A few thoughts about anxiety

Here are a few thoughts about anxiety, which is something that I have. 

I like the world. I think it can be a pretty great place. I know it has its faults, but I always try to remember the bigger picture and live each moment to its fullest. Sometimes, I realise the cliché that is thrown at us by our parents and teachers – life is too short. I am moved by the movements of the clouds, or the setting sun as it casts golden shadows, or the drumming sound of rain. Everything shines and sparkles.

When I’m in this nice happy place, joy and love and compassion drown my negative thoughts. For instance, I barely get FOMO (fear of missing out) because the joy of doing something else overpowers my need to fulfil social obligations. But there is a dark side to this. Carefree, happy-go-lucky me is tethered to its nemesis – the anxious, self-conscious and self-critical me. I am prone to overthinking and am so easily thrust into a dangerous cycle, where I focus on every tiny detail of my life and put a negative spin on it. This negativity genuinely becomes my reality. I become crippled by a fear of missing out on exciting events, and am overwhelmed by romance troubles and gossip.

So when scrolling through my Facebook feed triggers a full blown panic attack, I feel sick with myself – have my standards gotten so low that my priorities are to have as much fun as I can, rather than to enjoy sobriety and solitude? Are my priorities now parties, getting drunk, making sure my Facebook profile looks exciting, and basically looking as sparkly, colourful and happy as possible?

When I’m in a good mental space, I enjoy sobriety and solitude more than anything in the world. I have a joy of missing out, not a fear of it; I would rather skip a party to read a book, or bail on a group trip to a festival to catch a quiet coffee with a good friend. When I am in the negative cycle, I can remember this feeling but I cannot quite capture it – it is a distant memory that I desperately chase but to no avail; it is the word on the tip of my tongue; it is the breath of air that I know is there but it is just out of my reach and I am drowning too deep in this bottomless ocean –

– and my mind becomes a conflicted mess. I feel stupid for being overwhelmed by romance troubles and gossip, for worrying about what so-and-so said about me behind my back – especially as my reactions seem so ridiculously out of proportion. Why would I have an anxiety attack and panic attacks and feelings of nausea and depressive bouts and not holding down food all because she said he said she said I said something that I didn’t do? Or over that guy I fancied who went off with some girl at some party? It seems hysterical.

With mental health, it’s near impossible to know why you think things, because there’s just so much going on that you barely understand it. Yes, I recognise the onset of a panic attack, or paranoia and fear as anxiety; likewise I recognise exhaustion, rawness or being overwhelmed by life as depression. However, when these feelings last for days, weeks, I can forget that I ever felt anything else. This is especially so as anxiety does not necessarily manifest itself physically, so there is barely any reminder that what you’re feeling is anxiety. It’s disorientating and stressful when this happens, and in the same way, if you were to forget about, say, having broken your foot, it would feel totally out of proportion that a breath of wind was causing you so much discomfort.

The thing is, I’ve come to realise that this is all part of anxiety and a reflection of my mental space: being overwhelmed by tiny details and inconsequential events; the consequential conflicting confusion. Again to take the broken foot analogy – it’s super sensitive so any pressure on it will be sore. If you keep applying that slight pressure, your foot will get worse and worse and take longer to heal. In the same way, if you are suffering in your mind, something as slight as not being invited to a party can trigger huge amounts of anxiety-related symptoms like nausea, panic, intrusive thoughts or just general self-hate.

Mental health is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional and so, very complex, and it should be addressed as such. Yet as a society, we like intellectual, chilled individuals who are rational and level-headed: a mental breakdown over FOMO is in stark contrast to the personality that we approve of and strive for, so it can be difficult to admit to this seemingly irrational side – yet it is an important thing to acknowledge.

As I experience anxiety, I am learning to trust myself. I try to let myself feel whatever I feel and worry about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ later; I hold onto the fact that reacting violently to ‘petty’ incidents does not reflect my priorities. Sometimes I fail at this and sometimes I do not, but I guess it is all a learning process and perhaps it all contributes to this great, vast, and complex thing called life.


Studying at Hitotsubashi University: the highs and lows, crashed bikes, and the ‘English-bubble’

Studying abroad at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, Japan

After two months of studying in Tokyo, things are beginning to settle down. The first few weeks were a blur of paperwork, signatures, welcome parties and sleep deprivation – disorientation, despite all their attempts to help us orientate. But at last, it’s slowing down, and I’ve learned the following things: it’s okay if you lose your passport, forget to pay your health insurance and crash your bike. It will work out in the end, and if you chill out, everything just slots into place.

There is so much I could write about: the excitement of studying abroad, the strange ways culture shock manifests, the craziness that is Tokyo, the amazing food, the generous people and the quirky customs of the Japanese. I can confirm that Tokyo fits all the clichés – an eclectic, vibrant mix of nature and neon lights, skyscrapers and shrines, cat cafes and cosplay. Japan itself is beautifully diverse, with snow in the north and tropics in the south, and you can travel pretty easily from place to place. It’s also a great place to access the rest of Asia, with flights as cheap as £50 to get to South Korea or Malaysia. To get a taste of living in Japan, there are lots of blogs, vlogs and documentaries which offer great insights into the place – Vice Japan and Texan in Tokyo are both informative and fun (both on YouTube).

