Winning the War Against Anxiety

Hey everyone-it’s been a spell. I’m glad to be writing again.

Guys-I have anxiety. No, I don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for GAD or Panic Disorder. That said, my default wiring is anxiety. I worry about nearly everything- school, dating (I’m single ladies…), weekend plans, friendships, finances, research, if I remembered to flush. You know, normal stuff. Most of all, I worry about the beautiful, big picture, future stuff like boards and residency and who I am as a person. I am exceedingly future focused and self-conscious: a winning combination, I know. Chances are, if you’re in medicine, you probably relate.

And you know what?

Anxiety Sucks.

A lot.

The ways anxiety sucks are impossible to number, but if I picked three reasons it would be these: Anxiety sucks because anxiety is de-motivating, it robs today of its joy, and it’s just a tiny bit addictive. You know, like when you watch Human Centipede and you want to stop, but you just can’t. (Editor’s Note: DO NOT WATCH HUMAN CENTIPEDE).

Right now, I just want to talk about how constricting, suffocating, and demoralizing anxiety can be. Story time- I’ve been MIA from life for the past three months as I’ve been wading through a labyrinthine haze of UWorld and First Aid. I had an original Step 1 date set for early June. As the day drew closer, I started getting anxious. I was sleeping four hours a night, vomiting before practice tests. My bowels were a mess. I don’t say this to garner sympathy, but to make it clear where I was at.

And you know what I did instead of buckling down? I psyched myself out. I told myself that I couldn’t do this, that I wasn’t improving (untrue), and that I should be ashamed for not working harder (maybe a little true). I felt it didn’t matter if I studied or not, so I started slacking- waking up later, studying fewer hours, and studying less intensely. If that’s you, I want you to simply know that you can do it. Heck, if you’ve accomplished anything in your life, you know that you succeeded in part because you told yourself you could succeed. When you’re anxious, nothing seems worth it, your mind races, and what was once false starts becoming real. Anxiety inhibits us from reaching our full potential.

But you knew that.

What you might not know is the cure – humility. Working harder doesn’t work. Talking yourself out of it doesn’t work. Humbly admitting that in your present state, you can’t do it- that works. You cannot and will not succeed by being as anxious as you are. You have to accept reality. To me, that’s what humility is- seeing yourself precisely as you are-no better, no worse. I had to realize that yeah, I do suck right now. It’s a really hard thing to realize that you’re broken and need help.

Everyone I’ve ever seen overcome their anxiety had to accept the world as it was at that moment and admit they needed a hand. It is never wrong to ask for help. To ask for help is, believe it or not, a sign of strength and courage. And I’m sorry, I wish I could give you a roadmap to humility, but I can’t. Maybe you’ll just break down in tears to your dad sitting in your sweaty Pontiac Vibe with broken A/C in the parking lot of a Panera. No? Just me? Okay, that’s cool.

Honestly, not the best place for a mental-breakdown- there was a Kopps Frozen Custard just across the street.

There’s a second step to winning this war- build an army. I mean a real team- people who may not entirely understand what you’re going through, but love you unconditionally. Joel, my roommate who told me how it was. Josh, my best friend who happened to be coming up to Wisconsin the weekend after I had my mini-meltdown. The scores of friends who lent me support on test day. The crew at Motivate MD who gave me the time off I needed to take care of myself. Dr. Tsao who showed me so much kindness and helped me switch my schedule around. And of course my amazing family, who let me be normal, told me that I was loved no matter what, and told me I am valuable simply because I exist. Yeah, it’s a platitude. But sometimes we need to believe in the stupid little banal platitudes of life.

Because they’re true.

And you know what? Things got better. I moved my test date, took extra time to study, and moved back home for a month. Things got better. Suddenly, material that didn’t make any sense was going in. I believed I could succeed, I wasn’t sick, and I was sleeping again. When test day rolled around, I felt like I might actually pass or even reach my target.

You can feel that way too-all it takes is a little humility.

I’m not saying that anxiety is easy to deal with. I’ll probably always struggle with it. But now I know how to. Heck, my anxiety is mild by most standards. I know that. I’m not so resilient and I don’t have grit. Sorry if I sound like a pushover today. Even so, if you struggle with anxiety, I hope that my story has gone some way towards helping you win the war.

Be kind to yourself. Love others.