What is wrong with me?!
It’s that time of the year. I work with several college-aged students and they are mentally preparing for the end of the school year and many of them for graduation – the end of their college career as they know it. This is supposed to be a joyous, exciting, fun, and happy occasion, right? So why are there so many mixed emotions that come along with it?
I wanted to speak to this subject at this time in honor of these individuals going through this emotionally tumultuous and emotionally fulfilling time. I remember my own college graduation and wondering why I was quite literally having panic attacks in the weeks leading up to it and after. The truth was I was totally ready to be done with college and move on with my life. I had my plans in place and I was headed off to graduate school to work on my doctoral degree in clinical neuropsychology, which was exactly what I wanted to do. Did I mention that said graduate school was also in Florida and I was currently living in the state of Delaware? That’s no small change/relocation for a young 22-year-old who is still essentially trying to learn how to become an independent adult in the world outside of their nuclear family and hometown friends and community. Not to mention, my significant other at the time was deployed to Iraq and was set to return home soon for the first time in 10 months. No big deal.
I say this in jest, because the reality is that this time is full of pressure for young adults. They are anticipating this huge culminating event of their college graduation, while also preparing to close this formative and four-year chapter of their lives and say goodbye to the many friends and relationships that they formed along the way. They will also say goodbye to their current context and reality as humans as they know it. After that, they walk into a world full of uncertainty and anticipation. Nothing likes to get the fear circuitry in the brain going like uncertainty and anticipation of potentially threatening events. In fact, there is research showing that, when given the choice to either receive an electric shock 100% of the time, or a smaller percentage of the time that is uncertain and unpredictable, the majority of individuals will actually choose getting shocked 100% of the time. So even when they are guaranteed to experience more pain than in the condition where the percentage of electric shock is smaller but uncertain, the brain will choose certainty and awareness over uncertainty and apprehension. It’s just how we are wired. The brain and uncertainty do not get along.
So, with respect to our graduating college students, it’s no wonder that their brains are feeling anxious and a storm of emotions. But is this the typical socio-cultural response to big events such as a graduation? No, of course not. There is so much expectation and outside pressure, a sea of smiling faces looking at you, expecting you to be smiling back.
“But, what if I don’t feel like smiling?! What if I am feeling anxious? Or (gasp) even sad? Oh my gosh, am I crazy? What is wrong with me?”
The mind goes on its lovely automatic journey of secondary elaboration, which is of course the source of so much suffering in daily life - not to mention in response to big life events such as this one. The brain has the added script of needing to “fit in” and be “normal” and meet the demands for social affiliation and conformity. When the brain is met with a mismatch of information (“Oh no, society says I should be enjoying this, but I feel worried and anxious!”), it leads to something called cognitive dissonance, which is essentially experiencing seemingly contradictory thoughts and emotions at the same time. Cognitive dissonance is another great recipe for anxiety because the brain says “what the heck? I cannot solve this equation. There is conflicting information. How do I reconcile this? How do I zero out the ledger? How do I solve the problem….OK, maybe I will just try harder. Yes, try harder and I will solve this problem. What the heck, I still feel anxious? Oh my goodness, this is a real problem! A bigger problem!…” and so the snowball builds and builds, all within the confines of our amazing but limited little brains that tend to get caught in their own snares.
So how do we get out of this vicious trap? The very first thing is to drop the struggle. If you’re drowning in quicksand, what’s the first thing you have to do? If you continue to struggle and flail, you only sink faster. We have to stop struggling. What it means to stop struggling is to stop actively resisting what is showing up for you – the good, the bad, the ugly… and regardless of what society and our introjected “rules” and “regulations” have to say about it. Stop struggling against what is showing up. Instead, allow it to be there. Acknowledge the pain, the confusion, the sadness, the excitement, the nerves, and all the other visitors that might be knocking at the door – no matter if it was someone you invited or not. Open the door, allow them inside, and offer them a seat at the table. See what they might need, a glass of water, a knowing smile, or simply an ear to listen. Thank them for showing up for you, for doing their best to keep you safe and protected, and let them know that you’ve got this. You can and will handle it on your own, by putting one foot in front of the other, in the next right direction. Take a moment to ground yourself from the snowballing mind, entrenched in the snare, and simply be where you are right now, in this moment. Open your eyes and see what is present – nothing more, nothing less. Not through the eyes of judgment but of childlike curiosity. You may be graduating (or insert other major life event) but it is the same you that was there before this event, during, and will continue to be there after– just a little older, a little wiser, and with a few more pieces of glass etched into the larger mosaic of your life and your journey while you are here. Lean in and enjoy the ride.
If you need support navigating a big life change or life event, contact Dr. Renfroe at firstname.lastname@example.org. You don't have to walk the journey alone.