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Mass, prayer helped curb Ivy League anxiety

Published: February 15, 2023   
Laritza Chena

Getting adjusted to the hustle and bustle of New York City and Columbia was not easy. 

I was used to the slow and calm feeling of a small town, but all that changed when school started. All of a sudden, I felt like I had to always be productive, and I struggled with giving myself time to relax. I could no longer watch Netflix because I did not feel productive, which also made going to Mass especially hard. 

At times I found myself thinking about my upcoming assignments and planning when I was going to do them instead of paying attention. I also felt the need to make up for my lack of experience in certain areas by constantly working. I started thinking in terms of what I haven’t done instead of reminding myself what I have done. This mindset eventually caused me to reach my breaking point. 

When it finally happened, it came in the form of a panic attack. One minute, I was fine and at the library with my friends, and the next, I was having trouble breathing and had the urge to cry. So I did. I went to the park and cried. I was having trouble believing that I was meant to be at this school and had the ability to pass my classes. I called my mom crying hysterically, and I told her, “I can’t do this. I don’t think I can do this, Mom.” 

"In comparing myself to others, I lost my focus on who I am in God’s eyes and what I am capable of, and that caused me to overwork myself in hopes of building a version of myself that was impressive on paper."

When I calmed down, my mom and I talked through what had happened and decided that it was best for me to go to therapy for my anxiety. I reached out to one of the FOCUS missionaries and Father Landry, who I later had a one-on-one meeting with, and mentioned that I was struggling, and I am now looking into therapy. The next time I felt a panic attack coming, I started listening to guided prayer, and it helped me calm down. 

It took time for me to not feel anxiety when relaxing. On Thursday nights, I started to watch a movie instead of studying until midnight, like I used to do. At Mass, instead of thinking of the work I needed to do, I would arrive early to let my thoughts wind down and get ready for Mass. There had been a time at the beginning of the semester where going to Mass did not seem feasible to me. I felt like I had too much homework to go to church, but I actually just hadn’t learned to manage my time. Every time I didn’t go, I would promise that I would go the next weekend. I eventually forced myself to go because I knew that there was no excuse. 

The reality was that I kept forcing myself to try and do homework all weekend with little success, so when I started thinking about the upcoming deadline, I would start to get anxious and would decide to skip Mass. The day I went back to Mass I remember Father Landry’s homily was about learning to manage time in college and prioritizing God throughout the day. After hearing that, I started prioritizing my health in order to make sure I had enough time and energy to do my work.

It was also hard finding people I knew to go to Mass with. Even though the student Mass at the Church of Notre Dame is always full, I didn’t know anyone, which was a big contrast to Mass at St. James in Searcy. Thankfully, the Catholic community I was praying for at Columbia came in the form of Bible study. I had mentioned to one of the missionaries that I was interested in going to Bible study, so she sent me the information for it. The first time I went, I was nervous, but I ended up really liking it. It is a small group of girls, and most of the time we don’t end up getting through the plan because we get sidetracked talking about our week, but it is something I really look forward to. 

Adapting to the rhythm of Columbia was very hard, and balancing school, life and church was my biggest challenge. The workload was a lot more than I expected, and it took a while for me to adjust and find the study techniques that worked for me. With the encouragement of my family, friends and God, I made it through the semester. As I prepare to embark on my second semester at Columbia, I realize that my mindset during the first semester was not healthy. I forgot to keep in account Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” 

In comparing myself to others, I lost my focus on who I am in God’s eyes and what I am capable of, and that caused me to overwork myself in hopes of building a version of myself that was impressive on paper. 

Laritza Chena is a freshman at Columbia University in New York City. St. James Church in Searcy is her home parish.

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