My first term at Oxford was certainly a challenge. I performed abysmally in my first few essays and, consequently, felt like I did not deserve to study at this prestigious university. For a variety of reasons, I struggled to improve my work over the term, despite my conscientiousness, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was a complete academic failure.
Throughout my time at school, I felt that I had failed socially – I was heavily bullied (and had back-stabbing friends) throughout primary and secondary school, had no confidence in myself whatsoever and felt utterly worthless as a person. But at least I always succeeded in my studies.
When I also began to fail in this aspect of my life during my first Michaelmas, I started to become ill. I showed the physical signs of a potentially serious illness and had various blood tests over the Christmas vacation and into the beginning of Hilary Term. Blood vessels were beginning to burst all over my shoulders and arms and, therefore, my GP thought I had a clotting problem. However, all my medical tests came back fine. The fact that these small bruises were so conspicuous made me really self-conscious and my confidence plummeted once again.
By this point, I was starting to get very bad mood swings (intense laughter at one point, followed by a flood of tears for no apparent reason) and chest pains; I also began waking up every morning with a sickening feeling of anxiety, struggled to sleep and had truly terrifying dreams. At one moment when I was suffering from chest pains I was convinced that I was going to have a heart attack. Looking back, I realise that this was ridiculous but I was no longer thinking rationally. I kept having awful thoughts that everyone I loved was going to leave me, that I didn’t deserve my friends, that I was socially awkward and not worth anyone’s time and that it would be better if I didn’t exist.
This negative mindset affected me in both academic and social situations. Academically, I had no confidence in tutorials or classes and constantly felt intimidated by my peers. Socially, I always felt awkward and wanted to leave dinners and parties early; I would then think that everyone was judging me and I would later feel guilty that I was missing out on opportunities. Basically, I was completely paranoid about everything, was intimidated by everyone and continuously beat myself up about the fact that I felt this way.
When the blood test results indicated that I was physically fine, my GP suggested that I go to the Counselling Service as it was possible that stress was the cause of all my symptoms. I was convinced that I wasn’t stressed because I had been much more relaxed about my studies since Michaelmas and I felt my GP’s diagnosis of a mental health problem was just a cop-out. However, after my first session in Trinity Term I realised that I did have a mental health problem – I had tried to bury my past social insecurities but academic stress had made them feel very real once again.
My counsellor was immensely helpful and I learnt a variety of techniques to help me cope with anxiety. I was taught to think more ‘helpful’ thoughts and to have a more rational mindset. I am so glad I took this huge step to go to the Counselling Service as if I hadn’t received help, I’m certain I would have become depressed.
Outside my sessions, I initially confided in my two best friends and tutor who were all extremely supportive. At first I didn’t want to tell anyone other than family as I didn’t want to burden my friends with my problems but they were very understanding. Whenever I felt down they would always be there to listen.
No matter how big or small the problem is, there are always individuals who are willing to listen; I felt that my negative thoughts were tiny in the grand scheme of things but the fact that they were affecting my life so much meant that I really needed help. Those who know me may be surprised to hear this story as I am very good at hiding my problems from the outside world and this is why it is so important that people realise that absolutely anyone can suffer from stress.
Everyone has negative moments and there are times when my self-confidence drops even now but I use the techniques I have learnt to combat this and I continue to confide in my friends. Consequently, I have never felt better in my life than I do now and I no longer feel guilty that I am missing out. For example, I am now JCR Access Rep for my college; before I received help, the thought of talking in front of large groups of people (which the Access role involves) was extremely daunting but I can now do this with confidence.
I am so appreciative of my GP, counsellor, tutor and friends for their support during my first year at university. Recognising the signs of stress (which can be completely unique to the individual) and confiding in trustworthy people are the most important components of coping with anxiety. No one should be ashamed of admitting they have a mental health difficulty because accepting this fact is the first step towards resolving the problem. My GP prompted me to seek out professional help and this is the best decision I have ever made: it has made me a much stronger and happier person.