If you conducted a Google search and typed in “mental illness” and “college students” (which is what I did before outlining this article) you’ll find a plethora of articles talking about the mental health crisis facing today’s college students. According to an American College Health Association survey, 61% of students reported they had “felt overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year, and roughly 40% said they experienced depression over the past year that made it difficult to function. This mental health crisis may only continue to worsen, as many job fields require employees to have a bachelor’s or even a higher degree to be considered for a job, putting extra pressure on today’s students to succeed.
Although college campuses try their best to provide on-campus resources to help students manage their mental illnesses and how they intersect with their studies, there is still work to be done. As someone who has had mental illnesses since a young age (and has a couple of degrees and a graduate certificate under her belt), I’d like to share how mental illnesses can make pursuing an education challenging as well what helped me live more harmoniously with my mental illnesses during my time as a student.
Education and Anxiety
My anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of the most debilitating ways it affects me as a student is that I’m constantly trying to fight off being a perfectionist. It makes me procrastinate due to the fear of not knocking an assignment out of the park, I can mull over the tiniest of details for way too long, and I end up stressing myself out when it comes to studying for tests because I need to get an A.
These qualities exist in people without anxiety, I’m sure, but the reason the strive for perfectionism can be worse with anxiety is due to the constant negative self-talk if you aren’t the straight A, perfect student. So, if you do end up not getting a perfect score or stumble through a presentation, anxiety brain can take over and make you feel horrible about yourself.
Speaking of presentations, public speaking is usually difficult to do when you have anxiety (I guess it’s a good thing I pursued an education in communication and taught public speaking, right? :)) My anxiety causes unignorable physical sensations when faced with a public speaking engagement: racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, difficulty breathing, etc. There have even been times where I worked myself up so much before and during a speech that I became dizzy. Anxiety can also cause us to create worst-case scenarios in our heads surrounding public speaking, which in turn can cause the physical symptoms to crop up.
Lastly, if your brain resembles a hamster constantly running on a wheel, it can make it difficult to focus and grasp readings and other class material. In turn, this usually means that it takes an individual with anxiety more time to fully understand course concepts.
Education and Depression
I’m sure it goes without saying, but depression sucks the life out of you and can cause a clear lack of motivation. Yet, sometimes people who have never experienced depression have a hard time understanding this, perhaps thinking that depression is just laziness, which is not the case. Something as easy as making notecards to study from or reading the last 10 pages of a chapter can seem like a monumental task, and maintaining the energy to get through assignments even when you are able to start them can be difficult.
In addition, you may get a case of the scumbag brain, as I like to call it. My depression sometimes manifests in telling me not to bother trying my hardest because I’m not good enough anyway. Usually, I can fend off these thoughts, but sometimes they wear me down and I start to believe them, which doesn’t create a good mental atmosphere for producing anything of high-quality.
Want to check out the rest of this article and read up on the resources, strategies, and tips that helped me better navigate higher education with mental illnesses? Then you'll have to head on over to my dear friend Rachel's website, Rachel L. Macon, where this post was originally featured.
According to mindworks.org, approximately anywhere between 200 and 500 million people meditate regularly, and for good reason. Meditation is said to reduce stress, improve concentration, benefit our cardiovascular and immune health, and better your mood, among a litany of other positive effects. It is especially helpful for individuals with anxiety, depression, and other chronic illnesses like myself, as well as individuals who are under a lot of daily stress from work, family life, or any other external stressors.
While I have incorporated meditation into my life almost daily, it wasn't always a pleasant or relaxing experience. After posting a meme on Instagram highlighting how meditation actually creates more space for anxiety-ridden thoughts to arise for some, I realized I wasn't alone in initially feeling this way. As a result, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a blog post on how I overcame the barriers to making my meditation practice a regular, enjoyable, and beneficial part of my life, so here goes!
External Help: Therapy, Self-Help Books, Mindfulness Class
For those of you whose minds are like mine at times (read: a pinball game of anxious thoughts, paranoia, self-deprecating thoughts, etc.), it can be scary to dedicate time to taming your mind. If you've never meditated before and never worked on getting to the root of the way your mind works, my first suggestion would be working with a therapist. I see my therapist about every other week, but when I started out I went weekly. As I got older, I focused more on where my thoughts were coming from, somewhat like an outsider observer.
