Anxiety: How it links to our future.

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“After all, what is happiness? Love, they tell me. But love doesn’t bring and never has brought happiness. On the contrary, it’s a constant state of anxiety, a battlefield; it’s sleepless nights, asking ourselves all the time if we’re doing the right thing. Real love is composed of ecstasy and agony.

― Paulo Coelho, The Witch of Portobello

This quote really stuck with me. Love is an incredible thing. Whether that feeling is for a significant other, or perhaps for work or even an environment, it is an emotional rollercoaster. You appreciate how fantastic that person/thing is. However, at the same time, it can cause a sense of worry and sadness. What happens if things change? How certain is the path that I currently walk on? What if change detrimentally alters my current position or relationships?

Thinking like this is sometimes normal. Constantly thinking in this manner however, is not. Yet, this is something that I have been suffering with as of late – a form of anxiety. Most of us would associate anxiety with situations associated with potential danger. For example, if there is an unfriendly person that you do not like spending time with, you will feel anxious before seeing them. Another common one is when you go through fairly intense turbulence on an aeroplane, wherein you may feel like it has the potential to crash (in your mind), at any moment.

However, whenever we are out of our comfort zone, we will tend to feel somewhat anxious. That doesn’t necessarily mean however that something bad is going to happen. In fact, in the majority of these situations, it may underline that something great is happening, such as a potential progression in a career or a relationship. Some perfect examples of this would be a first date, meeting a partner’s parents, going to a job interview, or speaking at a conference.

The latter is particularly relevant for me at the time of writing (7thNovember 2018). I am currently attending the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego, USA. The meeting is the biggest amalgamation of neuroscientists in the world, with over 28,000 in attendance. Two days ago, I gave a presentation on some of my PhD research , which looks into the role oxidative stress and metabolism may have in Alzheimer’s disease. It was the biggest presentation of my academic career so far, presenting to over 250 neuroscientists, many of which were specialists in their respective fields. Oh, and I forgot to mention, I chaired the entire symposium session, moderating and introducing the speakers… by myself. This position is usually carried out by two professors, not one measly experienced graduate student.

Reading the above, you can clearly see that this was a fantastic opportunity, and I was aware of this. But that didn’t take front and centre in terms of my overall thought process. Instead, I was primarily trying to bury myself. What I mean by this is that I kept trying to convince myself of my inability to do it, emphasising that I wasn’t good enough to be invited to do something so prestigious. As my loved ones soon found out, these were thoughts I just couldn’t shake. When I finally gave my presentation, my hands were physically shaking. I have presented before, both at conferences (such as the Alzheimer’s Research UK annual meeting), and for teaching purposes at university. I never had shaky hands then. Sure, I was anxious in all of those scenarios. This time, however, it felt considerably more intense, but I am not entirely sure why.

My gut assumption is that this conference is the biggest neuroscience networking event on the planet. It is the biggest opportunity for me to meet potential collaborators and discuss new job opportunities. The latter was particularly important, because I have no idea where I will be working next year. I wanted to make the best impression as possible. The talk itself went really well, and I managed to talk to some professors individually, some of which were from universities from various different locations, including Denmark and the United States. My anxiety initially faded, at least until I had some of these discussions.

The prospect of working in an international lab would give me a considerable advantage when applying for permanent academic positions towards the latter years of my twenties. This possibility is exciting. The potential consequences however, are not. I have been in this position before. I went to study in Singapore for a year during my time as an undergraduate. I had to make some considerable sacrifices. Despite only being 19 back then (I am 25 now), the primary concern and cause of anxiousness is that the past may have the potential to repeat itself, but with more damaging consequences.

Love, family, friends’ lives moving forward. Worry of being left out. Worries of breaking ties with people I love. Relationships make a life, work should never be everything. What will I be sacrificing just to get ahead in my career? – but at the same time I want to do as well as possible for any future family.

Yet, after talking to professors at several different universities (some within the United States), a new wave of anxiety and sadness manifested itself like an ocean. I am still not entirely sure why this is as I think about it off of the top of my head. I thus take some advice offered from Dr. Susan Biali which she uses to calm her own anxiety in periods of distress. Her summary?

‘Don’t let fear stop you – manage it instead.’

It is important to write down what might be causing these anxious feelings. For example, I think I am concerned about how relationships may fracture and break if I get a lab position too far away from home. From previous experience, when I went to Singapore, I lost a lot of my closest friendships. However, not all of them. Six years on, I am far more mature, and acknowledge whole-heartedly the important people within my life. As a result, I know that I will do everything in my power to keep them within my inner circle. That’s all I can possibly do.

After realising that, perhaps the worry lies within my opinion of others. Will my friends and family be able to accept a fantastic career prospect? Will they actively still want to be involved in my life? This is not something I have any control over. Strong bonds will last through most things. I need to accept that moving forward, rather than tying myself down onto the tracks.

This anxiety I am feeling… it is associated with a whimsical opportunity. Yet, I am scared. Terrified even. Primarily due to the potential scenarios which could manifest as a direct consequence of my decisions. However, all of the best things in life are on the other side of fear. Success is never achieved if you remain within your comfort zone. We all need to consistently challenge ourselves to move forward. Those who are meant to be in our lives will stay there, regardless of the life you chose, and the road you travel.

Don’t let anxiety consume you. It can sometimes be a feeling that helps us understand the meaning of something. Remember that, and embrace it.

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