If anyone ever asked about me, the majority of my peers would immediately be inclined to comment on my ability to make my voice fill an entire room as I entered. Throughout most of my life, I was someone who had been categorized as bubbly, outgoing, and ambitious. I spent my high school days partaking in political debates, singing in after-school choir and occasionally questioning my teachers’ methods.
It was also my voice and ambition that eventually led me to journalism. Leave it up to me to pick one of the most fast-paced, highly competitive fields of work to pursue. My favourite part about this career path is that I can take my bold, eccentric personality and regurgitate that into typed words for others to read and enjoy. My second favourite part of the job is that typed articles will never be able to give away the constant shake of my hands, or the overflowing rise and descend of my nightly panic attacks.
Despite my extroverted personality, I am one of many people who struggle with generalized anxiety disorder. This disorder, as stated in the 2014 Survey on Living with Chronic Diseases in Canada, affects an estimated three million Canadians aged 18 years or older. The survey also states that approximately 27 per cent of these Canadians reported that their disorder(s) affected their life “quite a bit” or “extremely.” The results of the survey showed that of the 3,361 respondents, 60 per cent obtained a post-secondary education. This, of course, is based on students who did not gain their degree in an online setting, but rather still in the classroom.
I would categorize my anxiety at the same level of rambunctiousness as myself, only I would give it the ego of an alligator with fierce teeth at every corner, stalking my insecurities in the form of tunnel vision and hyperventilation. Anxiety, at its worst, feels like needle pins poking at your skin and the smell of gasoline. My panic attacks feel like choking on my own heart all while screaming “Is this as good as life gets?”
Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, discussed some of the effects of mental health disorders such as anxiety with CBC News earlier this year. He said that anxiety can cause elevations in heart rate, breathing and sweating as it “basically makes our muscles ready to fight or flee.”
“But we don’t know how to fight, and we can’t flee,” said Joordens, “So we’re left with this feeling that’s becoming chronic, it’s engaged all the time.”
Although my anxiety knows how to rear its ugly head in the most inconvenient of times, I eventually began taking back control when I started university. I met new friends, became even more passionate about my studies, and found an environment that helped keep my shaking hands and nail biting at bay. That was until COVID-19 spread internationally, causing a pandemic lockdown and university classes to go online and remain online, even after restrictions eased. The only option this left me with was having to look inward at myself, and confront the alligator that lay waiting.
Despite the confusion, fear and uncertainty that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, universities did the best that they could to provide a reasonable learning environment for students remotely. Although many universities did the best they could with what they were given, online learning opened a gateway of instability for many with mental disorders, especially students who struggle with anxiety like myself.
The definition of generalized anxiety disorder from Statistics Canada is “a disorder characterized by generalized and persistent excessive anxiety and worry. This worry is exaggerated and unrealistic, with nothing specific to provoke it.”
This generic definition offers a perspective into the world of anxiety, in which it emphasizes that in normal times, stress and worry for anxious students is already at an all time high. Add a global pandemic, quarantine and an online educational approach that relies on self-reliance and meeting virtual deadlines without the structure of regular classes, and you’ve got yourself a circle of students with overflowing anxiety and suffering.
Celina Mullen, a journalism student at SAIT, says that her mental health has decreased drastically since switching to online.
“I feel like I’m not getting my money’s worth out of my education and I feel like I’m missing all these assignments,” she says. “So that has really contributed to my anxiety specifically, and I just feel super overwhelmed with the whole situation. I don’t see it getting better to be honest.”
Although I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, I have found it’s been its worse with online school. I constantly find myself jolting awake at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, desperately trying to remember what assignment I forgot. Despite my inability to open my laptop while half asleep, I did learn that there are so many resources available to help students through this hard time.
Jennifer McCormick is a counselor at Mount Royal University and a registered psychologist who says that anxiety is one of the most common reasons people come to counselling, and that some of the themes she’s been seeing in her therapy sessions include helping manage time and schedules.
“[Online school] can have quite an array of different impacts on people,” she says. “Being able to manage time, sometimes feeling lonely, and sometimes feeling that they are unable to get some of the answers they need from classmates or professors [plays a role].”
McCormick also says that students should make a schedule to help cope with the stress of online classes.
“Plan your week. Do something fun. Connect with people that you care about and that care about you. And seek help if you need it,” she says.
The best advice I ever got was from my therapist, who once asked me what my favourite thing about myself was. I told her it was my bubbly nature and big voice, and how I could radiate my personality through a room. I also told her that writing was one of my favourite things in the world, because it was like making my personality permanent on paper.
“And what scares you the most?” she asked. My anxiety growled at the pit of my stomach the second she finished her sentence, and somehow my therapist already knew the answer. “Take the thing that scares you the most,” she said. “And use it to fuel the things you love.” I guess this was my first attempt at trying.