For me, knowing what triggered my anxiety and negative thoughts helped me feel less like a stranger in my own head, even though those thoughts still regularly surface. Once I felt more comfortable up in my head through therapy sessions, I was able to start reading self-help books about anxiety, depression, mood imbalances, and so forth. I fully understand that not everyone has access to therapy, so self-help books can be found at the library, and many have workbooks built into them to practice everything from labeling emotions to writing out your fears and deciphering if they're based in fact or fiction.
Another option is practicing mindfulness, whether it's in a class format, a podcast, or YouTube video. Doing so will help you be more in sync with your thoughts and emotions instead of reacting to them after it's too late. I used to pop off thanks to my lovely Sicilian temper, and then I'd look back at the destruction I left behind not knowing what caused my outburst. While I still get angry and experience all the emotions of the rainbow, I now know what causes them and when I need space to ground myself.
Journaling is a great way to process your emotions and thoughts as a precursor to meditation. Many of us had diaries as kids, so look at this as a way to talk to yourself and connect with your thoughts in written form instead of sitting down and meditating in the traditional sense.
As you become more familiar with what sets you off or worries you, consider trying the following activities: writing a letter to your anxiety/depression/temper/etc., write your biggest fears down and work through logical solutions to decrease or remove this fear, write down your fears about meditating or why you think you're struggling with it.
Ultimately, the goals here are to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper, to use writing to become more familiar with your inner voice, and to address your fears about meditating.
One of my biggest roadblocks was not knowing how to meditate on my own and finding that there are hundreds of resources to turn to from guided meditations on YouTube, to books, to apps. Currently, I use Headspace and it truly is a godsend. The free version provides you with three levels of 10 educational sessions, so 30 in all, to get you jump started with your practice.
Andy, the creator and voice guiding your meditations, is very helpful, compassionate, and understanding in his voice overs. Plus, you won't be met with complete silence as you're meditating, unless if you prefer to meditate without any guidance - the app has that option as well. Even better, the app is easy to use, has really eye catching graphics and educational videos, and tracks your progress and success. It's like a motivational buddy and teacher all at once. I highly recommend!
Build Up to Longer Sessions
When I first opened myself up to meditating I was intimated by people who said they mediated 30 minutes to an hour. First, I felt like who the hell has the time for that amidst our busy, modern schedules. Second, I was truly scared to give my mind that much time to go haywire. So, let me present an analogy to you to better explain the point I'm trying to make.
If you had never lifted weights before, you wouldn't go into the gym and try to do 30 reps of squats with an astronomical weight on the bar, right? Or if you did try to do that, you'd realize you need to build up your strength first, whether through less reps and less weight, less reps, or less weight.
That being said, try meditating for 3-5 minutes every few days when you're starting out. Or maybe you do ten minutes once a week - it's whatever works best for *you*. In my mind, it's totally up to you to determine your meditation practice, and don't worry about other people and how many days/minutes they're logging. If you're taking the time to sit down and meditate, you're all good in my book :)
Explore Different Types of Meditation
I'm going to assume that when most people hear the word "meditation" an image of someone sitting with their eyes closed and taking deep breaths comes to mind. This is a very popular way to meditate, but there are other ways to reap the benefits of meditation that involve movement and other actions. Here are some that I've tried before:
Yoga is a great way to live in the moment and connect with your mind, body, and soul. I personally just pull up YouTube videos and do them in my room, but you can always attend a restorative yoga class at a studio or local gym. Yoga, in and of itself, gently forces you to focus on each move, your breath, and how you feel as you hold poses - these are all elements that better help you be present, which is also one of the goals of meditation. Plus, a lot of yoga classes/videos have a built-in meditation session at the very end when your mind may be calmer and more open to traditional meditation.
Dancing is one of my favorite things to do. I love music because it gives me a way to express myself, connect to something I deem to be a higher power, and live in the moment. If you don't like to dance, completely ignore this suggestion, but if you enjoy dancing, consider throwing on some tunes and really observing your body move and the words, melodies, and emotions that the song evokes. An added benefit is that you're getting some quality exercise and practicing your sweet moves ;)
Whether it's shoving food down our throats as we rush from one thing to the next or mindlessly snacking late at night while we watch TV, our relationship with food in the modern world is an unhealthy one, unfortunately. But practicing mindful eating can benefit us in so many ways, and again, help us focus on the here and now.
