Like many Duke students, I struggle with anxiety in my day-to-day life. This is especially apparent when I am at Duke and stressed out by a multitude of projects, homework, and exams to study for, but it also affects me when there isn’t some sort of external cause. While preparing for DukeEngage, this worried me a lot – how would this new environment, with a new set of stressors, affect me? Would I be able to participate to the fullest extent?
My ability to deal with my anxiety had already improved a lot before I started my DukeEngage summer. I developed healthier coping mechanisms during my first year at Duke and took steps like lowering my caffeine intake and making sure I take time to be mindful of what stress is affecting me. I can function a lot better today than I did a few years ago, but anxiety can’t really be “fixed” or “cured” that easily. My anxiety very quickly gets worse if I don’t put continuous effort into managing it.
We have now finished week six of DukeEnage OC, and I wanted to write an update on how my anxiety has been affecting me. I have had many good days this summer – significantly more than I was expecting. I bonded with my cohort very quickly and I am having a lot of fun working at Eureka, which helps, and I’m doing my very best to not get overwhelmed.
I’m quite introverted, so I was expecting camp to be exhausting, as much as I wanted to do it. As a camp counselor, you are always expected to be social, after all. In the mornings, we teach STEM classes, and then we support and participate in other activities throughout the day. Even during the lunch and snack breaks the girls take, we socialize with them, and during our lunch break, we talk to each other. I like working with kids and I love STEM, but I knew, going in, that talking to people eight to five everyday as a job was going to take its toll.
What has surprised me is that I’m getting pretty good at my job. Three years ago, I couldn’t walk into a crowded room or even think about public speaking without spiraling into an anxiety attack. Now, it’s something I do every day. My anxiety about these things isn’t gone (and teaching middle schoolers is thankfully far less intimidating than speaking in front of people my age or older than me), but I am now good enough at managing it that I barely notice it anymore. I still have to make sure I take breaks and recharge after work, but every day I look forward to doing something that I very much couldn’t have done at the height of my anxiety.
One of the lighter moments of the summer was when the campers taught one of my suitemates the new thing of “hitting the wow.” This definitely reminded me of how old and uncool we, as college students, are now compared to the campers, but it was pretty funny. My suitemate immediately insisted on teaching the entire cohort – but I did not immediately figure out how to do it, which everyone found hilarious. I laughed along with them, but it also caused me to close myself off from them a little bit. I don’t mind laughing with others about my own failures. The problem I do have, though, is that not being “perfect” at something in the eyes of others gives me a ton of anxiety – and my immediate reaction is to simply refuse to do that. I’m not an incredible dancer, unlike most of my family, so I don’t often dance anymore. I’m not very good at singing, so I cannot sing in public without it causing a panic attack. My suitemate, however, was really frustrated by my refusal to continue trying to learn the “wow.” I agreed with her – it’s a simple, silly thing, so why can’t I just try?
This applies to so many facets of my anxiety. I struggle with making phone calls, public speaking, dealing with mistakes in a calm way, heights, and much more, along with the more everyday reality of having anxiety without a discernible reason sometimes, and it seems as irrational to me as it does to the people around me. I’m constantly improving – my triumph this week was that I did, in fact, learn how to hit the wow, and I also let the campers teach me a Tik Tok dance – but I’m also constantly running into more issues. I actually had a cup of coffee for the first time in a while this week, and the results weren’t positive. I still have anxiety attacks on a weekly basis – they aren’t debilitating anymore, though, because I know how to get through them.
This has definitely been a summer of new experiences. I met and befriended a completely new group of people at the beginning of our DukeEngage experience, I teach campers about STEM every week, and on our theme park field trips, I was talked into going on quite a few more rides than I would typically feel comfortable with. My cohort has also been instrumental in getting me to try new things, for better and for worse, and I have gotten much better at handling my anxiety when it does arise. I am very much the kind of person who internalizes every problem that I face. What these few weeks have helped me realize as well is that I can, in fact, talk about my anxiety without it having negative repercussions – when I opened up to my friends about struggling with certain situations, they helped me work through them instead of criticizing me.
My suggestion for anyone facing an experience like DukeEngage with anxiety is that, more than any other thing suggested by well-meaning individuals or pre-departure training, talking to people helps. I realize that it isn’t always an option – not everyone has friends or family who are open and available enough to talk about this, and not everyone has access to therapists or other mental health professionals who can help – but if you can, do find the people who can talk you through difficult times. To quote one of my suitemates: “you are strong, smart, and bold, and you can do it!”