“The mind can never find the solution, nor can it afford to allow you to find the solution, because it is itself an intrinsic part of the ‘problem.’”– Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now
Sitting on the floor of my room, a space that appears to have grown twice in size, I clutch my heart and wail, hoping that someone will come save me. I feel small, and the world that once seemed inviting, asking me to explore, is now shouting at me, calling me a failure and reminding me I will never be strong enough or smart enough. My cries cut through the vacant enclosure, and I pray for someone to tell me I’m doing everything right. My mind and body, connection severed, echo harsh remarks and painful rituals for several weeks. In a matter of days, my life has changed rapidly, and with it, my self-perception.
Anxiety has always been a part of who I am, but what was new was my inability to hide the pain that dimmed every light in a room. It became so agonising that I quit my jobs, my hobbies, and even my clubs to focus on my classes. After many sleepless nights, the list of activities that made me proud—from hanging out with friends to writing articles—were off my radar. Not by choice. My anxiety had stripped my accomplishments from my hands, made my revised list of achievements vacant, and crushed any hope of creating the life I dreamed of as a child—a life filled with wonder, success, and self-confidence. Maybe I wasn’t going to be a popstar or a best-selling author, but now it felt like my goal of going to grad school was gone too.
Anxiety is more than just twiddling your thumbs or being a little nervous about talking to people. It isn’t simply avoiding presentations and feeling butterflies in your stomach. It isn’t just being afraid to take a test. It isn’t just cancelling plans because people make you nervous. Anxiety is debilitating. It is an enemy hidden by the disguise of picking at your fingernails or fidgeting with your rings. It can keep you locked in your room for days, or make you terrified to go home at night and sit with your thoughts, pushing you to stay in the car for as long as you can before you are called inside. Anxiety is waking up in a panic because you know you have a whole day of responsibilities and tasks to complete. It’s gagging at the thought of an overwhelming deadline and dealing with a burnt throat for weeks after. It’s numbness in one arm, thinking you’re about to have a heart attack. It’s physical and it’s painful. It follows you through the morning and into the night. It leeches onto you like a relentless stalker that you can’t file a restraining order against. It makes you feel lonely, forcing you to push your loved ones away because the thought of them supporting you makes you feel like a burden.
My body reacted in ways I didn’t know possible. My hands and legs would shake, and I was convinced I would fall down the stairs. My sleep was panicked, my breathing was shallow, and my dreams were filled with horror scenes in which I was in my classrooms, panicking about an assessment or a professor’s approval. My eyesight was foggy, my body hot, then cold, then hot again. It was screaming at me to stop, to give it a break, and care for the vessel that carried my soul. I couldn’t work well, or focus, or remember, or sleep, or just stop thinking. There was no “off” switch—like everyone told me there was. Every moment, for weeks, I felt sharp pains in my left arm like I was close to fainting, or to dying—like my body would give up at any moment.
Breaking down every few minutes, gripping the leg of the table as I sat sobbing, I brought anguish to my family. They were terrified, seeing me wail on the floor, asking me to be myself again. The Aia that smiled and laughed. They were right; I was losing control—with no idea as to why my mind and body felt so separated. There were moments of intense pain, and I couldn’t pinpoint what made me feel this way. It was as if my intellect had packed its belongings and called a holiday. I did not eat. I could not sleep. Within the span of three days, I had gone to the doctor twice.
In the deepest crevices of my soul, I am terrified. And yet, underneath a pile of uncertainty, there is curiosity. Terrified and curious about the future. About whether I’ll graduate in the spring. Or at all. If I’ll get into the master’s program that only takes six students. If I’ll get a good job. If I’ll find love.
In moments where my intellect fails me, I must remind myself to deconstruct my forced expectations. This is the second step to achieving inner peace—the first is to accept your state of being. Sounds like BS, I know. I am the top sceptic when it comes to such seemingly vacant advice. “Just believe in yourself” and “keep a gratitude journal” seem like temporary solutions for an indefinite issue. However, if I choose to acknowledge that I am on my own path, and that there is no pressure to finish university in four years or be extremely successful by the time I am 25, then I am truly able to look inward and become acquainted with my own needs and desires—untainted by the expectations of social media, or LinkedIn, or the university community.
I don’t enjoy talking about my anxiety. Partly because I haven’t fully accepted it myself—constantly arguing with my mind and body for its inability to use one of my coping mechanisms—and mostly because I hate the idea of appearing vulnerable or needy in front of people. However, during these weeks of intense solitude and panic, I searched hundreds of blog posts, TikTok videos, and YouTube clips for tricks and solutions to no longer feel, and to no longer be plagued by the inability to take a full breath of air. Most of the tips included “breathing techniques” and “meditation.” Maybe those work for some people, but they don’t work for me.
My Google search history is filled with “how to overcome anxiety” and “tips and strategies to manage anxiety.” But, to no avail, I am not “cured”—if there even is a cure. The days where I would start an essay the same day it was due are long gone, and to replace it are moments of fear forcing me to finish assignments two weeks early. I knew that talking about my feelings had been resonating with students through my column with The Medium titled Changing Leaves—I took that as an obligation to continue to write. In my hours-long internet deep dives, all I wanted was an example of a student that felt exactly what I felt, and the tips they used to get by. Because, for a bit, all I wanted was to finish the semester and then share my experiences so that someone else might find comfort.
