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MIT student blogger Rachel D. '16

Coping With Anxiety by Rachel D. '16

What is anxiety? What is panic? Definitions? Confusion? FINALS?! Cats.

Anxiety. It’s a term with a variety of definitions, causes, and effects. It can be both a terrible and potentially wonderful thing. It exists and therefore we study it. I don’t formally study it, but I do care about it among my peers and self on the Internet and in real life. I study materials science and engineering. But I’m writing this post about anxiety.

Anxiety is an overwhelming flow of feelings within and around oneself. It can present itself emotionally – making someone feel like they cannot complete a task such as a problem set or a test or a long trip. It can present itself physically – via heart palpitations or sweating or the feeling of adrenaline pumping through your body. It can be a part of the “fight or flight” response, or it can just be a feeling like you don’t want to keep going or are scared about the present or future.

A panic attack is an overwhelming flush of anxiety and fear than runs through your blood and bones and makes you feel like you don’t exist or are extremely numb. A panic attack occurs when the anxiety gets too much, and can present itself emotionally as fear of dying or desiring death or anger. It physically can present itself as tears and hyperventilation and the inability to catch one’s breath. One’s chest might hurt from not breathing correctly – and one can become nauseous or otherwise ill.

There are many ways that people can cope with anxiety and panic attacks and get help for what they might be experiencing, especially if they feel these overwhelming feelings all the time. Here are a few!

1. Breathing

This is the number one thing to get under control when you are feeling overwhelmed and/or anxious. Make sure you are breathing. If breathing gets out of hand and you feel yourself hyperventilating, focus on holding the exhale as long as you can. Breathe in as long as you can, hold your breathe for six seconds, and then let the breath out for at least six seconds (even longer if you can). Do this as many times as you can until you start to feel better and more in control of your breathing.

2. Feeling Safe

Make sure you are in a safe space. If you are not in a safe space, try to find one. Whether it is your room or a friend’s room (or in my case, my favorite spot on the sidewalk that cuts through Killian Court on the brisk winter nights), find somewhere that feels safe, comfortable, and refreshing. Going outside on long walks can really help, but be careful if it is late at night. A long walk through the MIT tunnels at night can be really helpful for me when I feel anxious.

3. A Happiness Budget

Budget some money for happiness. Yes, we are poor college students. Well, most of us are, I think. But allow yourself to split a $3 book of stickers or temporary tattoos with some friends if it will bring you happiness. I LOVE robot stickers. Temporary tattoos, too. I find it extremely grounding to sit in my room with a book of temporary tattoos and put them on my body – my arms, legs, stomach, neck. I would never really want a permanent tattoo, but I love the temporary ones. And someone told me that it helps to scratch off the tattoos, which wouldn’t result in a scar, you’re just scratching at the surface of the skin. It made me happy to hear that my temporary tattoo idea was helpful to someone else. I hope spending some money on some of these things, or whatever it is that makes you happy, could help you (dear reader), too.

Also, I buy squishables. They bring me so much joy!!

My friend and I also decided that we were going to make bucket lists so that when we were sad we could look at all the things we have to look forward to and the days won’t seem as terrible anymore. When I told my mom that we planned on doing this, my mom and I went to Michaels and went a little sale-crazy. We got two scrapbooks, one for my friend and one for me, and a bunch of motivational stickers and pretty neon paper and cardstock.

The results so far have been fantastic. When we get too stressed out, we scrapbook. Here are some pages from my friend’s bucket list scrapbook.

4. Grounding Oneself

Grounding oneself is reminding yourself that you are here and not “there,” wherever “there” may be. This could include putting on the temporary tattoos or stickers purchased with a happiness budget, focusing on or noticing your breathing, or doing a body scan (see below).

Another great technique for grounding oneself is squeezing something like fruit or playdough. This involves using all five senses, because you can feel and look at and smell the substance, and you can taste and hear it or remember how it tastes because eating playdough is a little icky. I really like playdough, and now carry around a little playdough for me to fidget with when I get anxious or nervous.

Other ways of grounding oneself:

  • Writing/drawing on one’s body
  • Putting ice over your wrists/body or hold it in your hand
  • Snapping a rubber band around a wrist
  • Writing down thoughts on papers/walls/journals/computers
  • Talking to someone
  • Taking a long hot or cold shower
  • Listening to music/painting/art
  • Go for a walk or run/exercise (Exercise really can make you feel better!!)

