Robb*, an alumnus and science major from the class of 2010, remembers his junior year at Swarthmore as being particularly stress-filled. His first panic attack occurred in the spring semester, when he was taking two challenging and “intensely time-consuming” courses while also dealing with family difficulties.
“It just evolved into this kind of hell where I felt like I was just trying to get through day-by-day […] making sure I was handing assignments in on time but not actually being able to learn,” he said.
According to Robb, the panic attack began with a feeling of severe shortness of breath.
“I was just working on a problem set. […] I remember I started developing this difficulty breathing,” he recalled. “My girlfriend got really scared and ended up calling an ambulance. […] I had never experienced anything like that before.”
Robb was taken to the nearby hospital, where he was told he had experienced a panic attack, which is a clinical term for a variety of symptoms often including feelings of terror, disassociation, and physical sensations of chest pain, dizziness, and/or tingling in the extremities.
Robb had two more panic attacks after that incident, once in the middle of a class, and realized that something was wrong.
“It was a pretty bad situation where, not only was I having trouble getting my work done, I was also getting these panic attacks, and each one was just really draining. I remember I took a walk with a friend in the amphitheatre, and I said, ‘I just don’t think I can make it through the rest of the semester.’” It was at that point that Robb decided to do something differently.
Robb had a relative who lived a half-hour away from Swarthmore’s campus, and Robb decided to stay with him for a week. When he left campus, he was not only able to relax for a bit, but also take the time to revisit his coursework.
“I’d had so much work that I had just never taken the time to learn stuff,” Robb said. “So it was actually really relaxing just going through my textbooks and actually going through the material […].”
Thus, when Robb returned to campus after his week off, he felt ready to finish the semester. Now a graduate school student looking back on this time in his Swarthmore career, Robb feels fortunate that he took action when he needed to and was able to complete the rest of the academic semester as a result.
However, Robb feels that Swarthmore is capable of providing more preventative measures when it comes to mental health.
“I think it’s interesting when you have an infection, people get very mobilized to try to prevent it,” he said, citing how effectively the College administration took action during the 2009 swine flu infection. It is a very different story for mental illness, even though it is very widespread and debilitating on campus.
“If you took the amount of suffering among Swatties and averaged it out, it’s probably a significant amount,” Robb said. “And in terms of hours that are lost, hours that you can’t work or participate in activities or study, […] I’m sure there’s a significant amount of cause associated with the stress and anxiety and depression experienced by students on campus.”
To Robb, preventative measures can start with how courses at Swarthmore are set up. He observed that “the people in the dean’s office and the health office care a lot about student stress […] On the other hand I don’t see as much discussion among professors on how to prevent stress.”
Robb believes that it would be helpful if, at the beginning of a course, professors make their students aware of potential stressors and challenges associated with the course. He also suggested that professors advise their students on actions to take if they feel overwhelmed at any point of the semester.
“On the one hand, it’s good that people get pushed, because it allows them to better achieve their full potential,” Robb said. “On the other hand, if you push too hard, you risk breaking that person.”
In retrospect, Robb feels that his experiences with stress have instilled a greater resilience in him.
“Having had this experience of dealing with acute stress and anxiety, I [feel] more comfortable being placed in difficult situations,” he said.
This is evident in Robb’s postgraduate life, during which he worked abroad for a year before joining an intense graduate school program. In addition, he has learned to occasionally “take hits” and not to take academic difficulties in graduate school too personally.
“You can use your personal experience to draw a lot of strength for the future when you come across difficult situations like that,” he said.
Robb’s days of dealing with anxiety are not over – to this day, Robb occasionally suffers from panic attacks.
“Things still make me anxious at times, I’m not going to lie,” he admitted. “However, I feel I now have a better sense of when that anxiety is coming and how to control that anxiety […]. I know when to take a break or reach out to people.”
In terms of combating anxiety on a day-by-day basis, Robb has found it helpful to prioritize the things that are important to him.
“Obviously my graduate school studies are very important to me, but there are other things that are important to me. For instance, I’m a very avid hiker, and I will make sure that I have time to go hiking,” Robb said, who will wake up in the wee hours of the morning to hike the entire day whenever he has a single day off from work. “I [feel] more centered as a person because it [means] my life [is] not being defined by my work, and I [am] able to do things that I really enjoy as well […] Those things are an important part of being me.”
To Robb, the maintenance of mental wellness is analogous with that of physical wellness.
“There are so many people who know that […] you have to spend time exercising to keep relatively fit,” he said. “But a lot of people don’t think about how to keep mentally fit […]. I don’t expect that I could spend a year not exercising [and] then think I’m going to be okay running a 5K. In a similar way, a lot of people should spend time […] thinking about their wellbeing. And if they go a year without spending time on their own wellbeing, are they going to be in great shape? Probably not.”
Ultimately, understanding this parallel is a step towards normalizing mental health matters and removing their stigma.
*Robb is a pseudonym for an alumnus who chose to remain anonymous.
Featured image from http://www.alluradirect.com/.