25. It’s #TimeToTalk (about academic anxiety).

Today is the first Thursday of February, not only known as Groundhog Day but also as Time To Talk Day. I started writing this article at Uni earlier, but finishing it now on the blog.

If I say “I’m fine” I’m lying.

Especially if nothing else follows that sentence or I start random small talk. If I say “I’m okay” I’m actually doing alright. To me, “how are you?” or “are you okay?” are often the worst questions someone can ask me. When it’s an acquaintance asking I will lie if I’m not feeling so great. When it’s a friend or someone I trust asking those questions I might just burst into tears. Tears are a sign I’m not okay. I don’t cry and I definitely don’t cry in public.

My anxiety rose after I started university last September. I know I could write (and I love writing) but I choked when it came to my first academic essay. I wasn’t procrastinating necessarily as I did my research, looked at the lecturer’s PowerPoint slides again and watched a movie relevant to the subject. I was trying to figure out how to structure the essay and just didn’t know where to start.

Now this wasn’t the worst of things to happen, but it was kind of stressing me out before that faithful Monday afternoon Sociology class. Over the weekend, a friend of mine had passed away and I couldn’t go home to the Netherlands to say goodbye. I had appointments here in Ireland and of course Uni to attend. That was lingering in the background but I went to class anyway. Before class even started, a phone call. The person calling knew I was in UL and would never call me unless it was urgent, so I walked out and answered the phone. An acquaintance had passed away as well and I got upset.

Going back inside after that phone call I was overwhelmed enough and I knew my lecturer was going to ask me about the essay as well. I was nauseated. I felt I couldn’t tell her that I didn’t know how to start. I was sitting at the front and apparently my overflowing bucket of feelings was showing because she asked one of those wrong questions. I couldn’t hold back my tears, let alone talk. She said she’d take me for coffee on our break so we could talk and left me alone so I could pull myself together again.

On our coffee break she asked me if it was the academic side of things and that I had fear in my eyes every time she mentioned the essay. At the time it wasn’t that, I was upset because of that phone call and the fact it all got too much at the moment. However, I just did not want to admit at the time it was academic anxiety as well. She made absolutely sure I was okay before we entered the class for the second hour.

She invited me to come over to her office so we could discuss everything a couple of days later and helped me lay out the structure so I could go on to writing the damn thing. She looked right through me and asked how it could be possible that I was so eloquent and clear in writing until it came to that essay. Told me that I could free write the essay and structure later and that I should allow myself to fuck up. Literally, “allow yourself to fuck up”. It was almost expected of us that we wouldn’t do our academic essays right straight away but we would get better at writing them with practice over time. Never had anyone told me it was okay to fuck up, I just heard the “oh c’mon you can do this, you’re smart” kind of… support. Which isn’t really the support you need when you’re too overwhelmed and panicked. When you think you’re not good enough.

I promised her to hand the essay in before the deadline, she made me write down my long term academic goal (graduate Journalism in 2021) and I went home with the structure laid out. During the writing, I kept looking at the goal and kept hearing her voice saying “allow yourself to fuck up Jan!” It took a while before I started believing her because I had so many years of insecurity and perfectionism to plough through. Eventually, I got a sort of decent essay out fuelled by her words and emailed her. Because I had the structure and it was broken up into paragraphs, it got a lot easier to write the whole thing. I ended up with a brilliant grade. Because of her help and the grade on that essay, I felt a little more confident about my academic future.

Exams came up before Christmas and the Sociology and Politics questions were essay style as well. She came into the room to wish us good luck. I know it’s okay not to be okay, I know. But this time, I knew I was going to be okay.

PS: Here’s an interesting article about it: Academic Anxiety.

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Edited to add, here’s an excerpt from an article on Society19 written by Suin Lennon. I couldn’t agree more.

20. There are people to help you settle into UL.

It sounds corny, but the University of Limerick is a great place to go to college. It’s relaxed and friendly and a lot less scary than most big universities.

If you’re struggling, feeling a bit lost or a bit homesick, there are a lot of people you can talk to including the First Seven Weeks team, the counselling service, the chaplaincy service, your academic advisor or any lecturer you feel comfortable talking to.

College is a great opportunity and experience, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t ever feel down or worried about something both inside and outside of college life.
The main thing is that it’s okay not to be okay and that there are support services that can help with whatever you may be feeling.

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