By Arianna Sparks, Ph.D., L.P.
Prepared, focused, detail oriented, leader…anxious. These are all words that could be said about me. As a child I always prided myself on a job well done. I liked to be in charge and take the lead on projects or in club activities. As I aged, these descriptors remained, but I started to hear one word more and more: “Anxious.” The first time I really thought the word “anxious” applied to me was in graduate school when people lovingly referred to my state of mind as Arianna-Induced-Anxiety (AIA). I was a first-year graduate student and had already given thought to where I might apply for internship, how many hours I would need for licensure, and what I thought I might want to write my dissertation about (which were all years down the road). I thought I was just being prepared.
My time in graduate school saw many tears, late nights, and caffeine fueled study sessions. I thought this is typical. The perseveration on my future was not. I knew that at any moment, the jig would be up, and they would realize that I should have never been admitted to the program because obviously I had no business being there. I know now that this was not true. I know now that I have Big A anxiety.
For some, their anxiety makes them avoid certain situations or tasks that make them feel anxious. I took a completely opposite approach and self-admittedly, became fairly obsessive. I would start working on assignments well before they were due to avoid the feeling of having something hanging over my head. I used my anxious energy to steamroll any anticipated challenges in hopes that maybe, this would be the time that I could finally prove myself. Long story short, throughout my academic career, my anxiety worked for me. I distinctly remember verbally vomiting all my worries on my advisor. I had concerns about the projects I wanted to work on, the fear that I would not complete my dissertation on time, and worry that I would fail to match for a predoctoral internship (note: none of these were realistic fears). My brain not only told me those were valid possibilities, but inevitable realities. This is when my advisor told me that I was clearly anxious, but it worked for me. I had no overt deficits in functioning due to my anxiety (my digestive tract would say something much different).
This was my MO for years. I always had the information for my graduate school cohort, not because I had some connection to be the first to know, but because I could not stand to have any unknowns. I needed to know the ins and outs of all graduate school processes as well as the paper trail that followed. I would sometimes spend extended periods of time searching for information that would not affect me for at least a year. I still occasionally catch myself falling into that habit.
My anxiety worked for me for several years because I had no shortage of tasks to complete as a graduate student. I was fully aware that I worried about things I should not be and that no matter how early I planned for something, there was still a chance that things would not go my way. Fortunately, I graduated and went on to become a licensed psychologist. The first year in my career I realized how much time and brain power I spent worrying and “preparing.” I now had a work-life balance and no “work” to do after work. Thankfully (read: unfortunately) for my husband, it meant I had more time to obsess over housework and other incredibly menial tasks. Soon enough, that feeling of incompetence related to my work and knowledge returned and I knew that it was truly time to do something about it.
As a psychologist, I knew the CBT strategies to use with anxious children and adolescents. They are not any different than strategies I should have been using myself. I also knew, though, that I would need the help of something else to be able to even use those skills. I talked to my doctor and started taking Zoloft around a year ago. It was not the magic elixir, but there has been a noticeable difference.
I carry this story with me and use it to help me help others. I am thankful to have firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to need to desperately grasp at any semblance of control. Of course, I wish that I could get through daily tasks without that “feeling in the pit of my stomach,” but I am able to use my experiences to help kids and families be okay with not being okay. I am able to help children say I am anxious AND I can do this.
About the Author:
Dr. Arianna Sparks is a licensed psychologist in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She works with children who have diverse presenting concerns. In her spare time she likes watching cooking shows and listening to true crime podcasts.