Here are some tips for incorporating this practice:
Well, there ya have it: Yoolie's crash course to making your current or future meditation practice less daunting and anxiety-ridden. What are your thoughts? Did you find this helpful? Do you have any added suggestions or tips? Let me know in the comments!
What comes to mind when you hear the words “Lyme disease?” For most people, they conjure up an image of a tick or a tick bite, and if they’re somewhat informed on the topic, they may think about the tell-tale symptoms of Lyme: chronic pain, flu-like symptoms, and a stiff neck.
While any accurate coverage of Lyme is a step in the right direction, considering the disease is still widely ignored by the medical profession in the United States and is misunderstood by the general public, I’d like to address another facet of Lyme that is often left out of the conversation: the social implications and side effects of the disease that affect our self image.
Because Lyme can wreak havoc on everything from what you can eat and your ability to process alcohol to negatively affecting energy levels and creating a war zone in your head by way of anxiety and depression, people with chronic Lyme typically struggle to maintain any semblance of a social life, let alone a robust one. Even if the person is recovering and is no longer in isolation from being bed-/house-ridden, it’s still difficult to fit in with other people on social outings amidst the specific dietary requests, having to make special accommodations for chronic pain, or dipping out early from an event thanks to fatigue.
Considering I’ve experienced both sides of the spectrum (being so sick that I barely left the house outside of going to work to my pre-Lyme days as a binge-drinking, dancing machine who was the life of the party), I can safely say that I struggled to define and understand who I was (and still do) once I became sick.
yHere’s a list of what I’ve experienced over the years:
Change of Interests and Hobbies
When I was an undergrad in college, I played rugby, chugged beers, scarfed down on any cafeteria food that was grilled, and was a pretty bombastic person. I lifted heavy weights, boxed, took MMA classes, and loved anything high-intensity. I scoffed at yoga and meditation, clean eating, and being healthy. Obviously, all that changed once I got sick.
What we might not foresee is that once you get sick and make the choice to get better by way of dietary and lifestyle changes, that means the people you roll with might not be along for the ride, at least at this stage in the journey. I quickly realized that a lot of my friendships were held up by the weight of drinking and partying, which is not meant to be taken negatively or as an insult, it’s just a fact.
I also realized that people were quick to make fun of my new dietary changes and desire to do more light exercise because those decisions weren’t in tandem with who I was to those people, or even to myself.
So after over a decade of being the masculine athletic girl who could kick ass and take names, an identity I wore proudly and loudly, I lost that part of myself and was left thinking “who am I?” And I wondered if I I could no longer drink and dance the night away would I still be considered fun and the life of the party? These things were especially important to me back then, but I’m happy to report I couldn’t care less now.
Body Dysmorphia and Beauty Standards
Even if you don’t have body image distortion issues, Lyme is going to mess with your perception of your outward image. I’ve written this list so many times, but it bears repeating… here is how Lyme has affected my outsides: hair loss, cystic acne, chipping of teeth, muscle atrophy, weight gain, weight loss, inflammation, discoloration of skin, and just all around looking lifeless. And none of these things are necessarily predictable or linear, so each day, you may take a look in the mirror and not have any idea of who’s looking back at you, which is pretty jarring and scary.
I used to be muscular to the point where I was called a man for a large portion of my life. My skin was perfect, my teeth were straight and white, and while my hair started falling out from birth control in 2010, before that I was able to make do with what I had. When my health bottomed out, so did my self-image, which is especially tough on women who are expected to uphold ridiculous beauty standards.
I lost another part of myself and questioned who I was if I couldn’t fit into all of my old clothes, if I couldn’t wear my hair down without it looking like I was balding, if my skin started to erupt in painful cysts. I’m the first to admit that I was vain, but the seemingly overnight changes to my outward appearance really shocked me to my core and left me wanting to hide in my room with a paper bag over my head. While I never thought I was a beauty queen, you can bet that looking like a balding, swollen tomato with pimples turned me into a self-conscious individual.
My Healing Isn’t Linear, So Who Am I Today?
To be honest, this facet of Lyme is probably one of the most difficult aspects for me to accept. There are some days or weeks where I can exercise it up and start to feel like the “athletic” me again. Sometimes I can go out dancing all night and take a few tequila shots here and there. Or my mind is on fire (in a good way lol) and I can get through everything on my checklist.
