This is the personal anxiety essay written by Joli Ayala and featuring her struggles with anxiety as a student. We appreciate the honesty and courage Joli displayed and hope that her story will encourage other students with study anxiety to look for help.
Being a doctor was always my dream. Not only the part where I got to be called ‘Dr. Ayala´ or the part where I got to use a white coat and spend my entire day at the hospital. Actually, those are only very little parts of what I actually wanted. My dream was much more bigger: I wanted -and still want- to take care of people, to give them hope, company and compassion. I knew the path wasn’t going to be easy, but I learned (the hard way) that it could actually be horrible.
My first year in med school was kind of easy, mainly because first semesters are supposed to help you acclimatize to uni life. But little I knew this kind of advantage would also be a nightmare. During the first two semesters, I was taking basic subjects and getting good grades but when I started third semester, I suddenly I found myself immerse in specialized subjects, where doctors expected me to know and understand what they were talking about when, in reality, I was completely lost. But I couldn’t let that happen, I couldn’t ´let them win´ and take away my hard-to-get good grades. So, I decided one thing and one thing only: I was going to be the best student in my class no matter how hard it could be. I started to study like crazy: most days I woke up at 6am and went to sleep at 1am, I was tired but I didn’t care. I convinced myself going out with friends and family was a distraction, therefore, I denied every invitation to hang out and soon, my only company were my laptop and my books. I started to believe that my self-worth was only defined by my grades, and whenever I got what I considered to be a mediocre grade, I would cry and cry, telling myself I wasn’t doing enough and that I should study harder.
I didn’t know at that time but I was destroying my health. My physical and mental health. I was so disconnected from myself but so focused on exams and assignments, that I got trapped in a constant state of alert and anxiety became my daily bread. All I did was worry all day, I couldn’t stop thinking about college tasks, not even in the shower, and, by consequence, I started to have trouble falling asleep. I was exhausted but my mind couldn’t stop thinking about all the things I had to do next day, it felt like my mind and my body where in a constant fight to see who gave up first. I was angry all the time, everything and everybody irritated me, even my family. But I wasn’t aware of the damage I was doing to myself, so I kept going like this for weeks, and then months. Until one day, I stopped. I was in the middle of virtual class, the doctor was explaining us the difference between cerebral palsy and brain damage, when I suddenly stopped listening and realized “I don’t like this anymore, I hate it.” I started to cry, went to the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror: I had dark circles under my eyes, my skin was breaking and my mouth was dry. I was thirsty. And hungry. For the first time in a long time, I noticed I was thin. Unhealthily thin. What had I done to myself? How did I let that happen to me? I felt helpless, I needed a friend, someone to listen and comfort me. But then I remembered I hadn’t answered my friends’ messages in months, I had nobody.
The next days after that episode were really hard. I had to decide between my career and myself. And I decided to choose myself. But anxiety didn’t like my decision. Whenever I wanted to take a rest, my mind would tell me “Come on, you can’t be that lazy, I bet you’re the only student in the class that isn’t studying right now” and so I would instantly open my book. Whenever I hung out with a friend my mind would go “Come on, go home, you have so much to do and study, you’re only losing your time” so I would apologize to my friend and ran home to keep working. I couldn’t make it by myself. So, I asked for help and started going to therapy.
My therapist diagnosed me with anxiety and burn-out syndrome. This had happened because, between all my priorities, my health and well-being weren’t definitely on first place. The first thing I did in therapy was to recognize all the things that made me valuable, and no, my grades weren’t part of them. Changing my thoughts was fundamental. Instead of thinking “I can’t get a bad grade”, I changed it to “It’s just a grade, it’s not the end of the world.” And, whenever anxiety appeared, I took a deep breath and reminded me that I was so much more than just my academic performance, and that, as long as I did my best, it was enough.
Now, 2 years later from that realization, I can say that I no longer want to be perfect or be the first of the class. I truly enjoy studying and learning now, but I also love resting, and I always make sure to listen to my body and my soul and give them what they need. Sometimes they want to put in a lot of work, but sometimes they want to hang out with someone, and sometimes they don’t want to do anything at all, and I honor and respect that. I’ve learned college life doesn’t have to be stressful. I believe that -with the right tools- every student can live a healthy and balanced life, dedicating enough time to their careers but also -and most importantly- to themselves.