I was staring at one of the 7 or 8 gigantic Excel spreadsheets that I had open on my desktop. The tiny little rows and columns started to shift, overlap, and blend together into a distorted lattice of alphanumerical dizziness.
Probably just eye fatigue, really. But coupled with the uncomfortably ill-feeling belly, it felt like a red-alert warning. Something is wrong with your body!, the warning cried. You’re going to puke and you can’t see straight! Danger! Danger!
And then, the same old story: A racing heart. More intense nausea. Then, a rush of adrenaline that shot me out of my task chair and ran me outside.
I often wonder what I could have done to prevent my very first panic attack. It’s not like I’d had any warning signs that it was coming. I wasn’t particularly anxious that day at Lycoming College; in fact, the entire day (up until the attack) was so not noteworthy that I barely remember it at all. I do remember pausing in the middle of my (small) college’s only street — aptly named “College Place” — to briefly chat with a classmate about a class assignment. I was wearing a thick, knitted tan sweater with a hood. The same one I wore everywhere as a poor excuse for a winter jacket.
I think back to that moment once in awhile. Me, frozen in time on College Place, wearing that ugly heap of a sweater that I so loved. Me, free of panic. Me, egregiously self-confident about anything & everything. About academics. My lifestyle. My beliefs. Social situations. I was resilient and I was free.
And then, later that night: the panic attack.
I haven’t really seen that same Summer Beretsky since. She’s still standing out on the asphalt, in front of Williams Hall, a mere sophomore in college. In my mind, that is.
Back to today: I panicked my way outside and into my car. In search of distraction, I picked up a Bed, Bath, & Beyond catalog that was floating around on the passenger’s side floor. (Note to self: um, catalogs on the floor? Clean my car.)
It’s not even August yet, but the catalog was filled cover-to-cover with the “back-to-dorm” essentials. Cheap fiberboard shelves, neon clothes hangers, drawstring laundry bags, and extra-long bed sheets. And futons — crisp and clean futons that, by the end of the school year, will reek of days-old beer and mildew.
I’m happy to say that the nostalgia swept me out of the panic cycle this afternoon. I reminisced about the excitement of my first few days and weeks in my freshman dorm room — the standard-issue bunk beds! The photos of high school friends StickyTack’ed to the painted cinderblock walls! The dozens of useless AOL CD’s we grabbed from Wal-Mart to make a shiny mobile around our fluorescent ceiling light!
And while I can never really pinpoint the exact cause of my first panic attack, I can still say this: college students, take a few deep breaths once in awhile. Don’t speedwalk around campus — slow down.
Try not to schedule yourself for 8 am classes unless you’re truly a morning person. And, if you are a morning person, don’t push yourself to take classes at night. Give yourself enough time between classes, if you can, to take a quick nap if you ever need one. Also: learn the art of taking quick naps.
Join an organization or two, but not ten. If you don’t leave your weekly Philosophy Club or Student Newspaper meeting feeling happier or more excited about life than you were before you arrived, quit. It’s not worth the line of your resume. Take time for yourself.
Create rules that protect the wellness of your body and mind: no studying or paper-writing after midnight, let’s say. And don’t try to study for an exam on the day of the exam — it’ll never sink in unless you sleep. If you need to pull an all-nighter, do what you can to clear your schedule for the next day so you can recuperate. They’re more draining on your body than you’d think!
And, most importantly: find a way to define your worth as a person that doesn’t involve your GPA. Your grades will ebb and flow. Your self-worth doesn’t need to go along for the ride.
I wish I could whisper this to my pre-panic, sweater-clad, college-sophomore self. I wonder if it could have changed anything.
Further reading: Are You A Stressed-Out College Overachiever?