During these moments, my brain starts to go down the slippery slope of thinking I’m fully healed and can get back to the “old” me, whatever that means. I get overly confident, my extroverted side comes out in full force, and I start shifting it into high gear until… you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t, that’s okay), I wake up and the “sick” me is now in control.
What does sick me look like you ask? Instead of exercising I’m in chronic pain from head to toe and hopefully taking an epsom salt bath. Instead of being out on the town in my snazziest outfit dancing I’m in my room in sweats with Netflix on queue until the foreseeable future. Instead of getting through everything on my checklist, I’m lucky to get anything done on my outside-of-work checklist.
Sometimes I don’t even have the energy to make food for myself or shower or take care of even the most rudimentary of tasks. Naturally, this juxtaposition of being healthy and then not takes some getting used to. It used to be a slap in the face every time I had a flare or a set back. I would cry and get frustrated. I couldn’t figure out if I should label myself as “healthy” or “sick.” I didn’t know what to tell people when they asked if I was getting better. But I learned to just accept that this is how things are right now, and I don’t need to slap labels on myself. I’m just me, as cheesy as that may sound.
My Head Is A War Zone That Can’t Be Won
One of the most troubling symptoms of Lyme are the mental disturbances that come with it: anxiety, depression, OCD, suicidal ideation, PTSD, panic and anxiety attacks, hearing things, etc. You name it, I’ve most likely experienced it. And when you couple all of the aforementioned issues with not being able to have a high-functioning brain from time to time, it really takes a toll on you and how you see yourself.
How can I have paralyzing anxiety yet be an adventurous go-getter? How can I be depressed yet so full of life? Should I listen to what my brain tells me when I’m anxious and depressed? Are all the horrible things it’s saying true? No, they can’t be true. Wait, yes, I think they are true. WHO AM I? This is a tiny snippet of what goes on during my head most days.
Sometimes, it gets to the point where it all is too overwhelming and painful to deal with so I dissociate - that’s my last-ditch effort at protecting myself from my worst enemy: Lyme brain, as I like to call it. But coming back from hours or a day or two of going through the motions and disconnecting yourself from the world around you can be jarring and difficult. It’s kind of like when you don’t start your car for a really long time and have to jump it to get it going - it takes awhile to get it running like it was before you left it in the garage to collect dust.
To close, I could really write a whole book on this topic, which is why this post is longer than my others, but I think it’s important to shine a light on how people with Lyme can lose their identities and sense of self. Not knowing who you are in this crazy and mad world can make you feel scared and alone, when most of us with Lyme already feel that way to begin with, especially on our worst days.
Do you feel like Lyme has made you lose your sense of self? Feel free to reach out if you need someone to talk to! I’m always here to listen.
Before I dive in to this post, I want to note that I recognize that on the surface the clear connection to networking for introverts and chronic illnesses may not seem apparent. While I don't think that every single introvert has generalized anxiety, I would assume that enough of my fellow introverts do. And considering that a lot of my anxiety stems from mineral, hormonal, and biochemical imbalances thanks to my chronic illnesses, I think that this topic may be helpful to my readers. So, here goes!
Ah, networking. It’s a buzzword, a commonplace piece of advice that’s doled out at panels, and also a very beneficial skill to hone if you want to “make it” in this world. For some, it’s their time to shine in the limelight and work their magic amongst potential professional connections, and for others it can be anxiety-inducing and full of dread. Regardless of where you fall, it goes without saying that networking is important no matter what profession you’re in, considering most people find and land jobs thanks to the help of their connections.
But what if you’re introverted, shy, or have social anxiety? Does that mean that you’re doomed to be jobless or end up in a job that you hate? Well never fear, because I’m here to tell you that you can still be a rockstar at networking as an introvert; I’m living proof.
I like to describe myself as an extroverted introvert, but I’m also a little awkward and struggle with small talk, so the combination didn’t make me a grade-A networker at the start. But with a little work and taking baby steps to push myself outside of my comfort zone, I can now go to networking events without wanting to put a paper bag over my head or avoid them completely.
Want to check out the rest of this article and read up on the five things that have helped me network as an introvert? Then you'll have to head on over to my dear friend Rachel's website, Rachel L. Macon, where this post was originally featured.
