Let’s Talk About Anxiety. Or, Why I Almost Dropped Out Of Graduate School Eight Hundred Times.

“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” ~Allen Ginsberg

Let’s talk about anxiety.

While I was in graduate school studying acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I started having panic attacks multiple times a week, forcing me to excuse myself from class for extended “bathroom breaks”, often feeling unable to return for as long as an hour at a time.

There were days I left class for up to ninety minutes in the middle of a three hour lecture because to sit in the classroom surrounded by my peers for even one more minute made me feel like I just might die at any second.

I used to run outside and cry in the backseat of my car or hide in the one single-stall bathroom on campus or leave my books and things on the table in the classroom to go home and crawl into bed for twenty or thirty minutes, always ensuring I made it back to school in time to retrieve my possessions at the end of class.

This pattern of extreme anxiety continued through my third year of school, and I seriously considered dropping out countless times over the course of those many months because having two, three, or sometimes even four panic attacks a week just did not feel sustainable to me at that point.

In fact, it felt like absolute hell.

And I’m pretty certain nobody at school had any idea how bad it was.

Just before the fall quarter of my fourth year began, I designed for myself an exit strategy, lining up a potential job in the event my anxiety became too much to bear and I needed to abandon my education on short notice.

Did I want to quit after putting in three years of hard work pursuing something about which I was deeply passionate?

Of course not.

But I was at a place where I felt like my body was completely out of my control, was betraying me, was making it impossible for me to accomplish the things I so adamantly wanted to accomplish.

And, honestly, I felt like there was something terribly wrong with me. Everyone else seemed to be doing just fine.

During this time I, of course, got acupuncture. Although, truthfully, not very often. And looking back now, I certainly didn’t get it from the right practitioners.

By that I mean I sought treatment from people who were my teachers in school before I ever became their patient. Which complicated things because in some way they were part of the environment that was triggering my anxiety in the first place. And also, I still wanted to impress them as a potential future colleague, so how could I have ever been totally vulnerable with them or comfortable revealing the full extent of my anxiety in that context?

I couldn’t. It was too complicated for me to tease out the nuances of those different relationships. And so the therapeutic effect of the acupuncture got a little muddled and lost.

It was only after graduating from school that I sought out the first acupuncturist I had ever seen and began to again get regular treatments with her — typically, twice a month, though occasionally every week for a several-week stretch.

This was a huge game-changer. But I’ll come back to this in a bit…

Obviously, I didn’t drop out of school. I finished my degree and passed my board exams and wrote my thesis and got my license and started a private practice and am now seeing patients five days a week on my own.

In my mind, this is nothing short of a miracle.

Academically, school was no problem whatsoever. I did well on tests and papers and all of it. But how I ever managed to survive that fourth year of school? I still don’t really know how I did it.

I do know that it was TOUGH.

And that I felt very isolated and misunderstood and like there was just nobody who got it.

The one thing I kept hearing from teachers and doctors and friends who had any indication I was suffering with anxiety at any level was, Focus on your breath. Breathe deeply. Meditate.

I swear to you, if one more person said this to me, I was going to punch him in the face.

Because here’s the thing. Focusing on my breath? Did not work. And, truthfully, if I was on the verge of extreme anxiety and I stopped to do a little deep breathing, it inevitably pushed me over the edge into full-blown panic attack.

Every. Single. Time.

Which just made me feel like I was doing something wrong because breathing exercises seemed to be everyone’s blanket solution to anxiety of any kind.

Breathing exercises and medication. Rad.

Except not.

And so the way I got through that last year of graduate school was by discovering all sorts of strange things that helped me manage my anxiety on a daily basis. Things like running my hands under cold water while standing barefoot on the cold linoleum in the bathroom on campus.

Which might sound, well, unsanitary and gross, but was a lifesaver for preserving my sanity. Having dirty feet was a small price to pay, honestly.

I rarely wore socks because if my feet and calves got too warm, anxiety was sure to be the result.

I started filling up my water bottle with the coldest water I could find and holding it in my hands during class when possible, or placing it between my thighs while I took notes because something about the coolness soothed me and kept me calm.

I always sat at the back of the classroom, because knowing someone would be staring at the back of my head combined with not being able to see my surroundings in their entirety (including, ahem, any possible escape routes) was definitely anxiety-provoking.

If I could open the window at my back without pissing off another student, even better. (Although this one was difficult sometimes. Ask me about Chinese medicine students and wind if you want to know why.)

If I could stand near or next to or in front of or underneath a fan of some sort? Yahtzee. Nothing was worse than stagnant air. Especially warm stagnant air.

In fact, I remember one particularly hot day in class during which the air felt thick and heavy and completely devoid of movement. Ripe for a panic attack. My solution was to leave class, get in my car, and drive around aimlessly for about fifteen minutes with the windows down  before returning to campus for the end of the lecture.

Unconventional? Possibly. But it worked, so I did it.

Because that’s the thing about anxiety. It so often feels totally irrational while it’s happening and unconnected to any specific cause and completely confusing and nonsensical. And so sometimes, maybe you need to address it with something counterintuitive or seemingly strange or outside the “focus on your breath” box.

For the past two years I have been receiving acupuncture at least once a month from the same practitioner who introduced me to Chinese medicine almost a decade ago. This absolutely helps ground me and keep me sane. It’s like meditating without meditating. If that makes any sense at all.

But also, I still use some of these tricks when anxiety creeps in. Because it does. Not every day and not with the same sort of intensity it used to, but I do still encounter it.

When that happens, I take off my shoes and socks (yes, I can actually wear socks now). Or I run my hands under cold water. Or I go outside and hope it’s windy. If not, I turn on a fan and stand in front of it.

The other thing I do these days? Focus on my breath.

Yep. That trick I wanted to face-punch people for recommending while I was in graduate school? I use it all the time now.

But here’s the difference: I don’t use it during an acute episode of anxiety. Ever.

I meditate on my breath frequently, but I always, always do it when anxiety is nowhere to be found. And I honestly believe this is one of the main reasons I’m 99% free of panic attacks at this point.

This, and regular acupuncture.

These things are my maintenance practices, my preventative care tactics, and the more I engage in them, the less likely I am to encounter severe — or even moderate — anxiety.

To this day, if I feel intense anxiety and I try to meditate or breathe my way out of it, I inevitably feel more anxious and a panic attack is much more likely to occur.

This is when I reach into my bag of unconventional tricks. And at this point, I do it without any kind of shame attached. I might even announce that I’m feeling anxious and excuse myself from a social situation to go stand outside in the cold without a coat for five minutes.

While friends look on and think I’m crazy.

I’ve also been known to take off my shoes at some seemingly strange times. Or to grip a bottle of ice cold water with both hands like it’s a mug of hot coffee in the dead of winter.

But at this point, I’d rather be super weird than super anxious.

So, what’s the point of this story? Ultimately, I just want any of you whose relationship to anxiety is as intimate as mine has been over the years to know that I get it.

I also want you to know that it absolutely can and will get better, even if you have to experiment with some seemingly odd solutions along the way.

Don’t be afraid to try something strange.

And if you ever need someone to stand barefooted in a bathroom with you, in front of a fan, while you run your hands under cold water, you know who to call.

Anxiety can be crippling.

I’ve been there. It is NOT FUN.

But I also have to admit, my experience in graduate school of having regular panic attacks and feeling out of control and terrified and, at times, completely devastated is something for which I am exceedingly grateful.

I would never wish that same experience on anyone, but I do think anxiety can teach you lessons about yourself, about the human experience, about the world in which we live that are profound and enriching and transformative.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to wade through a whole lot of crap to get there.

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