Science and religion are two elements of life I find most comfortable. Understanding the science behind emotions or physical reactions, or the logic behind making tough choices fuels my acceptance of life’s challenges. However, this so-called rationality, disappeared and led to intense fear and panic. My coping mechanisms were gone, and I couldn’t pick between rationality and fear. The person I forced over the years—a hardworking, determined, capable, and logical person—was gone. She needed to be constantly reminded that she wasn’t a failure, and that she will be okay again.
God has always been a central part of my life—at some points more than others. My faith isn’t always consistent. But the perfect Muslim is not someone who is never wrong. We weren’t created to be infallible. The perfect Muslim, or the perfect person, is someone who tries their best. Emotional and religious development aren’t perfectly linear. As I sit down on my prayer mat, I beg God to take the pain away from me and everyone involved. In closing the gap between my Creator and I, I turned to the YouTube series “The End of Negative Suffering” by Khalil Jaffar—a major source of comfort to me. As he discusses anxiety, he explains that the only moment is the present. The past and future do not exist other than in those temporal concepts. By acknowledging that the voice in our head isn’t our true self, we can focus on what is real and tangible—the present moment.
In adopting this mindset of remaining in the present, I am aware of the terror that accompanies spending all my time worrying and missing the time I have right now. Eventually will come a phase of life where I won’t be in university, nor with my friends or with my family. Reflecting on the happy moments should come easily to me; I would hate to be unable to remember any of them. My counsellor told me to focus on what I want. To say, “I want to graduate” instead of saying, “I have to graduate.” It’s been helping. Maybe it’s the philosophy student in me saying this, but I have free will. I can do whatever I want, theoretically. Anything I’m told not to do is dictated by society, not because I can’t do it. And so, I could just drop out and never worry about school again. This is a choice. Whether there is societal pressure doesn’t matter when considering the philosophy of free will. Transcending this mentality of “ought to” and “should have” allows me to realize I’m here by choice. You’re reading this by choice. I’m writing this by choice. I’m in school and want to graduate, and that is a choice. I want to be happy and do well in school. I want to work. I want to rest. There are consequences to all actions, good and bad, but I will act because I want to, for whatever reason.
I’ve been implementing new tactics to encourage me to fall in love with living, like doing one fun activity a week, making a bucket list, romanticising university, and honestly, it’s been working in small doses. But then I find myself sobbing for hours in my room, frustrated with myself for being unable to think right, or for accepting help from others. Even while having fun, I choose to do it as a logical way to heal. My body needs to understand how to function in the same way scientists need results to back their claim. The only way I feel peace is if I understand the causation for an event or a series of actions. I’ve had to let go of this narrow framework of thinking, and of my ego. I’ve had to accept that I’m not capable of doing a million activities at a time and keeping up with every single person to make sure they’re doing well, while doing full-time university, and taking care of myself—even though I was once able to. Sometimes I need help. Sometimes I don’t know why I feel how I do. I cannot control everything.
Truthfully, I have no idea what the golden ticket to feeling better really is. I’m still learning, and I don’t think I’ll ever beat my anxiety until I accept that I have it. However, feeling good also comes from accepting new perspectives, tactics, and solutions. For me, goodness has come from my family, my friends, the strangers I meet in the Starbucks line, and even my philosophy professor. I have always been rational because that is the way I thought to avoid pain, but my anxiety forced me to let go of my ego, and my rationality, and accept that no solution I concoct or Google will help me feel like my old self again anytime soon. Out with the old expectations, and in with the new—new solutions, new perspectives, new self-worth, new self-perception, new self-acceptance. My goal in my early 20s is to be kinder to myself, and to change my perspective on where I am in life. To not rush myself or feel like a failure. Although moments of goodness have been replaced with hours of pain, my goal is to experience goodness and pain, but understand that the bad is not a testimony of idleness in life.
You can do muscle relaxation therapy, change your mindset, say positive affirmations, go to the gym, read scientific articles to relieve your anxiety, but sometimes there’s nothing permanent you can do until you find rainbows more than thunderstorms. The temporary helps in the moment to make the day easier, but the most logical way to get through the anxiety is to face it until you make it through the storm—at least, that is my opinion. Maybe there are ways to combat anxiety, but to do so, you need to create new strategies and mindsets. Anxiety requires you to adapt because it’s going to come back. Maybe you live in a constant state of April, or England, where it just pours every day, but holding onto yourself while the thunderstorm rages is your best way to make it to the rainbow. We need to hope to keep moving forward.
Changing Leaves Columnist (Volume 49); Managing Editor (May–November, Volume 49) — Aia is a fourth-year student studying Psychology and completing a double minor in French and Philosophy. She became a Staff Writer for The Medium in the 2021-2022 publishing year and was determined the team couldn’t get rid of her so soon. In her spare time, she can be found café hopping in the hopes to find the best iced chai in the GTA, writing her weirdly complex thoughts down in her notes app, or taking a million pictures a day of her friends. Aia hopes that students find The Medium and feel the sense of belonging she has felt. You can connect with Aia on Linkedin.