Ask The Therapist: “I’m 24 and haven’t graduated. My friends are getting married, having kids…”

In 2016, the number of people estimated to be suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety amounted to roughly 1.1 billion. Since then, numbers have likely continued to rise. Moreover, studies have also shown women especially on average are a) more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and b) less likely to talk about them. The taboo in Pakistan surrounding depression and anxiety disorders only serve to aggravate the individuals suffering even more. For the women who cannot seek out full time therapy, or simply need advice about their problems, we’ve enlisted the help of a trained counsellor. You sent us in your questions – here are the answers!

“I’m 24 and haven’t graduated yet. My friends are getting married, having kids and moving abroad, but I’ve been in my room staring at walls for the past 3 years. Where this turmoil is taking me, I don’t know. Since when did I develop this anxiety that’s ruined my ability to memorize and retain knowledge is beyond me. All I can remember is failing my final year of graduation and appearing again. Today I got my result, which I have no memory of giving an exam for, and it says I have a last chance to pass, and honestly, this is the most bipolar moment of my life. I can’t feel sadness anymore. I’m just numb. It’s just one paper; I am one paper away from graduating. One paper! Nineteen out twenty are clear. And it all makes me numb. To see my parents feeling disappointed in me, to see my friends avoiding me because I’m not a bright person anymore – it all makes me numb.”

Shahrukh’s Response:

Dear Anon,

What you’re feeling sounds incredibly painful and extremely heavy. It’s not easy carrying that weight around with you and I genuinely feel for you right now.

In recent years I’ve started seeing a theme within our culture: this extremely powerful amount of pressure and urgency that we place on ourselves; a belief that may have been internalized growing up. This occurs when we receive certain messages around success, non-success and the idea that there’s a set time for certain events and goals. What happens is that we attach our sense of self to our “achievements” or “successes” and, therefore neglect and dismiss ourselves from a very important relationship: the one with our non-successes.

Sometimes when things don’t turn out as planned we feel stuck, but perhaps that’s where we’re meant to be at that moment. It’s tough, but one thing I’ve learnt is that it’s okay. We often think of our fallbacks as “failure”, but why not call them “growing edges” or “opportunities for growth” instead? Our growing edges are not who we are. In fact, they just become areas for learning and potential growth. In the face of shortcomings, what comes up is our relationship with failure, change, adversity and how we can sometimes tie that to our self-worth.

From what I can gather, it seems there’s a great deal of pressure you’re placing on yourself. There’s this idea of comparisons and how those around you are moving forward. But here’s the thing –  people operate on different timelines! Things may not work out and certain events in our lives may happen later than we had originally planned, and that’s okay. If that does happen, ask yourself: What does my new timeline look like? What do my new goals look like?

You mention that your friends aren’t around you because you’re not bright or that your parents are disappointed in you. That’s an extremely heartbreaking thought to carry, but I wonder if that’s a judgement they’re making or one that you’re giving yourself? Sometimes we feel so many unbearable emotions that we end up throwing them on those around us. This is known as projection. In essence, it might just be your own voice towards yourself. We all have dialogues with ourselves internally and sometimes the voice of criticism drowns out the voice of compassion and acceptance. In order to tackle that inner critic, it’s essential to practice self-compassion. This is when we treat ourselves with love, kindness and respect, unconditionally.

An easy technique is to think about someone you really care about and ask yourself what you’d say to them if they were feeling down about themselves. Take those same words and direct them to yourself. Remember that you are worthy and deserving of positive regard and loving-kindness. You matter and you are worth so much and you are not defined by the shortcomings in your life.

In terms of your anxiety linked to your exam; at times we get caught up in our fear of “failure” and I’ve seen this emerge quite a bit in academics. Our internal mechanisms are working to protect us from that sense of hurt that’s brought upon us if we don’t succeed in a task. Thus, we end up delaying the task at hand, or don’t put in as much effort. Or we just find it difficult to study because we’re so overwhelmed – anything that’ll suffice as justification for not doing well. This is known as self-handicapping and it’s essentially a response to fear. When you realize that you’re caught in this cycle, it’s important to know that you have control and power.

These are some techniques that I feel might be able to help you find your grounding and manage the anxiety while studying:

  • Breathing: One technique I use for myself is the 8–6-8 breathing technique. Take a deep inhale through your nose for about 8 seconds. While you do that, to be aware of your breath and how it’s coming into your body and filling up your lungs. Next, hold it for about 6 seconds and then a deep exhale for about 8 seconds. Repeat this two to three times and see if it helps.
  • Mindfulness: The idea of mindfulness is being present in the now and being able to connect with yourself. This can be done through the breathing exercise above and simply being aware of your breath, how it goes into your nose, making its way down your throat, through your lungs. Just being in tune and present can help.
  • Pace yourself: Over studying and overpreparation have been proven to have an adverse effect on academic performance. It’s important to pace yourself and absorb the subject matter. Take some time to process it but then move onto the next part.
  • Journaling: Sometimes having your thoughts written down on paper can give you a sense of clarity or even just serve as an outlet for your expression.
  • Exercise: A quick run can really help release some of that tension that’s been building up in your body and can help you feel more relaxed.
  • Art: Drawing, painting, sketching – whatever your medium – can be used to express yourself in clear or even abstract ways.

Stay in your power and remember that you are in control and that you DO have a choice. I would really encourage you to go to a therapist or a counsellor and talk about what’s going on with you to help you find your sense of grounding for yourself. You are not alone. I wish you all the best.

Good luck!

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