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MIT blogger Caroline P. '23

Anxiety Level: High by Caroline P. '23

A play-by-play of emotional diffusion

Phase I: Recognition

I sit down on my bed. My heart is racing. I am anxious. For a little bit now, I’ve been taking stock of my anxiety levels at the end of every day to see if I can find any patterns. I take a mental note. Anxiety level: High.

But why am I anxious?

Phase II: Inquiry 

I have a conversation with my Anxiety. This year I learned that it’s much more helpful to ask Anxiety why it’s acting up instead of ignoring it completely. Anxiety will explode if you do nothing, and believe it or not, you can actually learn a thing or two by asking it what’s up.

Me: Anxiety, what’s wrong?

Anxiety: EVERYTHING

Me: A little more specific please?

Anxiety: Well to start, there’s housing. AHHHHH! Bitch, we don’t have housing yet! What if we don’t find housing? What if your house sucks? What if you have to stay at home with your family?!?

Me: Housing is actually going okay! You have a group you love, you have a few really solid leads and active discussions, and everyone is being so helpful. You’ll have a place in no time.

Anxiety: Okay, but what about that essay?!? Oh man, you have to complete it so quickly. You kept putting it off, putting it off, putting it off, then *BAM*: you’re late. Of course you’re late. It’s not even a good essay anyways.

Me: But it’s not too late! Communication was bad on both ends; you’ll get it done. And the essay isn’t bad, it just needs work.

Anxiety:

Anxiety: You’re a terrible writer.

Me: I’m… not. I’m an improving writer? I got picked to do an essay, I guess.

Anxiety: You get picks for lots of things you aren’t qualified to do. Like your internship! Are you even qualified to do all of that important stuff for such a great non-profit? Are you spending enough time on it? No! They’re asking us to do all of these things and we don’t even know where to start. Soon they’re going to realize how insanely unprepared you are and you’ll get fired.

Me: They hired us and we didn’t lie, so they know what they got. If we’re doing the work during the hours we’re supposed to be working, we’re doing the work. I can figure it out… I think.

Anxiety: but even if you do, you have that stuuuuupid 8.02 final. You haven’t taken it yet, or even studied at all! It’s going to be so much work, and what if you aren’t smart enough? What if you fail? What if you weren’t just in “bad shape”, what if you’re incapable of passing 8.02?!?

Me: I’m probably capable of passing 8.02. Before I associated it with YOU, I thought it was super interesting. We had a really hard semester. Just start studying tonight or tomorrow.

Anxiety: But you HAVE to start, otherwise everything will get fucked up. If you can’t study now, how will you ever succeed virtually next semester? You can’t do online learning, you’re terrible at it. You’re too stupid for online learning.

Me: Um…

Anxiety: You’re also doing sooooooo many HASS things this summer and, like, no STEM things. You’re writing essays, working for an arts foundation, taking guitar lessons, but you’ve haven’t even finished 8.02! And you only took three classes last semester! You’re falling behind, Powers. All the other rising sophomores have like, tech UROPs or internships. All the other bloggers are doing the right things, just look at their posts (which, by the way, are so much better than anything you’ve ever put up here)! You’re doing the wrong things. Do they all see that you’re doing the wrong things?

Me: But getting an internship the summer after your freshmen year is impressive! And most people aren’t doing anythi-

Anxiety: And on THAT note, are we even sure you’re smart enough for any of this? You can’t even remember the last time you felt like you could do this. You dropped a class; you were still overwhelmed. You dropped another class; you were still overwhelmed. You OX-ed the physics final and straight-up didn’t do the last month of work for 6.009, dropping your A to a C, and you still felt overwhelmed. Sure, no one could see it, but we could see it. You didn’t even deserve that A in the first place! You could never finish your code all the way. You could NEVER figure it out. The only reason you got an A was luck and Student Support Services (S^3) manipulation. You manipulated S^3 into giving you extensions because you couldn’t drink from the MIT firehose. Are you even good enough for college in general? Or are you just one of those kids that everyone thought would do great things in high school but turned out to be a massive disappointment. You’re too lazy, too anxious, too dysfunctional for higher education. And soon enough, that inescapable truth will catch up with you. You’ll use up all of the S^3 support, all the extensions, the student mental health resources and it will just be you. And you will fail. Irredeemably. 

Me: Woah, that’s a little-

Anxiety: If someone watched you 24/7, they would understand how pathetic you are. They would see you laying in my bed, wasting time, pacing back and forth as you try to shake your nerves enough to respond to someone’s text or email. They’d see all the psets you never finished, the hours you spent watching YouTube instead of preparing for your physics exam, all of the relationships you fucked up, the terrible choices you’ve made, the sheer delusion of your dreams. Release an album? Get a degree? Get a UROP? Please, you don’t even really know how to code or produce music or use MatLab. Everyone knows how to use MatLab but you! Why don’t you know how to use MatLab?!? 