5. Body Scans

There are lots of scans on Youtube and community wellness’s website, but this is my short and simple scan that I do with people. People can also call 617-253-CALM at any time for a guided three-minute relaxation recording.

The quick scan that I do when someone is having a panic attack is reminding people that they have fingers and toes. I first start with the fingers. I have the person notice each finger and put his or her attention on each finger – sometimes saying each one out loud as he or she notices the finger or wiggles it. Then the person notices the hand and arm, and tenses up the whole hand before relaxing it. Reminder: you have elbows. Also remember not to touch someone in distress if you do not know them well, because a person in distress can not give you consent for touching their elbows. But if it’s a close, good friend, and it won’t make things worse to touch their elbows, touch their elbows. Remind them they have elbows.

Next, the person moves to the feet. Notice each toe, try to wiggle each toe individually. Notice the soles of the feet, and then the entire foot. Tense it, relax it. Move up the leg to the knees. Tense them, relax them.

This quick and easy scan really helps people. I recorded myself going through the scan to help people who are going through rough times. I hope this helps!

And I mixed up index finger with ring finger haha oh well :)

And a reminder that different body scans work differently for different people. A friend pointed out to me that she doesn’t like thinking about her fingers when she gets overwhelmed, so it might work better for people to think about different parts of the body, like the head or neck. Find something that works for you because every person is different and there are always lots of factors to consider, like what triggers are.

6. Identify Triggers

Take notice of the things that make you feel panicked or anxious. Is it that one problem set due the next day? Is it the long to do list sitting on your desktop that refuses to get shorter? Is it a person that you live with or see a lot, such as a professor or friend that worries you? Identify what triggers your anxiety, and try to eliminate exposure to the triggers if possible, and if not then try to get a better understanding of why that is a trigger to your anxiety.

Ever hear of the saying “bring your demons close to you”? Similar to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. Many view anxiety as an enemy that attacks at the worst possible times. If you understand better why you are feeling anxious, what triggers it, and why those things trigger your anxiety, then you can really make progress with feeling better and not being as anxious or panicky in certain situations.

Some triggers are avoidable. Maybe take a break from seeing a person that triggers your anxiety. Maybe go to student support services and ask for advice on getting accommodations for your exam you are freaking out over. Try a long walk outside in the cold, fresh air, away from all the craziness that is MIT. Identify and notice your triggers, and figure out what the next step should be.

7. Get Help

Panic attacks every day are not okay. When things get to be too much, it is really important to reach out and get help. Here are just a few of the awesome resources that MIT has to offer for those who are struggling with anxiety.

  • MIT Mental Health & Counseling – For help with any mental health issues or problems with anxiety, relationships, stress management, depression screening, and much more. Dawn and the many other staff at the front desk are really nice and friendly.
  • MIT Community Wellness – For help with nutrition, stress management classes, and general health & wellness. Zan Barry is an awesome yoga instructor and stress management class instructor, and the VPR staff is awesome. MIT MedLinks is run by Community Wellness and Greg Baker, another awesome person.
  • MIT Student Support Services (S^3) – For help with managing classes and getting extensions or accommodations on assignments or examinations during rough times. Evan at the front desk is super friendly and will answer your phone calls during the day and be very friendly when you go in and say hi. Go say hi to Evan!
  • MIT Together – A conglomeration of all the resources that MIT has to offer in one spot!
  • When You Need Help NOW – For emergencies on campus, dial 617-253-1212, or dial 100 from any campus phone. If you are off campus, call 911. For urgent medical or emotional problems or if you need help deciding if something is an emergency, you can call 617-253-4481 24 hours a day for professional advice on what to do if there is something wrong.
  • Not at MIT? There are many resources available on the Internet! There is the Anxiety DIsorders Association of America, Anxiety Resource Center, and much much more!

It can be hard deciding if and when you need help, but it doesn’t hurt to go and try out any of these services. Even just poking around the websites, becoming familiar with the services, can be a good thing. Go into student support services during walk in hours to chat with Evan or a Dean. Or going to walk-in hours at Mental Health & Counseling to talk about your life. If you feel like there is a small possibility that you might need help now or in the future, go check out the resource. Again, help should not hurt.

8. More Information

Please email me or comment below with any questions you might have about anxiety or stress or anything. I plan on doing another Vlog and would love some questions to answer!

Also, necessary disclaimer that I am not a medical professional (other than being an EMT), but I have had most-to-all of this information reviewed by medical professionals and have either used all the methods myself or helped others use them.