A few years ago, I suffered from severe anxiety. Although I might have appeared to be my usual buoyant self it was eating away inside me. When the anxiety finally subsided, I found myself in a rut of depression. I never really spoke to anyone about these mental health issues. However, I was lucky that running, parkrun and a strong network of friends and family (most of which were unaware of the state of my mental health) got me through the worse of it. Even today, still have days where I feel depressed, worthless and unable to evade a negative mindset.
So, what was the cause of my severe anxiety? I know that Dan and others have covered the strong links between testosterone imbalances and anxiety. Although, I am far from being an expert in this field. I believe that hormone imbalances and anxiety are intricately linked. However, I believe that other factors were the primary driver being my severe levels of anxiety.
The first time I experienced an anxiety attack was in 2012. My life was consumed in the writing of my PhD thesis, also pressured by project collaborators to produced detailed auditable datasets and having to respond to publication deadlines. This was indeed a stressful time, but I managed to just to get through each day. Then stress levels were taken to the whole level to manifest into severe anxiety when I started to run out of money as my scholarship had finished and a relationship had broken down. The synergistic effect of these factors sent me into an anxiety blackhole. I didn’t sleep for three whole days because I became obsessed with work. Every second that I spent not working filled me with guilt. My anxiety worsened as my work productivity became rapidly impeded due to intense sleep deprivation. Luckily, a friend had noticed that I was suffering and took me out for food. I saw a doctor and was prescribed sleeping pills to help me get back into a regular sleeping routine again. I was granted a 3-month extension which allowed to get back on top of work. I managed to submit my thesis in January 2013 and immediately secured work which alleviated some of my stresses.
Four months, I had accepted a job to work overseas over the summer and it came to the time of my thesis defence. During a period of 6 hours, I had my thesis ripped apart particularly the way that I had written it. There were loads of issues surrounding spelling, punctuation and grammar. There were also issues with some of the overall conclusions and statistically robustness of my experimental design. After the defence feeling completely physically and mentally exhausted I was told that I must rewrite my entire thesis and that I should undertake a dyslexia assessment. I was given 12 months to complete the rewrite. When I was finally assessed, I was diagnosed with quite severe dyslexia and dyspraxia. The diagnosis was a relief enabling to reflect on many occasions as a learner when my work ethic yielded disproportionate assessment grades at undergraduate, post 16 and school levels. In the past, these outcomes had a detrimental impact on my self-esteem subsequently questioning myself as to whether I was unintelligent or incapable. Although it wasn’t apparent at the time, it is now obvious that the contrast in work ethic that yielded disproportion assessment grades was likely driven by my specific learning difficulties.
If we fast forward 9 months, I had just returned from Canada and I had just 3 months to complete my thesis revisions. Following, my experiences with anxiety I struggled to even look at my work, let alone work through the extensive list of revisions. In addition, the results from my research in Canada had a new light and my supervisor wanted to be written up for Nature journal. If you are not aware, Nature is probably the most prestigious journal for a scientist to publish their work. The impending deadline for thesis corrections and a deadline for Nature submission has started to send me back down the road to severe anxiety. I followed a similar projection as the first bound of anxiety resulting in me to acquire another course of sleeping pills. I felt very alone, consumed by negativity and a feeling of self-worthlessness, I wanted it to end. I also started to drink heavily whilst on these sleeping pills (even though the doctor was clear NOT to consume alcohol whilst on the course of these pills). However, when you are stuck in the abyss of anxiety/depression you lose a rational way of thinking. I started to spend erratically on my credit card and I lost any concern about my physical health. I wanted it to end and eventually, my mind was shrouded with dark thoughts of ending my myself. I cannot recall how I initially climbed out of the rut, but I discovered running as a means of controlling stress and anxiety. After this experience, I decided to walk away from my scientific career.
The root of my anxiety was derived from perfectionism. Basically, I the work standards that I had set myself were not achievable this impeded works and creates anxiety. To summarise, perfectionism is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, perfectionism motivates people to give their best. On the other, perfectionism makes people despair and doubt themselves. Moreover, perfectionism is associated with various psychological problems such as stress, anxiety and depression. If you ever research ‘perfectionism’ you are often directed to a novel called ‘Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig. In this novel, Robert Pirsig describes “the old South Indian Monkey Trap”. The trap “consists of a hollowed-out coconut, chained to a stake. The coconut has some rice inside which can be grabbed through a small hole”. The monkey’s hand fits through the hole, but his clenched fist can’t fit back out. Tempted by the rice, the monkey reaches in, grabs a handful of rice and is suddenly trapped. He is not able to see that it is his own fist that traps him. He rigidly holds on to the rice, because he values it. He cannot let go and regain his freedom. Perfectionists are a little like this, getting trapped by their own habits with an inability to let go or see passed them. Perfectionists need to rethink their own values and decide whether they are going to continue to be trapped by these values or free themselves.
Although some of these experiences still come back to haunt from time to time. I have managed to rebuild myself and just completed my teacher training. However, there were times that my perfectionism mindset got caught up into lesson planning, but you realise that not all lessons that teach will be great. In addition, I am now a mental health champion for England Athletics with the goal to help and support people through difficult times. If you have any specific questions then please comment or send me a private message.
REMEMBER TO STRIVE FOR PROGRESS NOT PERFECTION!