Ginza, Tokyo

Tokyo is renowned for being one of the busiest cities in the world, but within it there are some magical spots free from traffic and noise, and that’s something that makes it so unique and great. Hitotsubashi is on the quieter side of the city: the area is peaceful enough to feel like you’re in a forest-like dreamland, but it is also next to lots of bars, cafes, karaoke places and restaurants. And on top of that, it’s just a half hour train ride from central Tokyo when you do have the urge to get your city-fix. The university itself is on a super long road called Daigaku Dori (University Street) which is lined by cherry blossom trees, and during spring, the whole place turns a hazy snowy pink – search 大学通り桜 on Google images to get an idea of what I’m talking about! The architecture is equally impressive, modelled on old European buildings. The overall result is a dreamy, Ghibli-like setting.

As for the accommodation, there are only around 100 exchange students so most of us live on Kodaira campus, a 20-minute cycle from university. It is just as beautiful and forest-like there, and is close to a river spanned by old wooden bridges, which is super picturesque. ALSO it’s great because you can see Mount Fuji from our dorms and it is spectacular, and on a clear day it is like seeing a Photoshopped photo but through your real eyes.

Studying abroad is an incredible experience in so many ways. Sure, you have the excitement and the fun, but it’s not just about how many wild nights you have, how many crazy adventures you have or how much of Asia you manage to travel across. There’s newfound space to calm down after the whirlwind of 1st and 2nd year of university, and it’s possible to take joy in just living everyday in a new place, learning a new language and being surrounded by interesting people.

Hitotsubashi University, west campus

Aside from the fun and excitement, something that isn’t mentioned as much is the ‘English-bubble’ that many students are sucked into. Although it’s discussed in the exchange student body, it’s not really brought up in the year abroad prep back at UCL. Many exchange students are drawn together by the language and cultural barrier of Japan. The international nature of the exchange student body means that it’s very easy to get into a group where English is used as the common language, and given the systematic nature of Tokyo, you don’t even need to rely on Japanese to get by. Of course, it’s up to you who you decide to spend time with – there are plenty of opportunities to converse with Japanese students, and join societies (called ‘circles’ here) and language exchange groups.

However, unless you have a good level of Japanese and/or good confidence, taking that step out of your comfort zone isn’t easy, and often, the prospect of exciting adventures can overpower the prospect of learning Japanese. It’s difficult to turn down travel plans to Taiwan, the Philippines and South Korea in place of staying at home and trying to break through the language barrier. Trying to break through this is made even harder by the psychological difficulties of learning a language, which I’ll keep to the following – ‘study abroad’ is not synonymous with ‘get-fluent-in-a-year’: if you allow this pressure to get to you, learning language can be a stressful and anxious journey.

Although it’s tough, I firmly believe that the effort should be made to step out of your comfort zone: be that through watching Japanese dramas, conversing with Japanese strangers, joining a circle at university, or WWOOFing during the holidays – even if it has to be at the sacrifice of the comfort and excitement of your ‘English-bubble’ where you party, make weekend trips away and travel through Asia. That’s possibly the most important advice I could give: make every effort to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, no matter how daunting this may be.

Nara, Japan

Finally, for those looking to study in Hitotsubashi University, Japan itself, or just anywhere abroad, here are some quick bits of information which are important and interesting: Hitotsubashi’s accommodation is one of the cheapest in Japan, at around £100 a month; most exchange students receive the JASSO scholarship which is £400 each month for the whole year (with the exception of those with Japanese or dual nationality); Hitotsubashi and the dorms are all pretty wheelchair accessible, and there are even ramps in most train stations which is great, although some of them are quite steep which is not so great; the psychological services here are quite bad, but remember that if you’re an exchange student you’re still allowed access to your home university’s services; the modules run in English are very different to the UK and are not particularly challenging, but there are some gems if you find them; you do not need a chest x-ray before you come here because you get one in the medical check up on arrival; vegetarianism is made harder here by the fact that vegetables and fruit are expensive; if you have a driver’s licence, get it converted to an international license in your home country because it is a long, convoluted process in Japan and renting a car is a cheap and fun way to travel if you want to make a road trip.

I think everyone should consider Tokyo because it is so super great and beautiful and I think everyone should study abroad. It’s possibly the best way to spend a year of your life especially because when you’re 50 you’re not going to look back and wish you hadn’t spent a year in Tokyo, because a year is only a year, and I mean maybe some will regret it but the majority won’t. Yes, it’s tough at times but that’s all part of it because it is tough in a way that is new and exciting, and you won’t look back and remember that week where you felt super homesick or that evening where you got massive FOMO, instead you will remember the interesting bits and I think that a year passes in a flash and it is important to take the time and space that studying abroad gives you.

This was originally published in the BASc abroad blog, where Arts and Sciences students at UCL share their experiences of studying abroad. There are a variety of posts so far from Japan, USA, France, Colombia, Spain, and Ecuador, with many more to come, so take a look!