“The moment I step inside the classroom, it feels like I’m under a spotlight.” – 19 year old me to a friend at college. Countless such incidents later, I’ve started to come to terms with my anxiety. In the process I’ve learnt a lot, both about myself and the condition.
If you’ve ever had anxiety issues, you know how debilitating it can be. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. Until I was 17, I didn’t even have a vocabulary to process it. And only recently have I understood the pathology and figured out how to manage it. Better late than never as they say.
This is a guide on dealing with anxiety, largely based off of my own experiences. Some background first.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, anxiety is a common theme among many of my earliest memories of school. Despite being a relatively good orator, I was utterly petrified of getting up on stage. I remember pleading with my class teacher to not send me on stage for conducting the school assembly. I did it a few times though, often stuttering through the note I was supposed to read out.
Anxiety is easy to observe and is largely a visceral experience. I remember feeling a pit in my stomach and my heart-rate quickening whenever I had the answers to a question and at times when I was asked to explain something to the class. Bottom line, I was a stupidly anxious kid.
Fast forward to when I first moved to Bombay full time for JEE coaching. I recall telling my parents and aunt about some of my really strange dreams. I used to have dreams about math problems that were nonsensical (recursive, circular in nature or often with missing information) and subconsciously struggle to solve them in my head while being aware that it had no answer. A lot of my mornings were waking up mired in frustration of not having solved the problem. I never paid much attention to it though, not realizing how deeply anxious I was the whole time.
Moving on to my time at IIT Bombay. I wasn’t bad at understanding whatever was being taught in class but I had severe performance anxiety which had a particularly negative effect on my exams. I once almost failed a physics course because I blanked out during the exam. Course presentations always seemed like a chore to me because I was so nervous the entire time, practically hyperventilating.
Internship interviews followed a similar trend. More often than not, my anxiety got the better of me, preventing me from putting on my best show. The first week of the internship season was particularly hard for me. I had failed to clear the interviews for Deutsche Bank and Nomura after hours of interviewing. The following week I had an interview with Capital One, one that I had mentally given up on. It was the first interview where I went in with a truly no-fucks-given attitude and I did surprisingly well. This was an important learning moment for me but I had yet to internalize the lesson.
Placements were no different. Despite telling myself repeatedly that it’s not a big deal, my anxiety was through the roof on Day 1. I completely blew my first interview at 8 am in the morning and the spillover effect ensured that I was left reeling and helpless through the next 5 hours, unable to think clearly even the simplest of problems. I came back to my room, absolutely gutted, angry at myself for having blown such an opportunity. At night, I had given up, entered the no-fucks-given zone and managed to clear the interviews for McKinsey. History does not repeat itself but often rhymes. Now I had seen this in action.
Cue to today, where I had to defend my Master’s thesis in front of a panel of 5 professors and what inspired me to share this story. In a similar situation just last semester, I was extremely anxious about the whole thing, not sleeping properly, skipping meals and obsessing over the smallest details in my presentation until the last minute.
Today was different. Up until the night before, I had zero anxiety. Although at night I did dream of being questioned in my thesis defense and being unable to answer (not exaggerating). This was a profound realization for me. I understood and accepted that fear, the source of all anxiety is deep rooted within me. Imagine my horror, going to sleep perfectly anxiety-free only to find that your mind is pulling out these threads laced with fear all night. I woke up feeling terrible, all confidence lost. It took me an hour to regain my composure. I did excellent on my presentation and all went well in the end.
How did I go from being an anxious kid to a slightly less anxious kid?
Dealing with Anxiety
The premise of how I managed to bring anxiety under control boils down to two things – understanding its pathology and invoking mindfulness (deliberate focus on the present moment).
Why is understanding the pathology of anxiety important?
I’ll answer that with another question. Why are people afraid of ghosts? Why do people have irrational fears? Fear arises from not knowing. From the unknown. Understanding a phenomenon, breaking it down into cause and effect, casts a psychological safety net and reduces fear.
As Maslow pointed out in his 1943 seminal paper ‘A theory of Motivation’  under safety needs:
“Another indication of the child’s need for safety is his preference for some kind of undisrupted routine or rhythm. He seems to want a predictable, orderly world. For instance, injustice, unfairness, or inconsistency in the parents seems to make a child feel anxious and unsafe.”
“Perhaps one could express this more accurately by saying that the child needs an organized world rather than an unorganized or unstructured one.”
“As the child grows up, sheer knowledge and familiarity as well as better motor development make these ‘dangers’ less and less dangerous and more and more manageable. Throughout life it may be said that one of the main conative functions of education is this neutralizing of apparent dangers through knowledge, e.g., I am not afraid of thunder because I know something about it.”
“Here too we may list science and philosophy in general as partially motivated by the safety needs”
I think this insight is profound.
Have you ever thought of knowledge as a shield against fear? Science, the understanding of natural phenomena and making predictions is humanity’s attempt to achieve safety needs; like the child who wants his world to be predictable where he’s God.
I digress but I think this has a lot of implications for understanding why people behave the way they do, why people seek knowledge and a host of other questions.
Why is being in the present moment important?
I’ve found that mindfulness or the act of being in the present moment helps tremendously with anxiety. Panic attacks take control of both your thoughts and your body. Slippery slopes that end in failure, rapid breathing and heart rates are all symptomatic of anxiety. Consciously trying to stay in the present prevents you from losing control over your thoughts and helps your body recover.
My belief is that most anxiety stems from fear.
Fear of failure.
Fear of rejection.
Fear of being made fun of.
Fear of not being good enough.
If you reflect upon moments when anxiety takes hold of you and observe your thoughts, fear will emerge as a common theme. Once you’ve internalized this lesson, and given up on this fear that is an artifact of mere association with other people’s judgement, you will be free. Free to create, express and live. This may sound preachy but having been on the other side for so long, I now have a new-found appreciation for freedom.
It is incredibly difficult to suspend self-esteem and self-worth from societal judgement since we are conditioned that way but I strongly feel that this is the most important thing to practice. Once the cause (fear) is eliminated, the effect (anxiety) is mitigated.
Invoking Self-Awareness – Being present in the moment
Looking back at instances where I was anxious, another theme emerged. I switched to an involuntary response system and my cognition became rather poor. This meant loss of control over both thought (foggy thinking) and bodily responses (shaking, stuttering).
Over time, I’ve learnt to anticipate this feeling and observe it in debug mode. Once I’m aware that this is happening, I force myself to switch back to conscious thinking and doing. This alone has made me a lot more confident in situations where I would otherwise be anxious.
So that’s how I did it.
A mix of rationalization (classic human, right?) and some thought control.
Feel free to ask if you have any questions.