Academia was not the root of my anxiety

Gabriela Grzywacz shares her journey through college with anxiety and her reasons for taking her mental health seriously

Starting college was a wake-up call for me in many ways. For six years of secondary school, I was told that my anxiety was caused by the academic pressure that I put on myself. It seemed like a plausible cause considering that you can’t escape reading the news or listening to the radio without hearing about the immense pressure that secondary and college students are put under. But I never understood why my anxiety grew worse over summer and winter breaks, or why I was at my lowest when I was not studying. For the majority of sixth year, I wanted to believe that academics were the reason that I couldn’t go to the shop or take an empty bus without being submerged in fear. I was very excited for my new journey that I was about to go on. I got into my first choice of college course and I couldn’t wait to be an anxiety-free university student. I quickly learnt that this wasn’t the case.

I soon discovered that my anxiety was still alive and kicking everyday in college. I watched people sign up to all the societies that they wanted to be a part of. Meanwhile, I simply wanted to attend my classes and get away from the large crowds that frequent the Arts Block. Some days, I just wanted to get a brain transplant. It was one day in one of my favourite tutorials that I realised that my anxiety was not what everybody said it was. My vision became blurry. My body went limp and I could feel the world crumbling around me. An immense fear that made my blood run cold. I broke down in floods of tears after the tutorial, mainly because I was so exhausted with everything that people had told me. I had an epiphany; my anxiety was clearly not stemming from something that I loved doing, it was caused by something else but I didn’t understand what it was. 

“‘Some people’s brains are just different and it’s most likely genetic’”

I dragged myself to the Trinity Counselling Service the next day and so began my road to therapy. Therapy was difficult, it felt like I was going in circles not being able to do anything constructive. I was on an endless hamster wheel at my therapy sessions. They mostly consisted of me being unable to explain why I felt this way and repeating that I was just tired of this way of living. Although Trinity Counselling Services didn’t give me much solace, they did show me that the way I was living was not possible anymore. It had become too tiring to put on a bright smile across my face, I was just worn out.

Three days after my birthday, I saw my GP. He was the gentlest soul and we talked over my options finally settling on a couple of different approaches which also included therapy. It was something that he said in that appointment that stuck out to me and everything finally clicked: “Some people’s brains are just different and it’s most likely genetic” Seven years I had been told that my poor mental health was due to outside factors that could “easily” be changed. I felt betrayed in many ways by the educational system and the society around me. In 2017, an article in the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience concluded that the heritability of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) was about 30% and yet I was never told that mental disorders could be genetic. I struggled for seven years. 

“You have to know that your mental health struggles […] are valid and you have every right to seek help

The hard truth is that in Ireland, like a lot of places across the world, there’s still a stigma around mental illness. Our brain is vital in having a sense of oneself and the idea that there’s something wrong with the very mechanism that makes you the person you are, is chilling. Although mental health issues is a topic that many of us try to steer clear of (I am also guilty of this), we cannot ignore the fact that mental illness is an epidemic. One in four people will have some form of mental illness throughout their lifetime. That statistic is staggeringly high and yet stigma and lack of education on this subject still exists. 

I believe that people fear what they don’t understand, hence more efforts to educate everybody from school to the workplace should be taken. Young people and parents need to be aware of the signs of mental illness and struggles. We should be able to discuss different reasons for mental disorders because as much as work and academic pressure are the cause of mental health issues they are not the only reasons. There are many factors that contribute to mental health issues but making mental illness a one reason cause simplifies its complexity. There is help available from school counsellors to counselling services in universities. However, you have to know that your mental health struggles, be it a recent breakup to debilitating anxiety, are valid and you have every right to seek help because nobody should endure mental health issues by themselves. Maybe if I was told earlier that my anxiety was not caused by academics I would have gotten help sooner.