Dear Professor, I’m Struggling

As midterm week wraps up, many of us are struggling to get by. For one, I overestimated my ability to manage 17 credits this semester. These past two weeks have included dossiers, essays and exams, some of which I had no idea how to handle. It wasn’t because I didn’t study enough; the combination of being cooped up at home and solely doing schoolwork has fried my brain. Each week during my women in the media class, I see the look of pure exhaustion among my fellow classmates. The lows tend to outweigh the highs.

With this fall semester probably being one of the hardest for me, I have relied on being open about my mental state to my professors. I stopped seeing asking for help as an excuse but as a way to maintain composure and, more importantly, my grades. About a week or two ago, I had a panic attack thirty minutes before class. For twenty minutes I contemplated whether I should email my professor about having to miss his class or force myself to attend. I decided on the former but found myself struggling to put the words together. How do you write an email when your brain is scrambled?

Be honest

One of the most important aspects of reaching out for help is being honest with your professor about what’s going on. If we as students are struggling, they most likely are too. It may be difficult to connect to professors who might not seem friendly, but at the end of the day, they are there to help you. The last thing they want is a student failing their class because of fear or anxiety.

When I experienced my panic attack, I broke down what had triggered it. I informed my professor of how I was feeling and the toll midterms had taken on my mental health, focusing on the combination of not leaving my room for the majority of the week to study and the sleep deprivation from thinking my studying wasn’t enough. Being straightforward not only helped me feel better about what was going on but showed my professor I wasn’t lying about being overwhelmed.

What happens if they don’t respond?

Professors are either busy or, in a few cases, act like robots without emotions. It happens. Some people don’t know how to respond to emotions. For example, the professor in my story didn’t respond to my email. At first, I was frustrated because his class was one of the most demanding in my course load, not because the material was hard, but because he genuinely never explained the complicated assignments. The truth of the matter is I didn’t need him to give me permission to “take a day off,” but it would have been nice to know my professor considered my worries valid. Even so, if you find yourself in the same predicament, you have the responsibility to make the executive call when it comes to your mental health. Now more than ever, grasp onto your health and don’t lose your grip of it over school. As much of a nerd as I am, I will be the first to tell anyone that if school feels toxic, they should take a break from it. I don’t want to keep “shouting out” the pandemic, but this extended experience is more than enough justification for needing to take a mini break from school to check in on yourself.

Tips on coping with panic attacks

Personally, panic attacks are a bit of uncharted territory for me. My mother and brother have both dealt with them for years and take medication for it. I try not to rely on medication like them, mainly because I always end up feeling worse about the problem and would rather focus on what’s causing my panic attacks than put a Band-Aid over it. However, I am not a medical professional and would definitely recommend seeking one. Panic attacks are just awful. The feeling of complete desperation and inner turmoil is one no one should ever have to experience. Drinking tea may sound like an odd thing to recommend, but linden flower tea (without caffeine) helps me a lot. It may be somewhat of a placebo effect, but it still manages to soothe me. Another recommendation that may be unimaginable during midterm or exam week is eliminating coffee. I’ve realized that drinking coffee only increases my likelihood of having a panic attack, so to prevent that, I avoid coffee and caffeine in general.

Breathing techniques are extremely important to incorporate into your routine. Take a long breath in, hold, and then breathe out in relief. Doing this a couple of times helps regulate my breathing when it feels difficult to do so during a panic attack. I’ve read that closing your eyes helps. Personally, it makes me feel worse because I tend to delve into other topics that cause me anxiety or trauma. Instead, consider meditating and finding a stable point in your room or outside that you can look at for comfort. I tend to do this in yoga when I try to maintain balance. This also helps during a panic attack when the world feels like it's spinning out of control.

Listen up, professors

One final thing for the professors who happen to read this: Please be considerate of your students. We understand that there are some factors out of both our hands, but be empathetic by giving the proper response and creating a space that promotes mental health.

Additionally, I challenge all of you to either share this article with your professors or speak honestly to them about how you’re feeling.