quit what felt like a never-ending string of jobs. Some days, I couldn’t bear the thought of even getting out of bed, nevermind going to class or work. The dread I would feel every morning seemed unending, and I didn’t feel like there was anyone that could help me. Eventually, I found a doctor that I could see regularly and I was put on a treatment plan. I won’t share the specifics of these visits, or my experience with medication because everyone’s journey and needs are different, however, with the help of a few different sources, I was able to finally get things under control. As my panic attacks became less frequent, I was able to keep things at bay enough to make it through the weeks, months, and years remaining in my degree. From the outside looking in, I probably seemed fine, great even. On the inside I was still consumed with fear and I was exhausted from pretending not to be. 

The overwhelming anxiety I felt about everything began to subside, only to be replaced with increased social anxiety that made things like speaking up in class, talking in front of others, or even meeting new people feel like the world was ending. I would hide in the back of my classes and pray I didn’t get called on. If I realized I had a teacher that often asked students to participate, I usually wouldn’t show up. As mentioned, my grades suffered. The excitement I had felt in first-year meeting new people had completely vanished, and although I was constantly surrounded by others, I had never felt more alone. Comfort was reserved for a select group of people I felt truly at ease with, and communicating with anyone else felt impossible. 

So how did I cope? I read a lot about mental health, and I journaled about the things I wished I could do. Somewhere along the line, I decided I was going to do them anyway. I pushed myself, sometimes more than I should have. I wanted to prove to myself that the world wouldn’t crumble around me if I did something scary. I took on leadership positions in my sorority, I took part in silly dances and videos, I sat in the front row of my classes and made myself put my hand up when I actually knew the answer. I didn’t want to miss out, and I think part of me knew there were some things I couldn’t avoid forever. I made speeches. I didn’t ask to be exempt from class presentations. I even voluntarily dressed up like Hannah Montana and sang “Nobody’s Perfect” in front of an auditorium full of people. Was it utterly terrifying? Absolutely. Facing my fears helped me see that the anxiety I felt didn’t have to dictate what I could and couldn’t accomplish. To be honest, it was exhausting, and it never got any easier, yet I managed to push through. When I finally reached graduation, it was a huge sigh of relief. 

Still Anxious, But Moving Forward

By the time I graduated, I knew a lot more about my anxiety than I ever had before. It felt like I had left a lot of my anxiety behind me. As I transitioned from school life to professional life, I realized my anxiety had only shifted to encompass new areas. Entering the corporate world was difficult, and while I thought school presentations were hard, endless job interviews for positions I wasn’t qualified for were so much worse. When I finally found something, it was yet another big sigh of relief. With the bulk of my transitional years behind me, I started to focus on new ways to heal. 

It’s been two and a half years since that last ‘transition,’ and I’ve learned more about myself in that time than I ever have before. Experimenting with different types of therapy has helped me in facing my fears and understanding what’s really lingering behind those fears. Through therapy, I have learnt to give myself a bit of grace and compassion. I still spiral, more than I’d like to, and my social anxiety, in particular, seems to be ever-changing. Having basic coping strategies on hand that can help when the panic rushes over me puts me at ease, because I know I can make it through. I still get a stress rash when I talk in front of big groups, and important one on one conversations still make my heart race and my back sweat. The difference now is that I know the relief that lies on the other side of facing my fears, and that makes me just a tiny bit less afraid.

2020, in particular, has been anything but easy. However, it’s allowed me to learn what brings me relief on those days where my heart still wants to jump out of my chest. Consistent exercise has allowed me to spend some time out of my head, along with yoga and realizing the power of a good, deep breath. I’ve recently taken to houseplants, and I’ve found the routine of caring for them to be strangely soothing. I cook a lot because I find it meditative. I take a lot of baths, I read a lot of poetry, and I open up to those closest to me when I just need to let things out. Even singing in the shower or having a little dance party gives me the opportunity to forget about my anxious thoughts and just be in the moment. Coping and self-care look different for everyone, yet it’s so important all the same. 

I recently got the words “live fully” tattooed on my wrist after a favourite Rupi Kaur poem of mine that reads “we have been dying since we got here and forgot to enjoy the view – live fully,” to remind me to do just that. It sits as a constant reminder that I deserve to live just as fully as anyone else and that I can do the hard things, the scary things, and the things I know will bring me joy and peace when I come up for air on the other side. If you’re sitting where I started, and you’re terrified, just know that you deserve to live fully too.