Lindsay has always been the Type-A, perfectionist sort – a claim she makes herself. She says it’s hard to know for sure if she can attribute that part of her personality to always having had anxiety because that part of her really blossomed while she was in high school, an age where a lot of her classmates were feeling the same way. Lindsay recalls feeling a sense of panic to always be the best for others and for herself.
However, her official diagnosis was given in the twelfth grade when she experienced a sexual assault. Whether this anxiety was new or had now escalated after the assault, her mental health was forever changed.
In the aftermath of the assault, Lindsay visited the Catholic Family Services of Durham and her general practitioner to receive help. She began taking medication and sought counselling during that year. After grade twelve she went off to Queen’s University where the counselling ended for her. While her school offered counselling for students, it was almost impossible to get an appointment where there are so few counsellors for a large student population. Additionally, external counselling just wasn’t affordable. Lindsay continued taking medication until her second year of university before trying to wean off. Ultimately, she determined medication was a good course of action for her, going back on medication the following year, and she’s basically been taking it ever since.
As a fifth-year Ph.D. student, Lindsay says school is definitely a factor that has affected her anxiety over the years. While grad school is particularly difficult and stressful, she recalls needing to take half a semester off in the third year of her undergrad. Lindsay also remembers a time when her anxiety became so intense that she experienced extreme weight-loss as a symptom. When she first lost the weight, her doctor (the same one that diagnosed her anxiety) actually congratulated her – which is understandable. However, when she began taking medication again and put some weight back on, that same doctor said to her, “Oh that was a shame. You used to be so small – what happened?” If there was ever a reminder that we all have a lot to learn about the complexities of mental health this is it.
Something I’ve noticed while talking to people suffering from anxiety, Lindsay included, is that it doesn’t just take a toll on you mentally or emotionally; anxiety affects you physically. “…they don’t understand how hard it can be on your body… your body is pretty much working in its fight-or-flight mode 24/7. You are in your stress-zone 90% of your day. So when I get home and I’m exhausted, people are like, ‘why are you so tired?’ Well, you try running on a treadmill all day and having your physiology be that high, be that stressed, and tell me how you feel.”
Anxiety is a liar as it tells Lindsay, “You’re not doing enough. You’re not good enough. You don’t deserve this. You should just stop.” Anxiety is tiring as it keeps her up at night, worrying about something “wrong” she might have said that day. Anxiety is lonely, as Lindsay keeps her emotions to herself, unable to find the words to verbally express how she feels. “The over-thinking, the second guessing… it’s just endless.”
Some of the biggest warning signs Lindsay gets when her anxiety is about to increase include restless sleep, feeling a lot of irritation, a lack of ability to focus on her work or to get much work complete, and her day-to-day routines dwindling. It’s frustrating for her because there’s not always a cause. Sometimes, Lindsay’s anxiety is just because. “It hits you and you’re down.” Sometimes, by the time she feels a panic attack coming on; it’s too late to stop it.
Despite all of the work she’s put in, Lindsay doesn’t think she’s fully worked through her anxiety. She refers to holding in her emotions to the point where the anxiety boils up and she shuts down. She talks about trying to be the best student, the best girlfriend, and the best daughter, and putting other people’s needs in front of her own – to the point she doesn’t have the time for herself.
“I will spend all of my time making sure other people are happy because I don’t want to deal with the stuff that’s not making me happy.”
However, I think Lindsay has done one of the most difficult things you can do – she’s realized what she needs to work on and, above all else, she keeps trying. She knows when anxiety comes over her that “breathing it out” helps. She knows that putting on some comfy clothes and reading a chapter of whatever book she has on the go is one of the best and healthiest ways to shift her focus away from what’s going on inside her head. “…it’s kind of like that escape, or that little bit of time to distance myself and approach it later on.”
Amazingly, one of the ways Lindsay takes care of her anxiety is by purposely inducing it – just a little! A busy graduate student, she finds it difficult to set aside time to go workout even though she knows that exercise is one of the best things to do for her mental health. However, she plays recreational sports twice a week – volleyball and dodgeball – so it’s scheduled into her routine. Hating to let down her teammates, her anxiety kicks in just enough so she makes sure to show up. Even though her anxiety tells her it’s for other people, she has ultimately found a way to trick her mental health into benefitting itself.
Lindsay wants people to know that looks can be deceiving because, while it might appear that she’s functioning well, she looks confident, and she’s excelling at what she does, she can simultaneously be struggling internally. As mentioned before, she’ll show up for others because she doesn’t want to deal with her own struggles.
Although Lindsay is focused on pleasing those around her, she knows what type of support she needs from the people in her life. Sometimes she needs quiet time but that doesn’t have to be alone – having someone be content with staying by her instead of going out can be a source of comfort. And, sometimes, she just needs someone to check in. “It’s knowing that they’re there for me without me having to ask.”
Talking to Lindsay left me in awe. To be a PhD student, writing and conducting research, teaching students, making time for team sports, and balancing relationships with her friends, family, and partner, all while also trying to take care of her anxiety would be tough for anymore, but Lindsay does it with such grace and wisdom. Best of all, she’s given us a very important reminder – check in with those that you care about. They might not open up but knowing that someone cares about you can mean more than you know.