UCL Institute of Mental Health


My anxiety is not a source of shame | Student blog

A student (name withheld) from UCL opens up on their experience dealing with anxiety after the Covid pandemic, and how they navigated support pathways.

People walking in early morning

I vividly remember my first experiences of anxiety. Looking back, it feels like it just turned on one day. But I am sure it was more gradual than that.  

At the time, I was 11 years old and on my way to secondary school, having just started year seven.  

As the bus rounded the corner to my school, I experienced a violent fluttering in my stomach, and an intense feeling of dread. So strong was the fluttering, I felt unable to move, frozen in confusion at what this feeling was. 

Initially, I thought it was a one off. But then it happened again. Then the next day, it didn’t happen, and I thought I was fine. The day after that, it happened again.  

Generally speaking, I liked school. I liked learning and I liked my classes. But there were a couple of reasons that made me deeply despise going. I had no idea that they were the likely cause of my fear-fuelled aversion, as the bus pulled up outside the gates. I had no idea that it was ‘anxiety’ manifesting in physiological form.  

I cannot help but implicate my upbringing; in which  the term ‘anxiety’ did not exist. At least, not within the domains of my Jamaican household. I understood the term within the remit of mental health complexities, but the topic was rarely acknowledged or discussed (in fact, my Uncle Claude, who suffered from Schizophrenia,  was practically shunned from the family). So, mental health was never really a part of my life. Rather, it was a far-removed label associated with those who simply “lack the resilience to tough it out” and “move on”.  If you had a problem that wasn’t physical, you were expected to keep it within the family and, quite simply, get over it.  

Even now, I occasionally find myself instinctively reverting back to that cultural attitude – but I know it is not a sustainable mindset.  

Rewiring the brain takes a lot of cognitive effort.  

For years, I was able to mask my anxiety.  

I deluded myself into believing my suppressed emotions were a form of resilience. A resilience that would be suited to working in a clinical setting, providing support to patients.  Support, that they needed and I did not deserve. I believed this for a long time. I was fine with providing support, in fact I wanted to dedicate my career to it. But when it came to letting help in, it made me almost uncomfortable to even consider it.  

Then COVID struck. And we were all forced to stay indoors, limit interaction and keep our distance (which was not exactly how I pictured first year of university). Yet, when restrictions inevitably started to lift, it struck me how unprepared I was for student life, despite having yearned for it all throughout lockdown.  

First day back on campus, and I was so overwhelmed by the sheer number of students that I vowed I would never enter the Student Centre again. I lasted 15 minutes before I had to leave. Eventually, avoiding student study spaces wasn’t enough to curb the intense fear that everyone was staring at me and could tell how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin. Certain hotspots on campus I would completely steer clear of, as I regularly made a swift walk to Bedford Way.  

The university experience I had been so excited for, now seemed like a trigger. Me, someone who used to love social interaction, was now a recluse. Why could I not catch my breath every time I walked past the student centre? Where had this fear of the main quad come from? Why did it feel like my heart was fluttering every time I walked into a lecture hall?...Did I have a heart condition?  

Then, something happened. A close friend passed away. And it was as unexpected and abrupt as I mention it here. Using the bereavement services at UCL was easier than trying to face my other issues, and speaking to the advisor was so helpful in trying to manage my emotions. Alongside the grief was a bittersweet realisation that I would certainly worsen if I did not actively intervene in my own ‘suffering’. A turning point had arrived and I knew this couldn’t go on. I knew it would be uncomfortable, and I wouldn’t enjoy any part of the first steps, but I knew I had to make them. The service also helped me navigate the steps to seeking further professional support.  

Speaking to my GP was the initial step, and I was later referred to a psychologist. For the entirety of the appointment, I felt like 11 year old me in year 7. I was inundated with a decade of unresolved issues and anxiety, but there was also relief. Someone else finally knew what was going on in my head. And apparently, it was fairly common. Afterwards, I had never felt so light – not knowing just how heavy the load of masking my anxiety had weighed on me.  

Following this, I had a number of high-intensity CBT sessions. More often than not, they were unpleasant, difficult and deep. But ironically, I always felt lighter at the end of them, and they eventually became more bearable. I still see my psychologist every few months. 

Journaling helps to map my thoughts. Doing social activities outside of university has a way of reducing the fear of being in social settings on campus, and setting time aside to meditate is not too bad either (and if all else fails, there is a prescription waiting at Boots for me).  

Broaching the subject with my mother was difficult. Even now, she will occasionally look at me as if I am broken, but then there are the little things…she researches breathing techniques that may be useful, initiates more open dialogue about her own feelings, culture and upbringing, and schedules mother-daughter mindfulness sessions. This is a lot more than some young black people may get. I appreciate just how difficult it may also be for her.  

I still have a long way to go and some days are worse than others but at least I can stay in the student centre for longer than 15 minutes now.  

Do not carry it alone. You will feel so much better.