How do we truly know when we’ve made progress? Not when people point out to us that we’ve changed, definitely not when we are trying too hard to make a change, but actually when all is stripped away, the trying stops and transforms into just being, and we notice a change for ourselves.
It’s exam season again. That dreaded time that for some is not a worry and just a time to test themselves, but for others is a constant pressure, stress and source of worry. I’m sure there are readers of my blog who have suffered the same exam stress as I have over the years. I am now at a stage where I am studying for my degree (yes I know, exams that I have fundamentally CHOSEN to take!!) and it’s time for me to showcase what I have learned about animal anatomy, behaviour and care over the last year.
Years ago, what actually feels like many moons ago, I studied for my GCSE’s. I was 16 years of age and at a stage in my life where my anxiety was at its worst. My panic attacks were sporadic, heart-wrenching, painful, scary and overwhelming. When I look back on myself, the age that I was and how much I dealt with and the fact that I have come through it, I am immensely proud for one, but extremely shocked too. I wish there were enough words in the dictionary to explain how low, how paralysed and how defeated I was by this mental illness that just enraptured my whole self. When it came to sitting my exams themselves, I would have full blown panic attacks, palpitations, sweating, vomiting, nausea, dizziness and I would even lose control of my lips and have facial muscle spasms. It was mortifying to not be able to hide something that I had kept so secret until this point, and it was so difficult to see how I could sit an exam in this state. I would work myself up, cry, physically tremble and worry that I was going to cause myself serious injury. The fear? I’m not sure I could explain. I remember thoughts of:
What if I’m sick in the exam?
What if I lose control of my bowels?
What if people notice and stare?
What if I have a panic attack in the middle of the room?
What if I vomit?
All these what if’s would go through my mind, paralysing me with fear and focussing me on the worst case scenario. It wasn’t even the exam, or the passing or failing. It was simply the sitting in a large room, the unknown, the what if.
I simply did not know how to handle myself or my emotions, fears or feelings. Worse than that, I didn’t know how to control my body. I had no way of controlling my mind, my sheer terror, the physical symptoms or the plethora of panicked thoughts that I was overcome with.
I was unable to eat the night before or the day of my exam. Nothing could pass my lips – as a control method, as a protective shield, as a preventative measure. There would be no sleep the night before. There would be various toilet trips for various eliminations.
I never thought I could get through it.
I did it though. I went through all of that 10 times. AND…I came out with brilliant grades that I was proud of. Something seemed to takeover once I sat down and immersed myself in the paper, and allowed myself to be distracted. My symptoms would be forgotten and my brain would be focussed on showcasing my knowledge. It’s just a shame that nothing could distract me during the panic attack before hand!
This week, I have sat my end of first year exams for my degree in Veterinary Nursing. This week, I know I’m a changed person. I’ve not felt anxious. If I’ve felt nervous, it’s healthy nerves that are more centred on apprehension. I have slept like a baby the night before, I have surrendered myself from the what if’s and accepted the letting go process of “I have done enough. I can only do my best”.
And today…I EVEN ATE BEFORE AN EXAM!! I have never done this in my life. I gave up the controlling, conscious thoughts that I am not allowed food or water in my belly before an exam in case something happens. I gave up the thoughts that it was too risky to eat. I gave up needing to control anything. I let go. I let the knowledge that I had worked hard, I was ok, and I have my own back take over. And it worked.
It’s not come without hard work. This is a reward for the work I have put into myself, finding myself, putting myself first, healing and being comfortable in my own skin. As a result of doing this, my depression and anxiety have waned, and I deserve that.
Whether my results are the best yet or not, whether I supersede my expectations or whether I am disappointed, I will never forget the euphoria of being absolutely ok with being me, exam or not. I was not threatened, or scared, nor on the verge of a panic attack. I was centred and content and ready for any eventuality.
And that, is how I know I have changed. Not just a little, but a lot. And I am proud.
To everybody that has exams this month and next, and is dreading them as much as the old me used to, let me first say that I wish you the best of luck. Secondly, it’s easy to say from where I’m sitting now, but anxiety and panic attacks didn’t get me anywhere, nor did they help my examinations in any way. Try your best to relax, to breathe, to look after yourself and to put yourself first. Remember you are safe in your own body. And you can only ever do your best.