How acceptance leads to mental health

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Sitting in the San Luis Lounge, I read over my probability notes for the third time. I was preparing for my first statistics midterm during winter quarter. I was feeling confident at five p.m., six p.m., and even seven p.m., but I—like many students—told myself I still was not ready for test day. So I proceeded to study for another three and a half hours until it happened. I was sitting in that same spot. I was looking at the same set of notes, only now it had several strands of my hair laying on it. All I had done was put a piece behind my ear, and two strands came out in my hands. Unsure why, as I had just washed my hair, I packed up my supplies and headed for my dorm room. I decided to go to bed and let it be. After all, we are supposed to lose up to 100 hairs in a day, right? I woke up the next morning and saw four more strands on my pillow. I walked to class and, at my desk, saw several more on my chair after turning in my exam. It was then that I decided to call my parents and let out three weeks of roller coaster emotions. It was then that they decided it was time to acknowledge what I had been claiming to have under control for years.

Since I was a little girl, I can remember having perfectionist tendencies and compulsive thoughts. It is even more ingrained in my mother’s memory than mine the daily dread that my pigtails were not utterly symmetrical. It is instilled in my own thoughts the weekly panic that I would not receive the highest score on my chemistry and physics quizzes in high school. It became a habit in those classes, and now in my courses at college. As time went on, this pressure manifested itself in more ways than one. In high school, it was acne, hair loss and stomach pains. In college, it was more acne, more hair loss, more stomach pains, and—without the comfort of a mother or father, brother or sister, to hug when I am at my worst—depression.

My parents decided it was time I finally see a therapist in order to work through my stress and anxiety. The word “therapist” made me feel as if I had a problem, as if something was wrong with me. Nevertheless, I agreed it was something I needed. With only a few appointments, I found that I had opened up more than I would have imagined. I admitted that I have a problem with perfection and constantly chasing the next goal to meet or obstacle to defeat. I admitted that I make myself more depressed by feeling a spot on my head where the hair is particularly thin from years of stress. I admitted that I was—I am—the only one who can control the debilitating desire to be perfect, especially because no one cares about my quiz or test score except for me.

One of the critical aspects of learning to relieve myself of the heightened anxiety was to step away from several commitments I had. Though I felt as if I was letting others down, letting myself down, by choosing to limit the amount of extracurriculars in which I was involved, I felt better after. I think students in college, especially freshmen, fear that if they do not become involved in every possible activity, they are not putting themselves out there and not taking full advantage of the college experience. However, taking full advantage of the college experience involves taking care of yourself as well. Leaving home, leaving a haven of safety and security, is not easy. Becoming involved is great, but if it is coupled with a crippling grip on your own self care, it is important to reevaluate and reprioritize. I learned how to say “no,” and, with the help of one of my classmates and friends at Cal Poly, that everyone has a different threshold of the amount of activities and commitments in which they can be involved. As someone who strives to put everything into each thing I do, I know that I have to limit my commitments as a whole. I know that I may have to say “no” to some things in order to be happy with how I perform in others. I learned—or I am still learning—to find the perfect balance.

Ultimately, I discovered a sense of happiness through accepting who I am and attempting to not change who I am, but to adjust how I approach each day. The anxiety is not alleviated in an hour of therapy. The depression is not diminished with one “good day.” But the voice in my head has quieted with practice. “Your skin is terrible”; “Your hair is thinning”—words of hate I would internally say to myself each morning in the bathroom have been replaced with words of hope. Likewise, feelings of helplessness have been reinstated with feelings of optimism because I accepted the help I knew I needed. I encourage anyone who is struggling with a similar situation to step out and tell a family member, a friend or someone you trust. I encourage you to acknowledge that taking a step forward is better than always moving backwards.

 

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