Passion. It’s defined as a strong and barely controllable emotion. Plenty of public figures have weighed in about finding, chasing, and making sure your passions are at the center of your life. Oprah Winfrey has said that “passion is energy. Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.” There are self-help books, podcasts, blogs, and other forms of media that center on discovering what ignites you and incorporating these passions into your everyday life.
Generally, thinking about and pursuing our passions is filled with excitement and good vibes. It can be enthralling to daydream about our dream job, achieving a long-term goal, or simply carving out time to do something that makes us smile. But what happens when your health isn’t in tip-top shape and you’re struggling to keep your head above water?
Speaking from personal experience as a person with chronic illnesses (read: Lyme disease and co-infections, Hashimoto’s, anxiety, depression, among others), having impaired health can create obstacles in pursuing passions. For instance, my illnesses cause the following symptoms: lack of energy, unstable moods, chronic pain, reduced cognitive abilities, and a general sense of not feeling well, to list a few.
All of these symptoms can make it difficult to pursue goals and passions in a timely fashion, as much of my time is spent taking care of myself or maintaining my health. Additionally, having chronic illnesses can be costly, so money that could be spent on sessions with life coaches, workshops, equipment, or anything else spent on my passions goes toward organic food, supplements, doctor’s appointments, etc.
This begs the following question: Is it still possible to have your passions be the driving force of your everyday life when you have chronic illnesses? My answer: Yes, but it may look different.
Adjust your mentality/manage your expectations
I’m the first to admit that being more flexible with expectations of myself hasn’t been easy. I am a 100% Italian from New York. I was raised by go-getters. I am Type A. I am a perfectionist. All things that played a role in my health issues, to be honest. But there is no way that I can progress through life like I did pre-illnesses and have these qualities take the steering wheel.
I can’t pull all-nighters, I can’t juggle three jobs at once, and trying to be perfect at every facet of my life does nothing but hurt me. As a result, I’ve changed aspects of my life. I am more of a burst worker. When I have a string of good days I throw myself into projects and tasks. Conversely, when I have a string of bad days, I try to be patient and accept that I need to slow down. If I try to force myself past my limits, this prolongs my healing period.
Mentality also plays a huge role here. I have to accept that I am a different person than I once was. I don’t have to love that fact every single day, but if I am constantly working against myself and trying to force myself to be someone I’m not, then I won’t even have time to pursue any of my passions; I’ll just be at war with myself in my head.
Find New Passions and Rediscover Old Ones
My main interests used to be eating and cooking unhealthy food, drinking and staying out late, and high-intensity sports and workouts. After I got sick, most of these passions had to fall by the wayside, but this made room for so many others that were healthier and more productive.
Now, my passions are health and wellness and helping others heal. I care about the environment and humankind. I’ve found my way back to being a true empath and connecting with others on a deeper level. As I continue to heal, I’ve created time to fall back in love with playing music, exploring the outdoors, and consuming information any way I can (read: books, documentaries, podcasts, etc.).
If I never got sick I wouldn’t have a passion for health and wellness as strongly as I do. I wouldn’t have started an Instagram account and blog to use my voice to help others, and I wouldn’t have become such an advocate for patient empowerment and alternative medicine.
In fact, I thank my illnesses for making this possible. Do I think positively about my situation every day? No. But does it help to take the “lemons” I’ve been handed and make the most of my situation? You bet.
Break tasks down into “digestible” tasks
I think this suggestion would help anyone chasing their passions, but it’s especially helpful for those with chronic illnesses. For example, trying to write a book if writing is your passion is a lofty goal, but if you reframe it as write five pages every day or a chapter a week, it won’t seem as overwhelming.
This way, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment while taking smaller steps toward your goal one day at a time. Sure, it might take you longer to say you finally reached the top of the “mountain,” but you’ll probably better maintain your health and sanity this way, so what do you have to lose?
Ask for help when you need it
Last but not least, create a support system that can help you during your times of need. For instance, when I’m feeling overwhelmed my parents will help cook food for me so I can focus my time on finishing up a blog post or going to a volunteer event. It’s okay to lean on others when we're not capable of doing something ourselves, especially if it will free up space to do things that make us happy and charged up.
So what do you think? Has having a chronic illness changed how you pursue your passions?