Me: …I don’t know why I don’t know how to use MatLab.

Anxiety: Because you’re always so tired: Why are you always so tired? Why can’t you do things? Everyone is tired, but everyone else can get things done. Why can’t you push through the exhaustion?

Me: I don’t know.

Anxiety: I thought so. You know, so many of the people that you love are so much better than you are. You should be embarrassed when you’re around them; everyone can see how much smarter, more motivated, more attractive, more confident they are than you. Why do they even keep you around? Probably just for convenience’s sake; if you stopped helping your friends with random stuff, they’d ditch you in a second. 

Me: I know! Okay? I get it. You know, I wish I wasn’t surprised when someone decides to text me, and I wish I wasn’t so much of a freak that I can’t bring myself to respond. I wish I didn’t feel like I had to avoid the people I love. But I can’t help it right now. For some reason, it hurts to value someone’s presence in my life, and it hurts even more to be valued in return.

Anxiety: You’ll never get better. You’re just bad. Bad, bad, bad. Incapable. Lazy. Insecure. Weak.

Me: Yikes, we’re in deep today. Okay, I hear you. Are you done now?

Anxiety: …Maybe.

Phase III: Response

At this point, I have to decide how I respond to Anxiety. Do I:

  1. suppresssuppresssuppress. 
  2. Engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms to try and relieve the emotional discomfort in ways that will not serve me in the long run.
  3. Give in and start agreeing with Anxiety, making all the crazy things Anxiety tells me seem more and more like reality.
  4. Challenge Anxiety. Continue the dialogue and try to win it over.

Every single time, I have to go through these options and make a choice. Of course d) is the right answer, but it’s also the most difficult to pull off. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes an immense amount of self-compassion. This time, I found the strength to choose d). I’ve gotten better about choosing d).

Me: *Sigh* Okay, that was a lot. I think you’re having a hard time right now. Let’s start by acknowledging everything that’s going on in your life:

  • You’re moving. Like literally today. There’s no furniture in your room
  • You’re leading the search for housing in your group of friends
  • You’re working a virtual internship. Not only that, you’re working on a project for that virtual internship that demands a lot of self-direction, creativity, and maybe even some knowledge that you don’t totally have. Your supervisor’s on vacation, so you’re kind of just floating. 
  • You’re working for the family business when you’re not doing the internship
  • You’re trying to earn extra cash by selling old clothes and blogging when you’re not interning or working for the fam (which, by the way, adds up to 40 hours a week without anything else)
  • You’re editing your Angles essay
  • You’re trying to find time to study for physics
  • You’re trying to learn guitar and keep the dream of writing an album alive
  • Interpersonal shifts. Basically people + change = stress, even if it’s a change you really like. 
  • You’re working on yourself, and I’m just going to call you out: You really don’t acknowledge how much energy this requires. Changing our thought patterns is Hard Work, and by the looks of it you’re not giving it enough time.

Do you see how much that is? It’s so much! I’m really not surprised that you’re acting up. Maybe you’re just trying to tell me that something isn’t working in my life right now.

Anxiety: Yeah, EVERYTHING.

Me: No, not everything. A few things. You not only have a lot of work right now, but also a lot of things that it’s your job to worry about. Subtle distinction, but an important one. Moving, fall housing, the pitch for the internship, the quality of your essay, advancing your education, global pandemic: All of these things are things you kinda need to worry about, but the reward that follows will be worth it. Unfortunately, the “worry” parts of all of these things are happening within the same week. 

Anxiety: Maybe, but there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re doomed to hate our life until all of this is over, and even when it is you’ll still be bad at online education, falling behind your peers, lacking confidence in your social and academic abilities. It just never goes away.

Me: Hey, it takes more than a few weeks to work through stuff like that. Remember that Rick and Morty episode we really like? At the end, Dr. Wong has this monologue about the nature of therapy, and one part of it has always stuck with us:

“…The thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is, it’s not an adventure. It’s just work. And the bottom line is that some people are okay with work and some people, well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.”

Whether we like it or not, you and I sit at the same metaphorical decision-making table in the mind of the same person. And collectively, with the ex-Catholic and the sad emo teenager and the free-spirited lesbian and the cocky A-student in me, we chose to do the work. We wake up in the morning and before we even get out of bed, we choose to do the work again and again in the hope that someday, we’ll be better off for it. That’s why I’m talking to you in the first place. Are you still on board?

Anxiety: I don’t have much of a choice, do I?

Me: No, you don’t. Now what can I do to make you feel better? The weather’s really nice outside. We could go on a walk.

Anxiety: That sounds nice.

Part IV: Self-care

I go on a walk and listen to the breeze rustle the trees. I gain some perspective. I make plans to call a friend, get a good night’s sleep, maybe sit by the lake for awhile.  Things are crazy, but that makes it even more important to step away and take a break.  Everything is going to be okay.

Anxiety level: manageable