There’s being anxious and then there’s being anxious.
Being anxious happens to everyone once in a while. You might be stressing out the night before an exam or be feeling nervous when giving a speech in front of your peers. Your palms may sweat, your stomach might churn, the pace of your breathing may increase. But when that moment of fear is over, your worries will fade away.
Being anxious feels as though your worries will never leave you. Rather, they seem to be multiplying with every breath you take. No matter how hard you work in class or how long you study you’re scared you’ll fail those upcoming tests or assignments. Or even if you pass, you’re worried you’ll just scrape in. If your results are positive the relief is only temporary before the vicious cycle repeats.
If you’re feeling anxious it is important to remember that this is not uncommon. In fact, in New Zealand alone it has been estimated that around 200,000 adults have been or are currently anxious. Also, two out of every three teenagers who’ve experienced mental health difficulties feel this way. Waikato University clinical psychology graduate programme director Dr. Carrie Barber explains that genetics may play a part in experiencing anxiety and different people will cope in different ways.
Sadly, admitting that you are feeling anxious has traditionally been frowned upon by society. When feeling vulnerable people are often told to ‘harden up’, when they likely need the comfort and support of their family and friends the most. Thankfully, this attitude is slowly changing. Barber notes that it is becoming more common for people to acknowledge to their peers that they have high levels of anxiety.
I’ve been aware that I’m anxious for a good five years now. Over that time I’ve developed a toolkit of strategies that I use when I’m feeling vulnerable in class or a lecture. Here’s a quick rundown of some that I’ve found to be the most effective:
- Monitor your breathing. Focus on the cool, fresh air coming into your lungs and breathe out that carbon dioxide. Take deep, slow breaths ‘into your stomach’ rather than quick, shallow ones into the top of your chest. Making sure that your exhalation is twice as long as your inhalation can help to calm you down.
- Use positive affirmations and give yourself an internal pep talk. Positive affirmations are encouraging terms to repeat to yourself when you need reminding that you’re doing better than you think. This may take some practice. You may need to start out slowly by acknowledging simple facts like ‘I’ve started early on my assignment, so I’ve got plenty of time’. I’ve found it surprisingly hard to acknowledge that I’m capable and that all I can do is my best, but I’m getting there.
- Try grounding your feet down on the floor as hard as you can for ten seconds. This will release some of the stress that has been building in your body and distract your mind from worrying temporarily.
- Talk to your teachers/lecturers if you are having a hard time. Don’t expect extensions from them, but they are good to talk to. The vast majority are understanding of anxious students and more than willing to help. Some may even have had similar experiences and may be able to share coping techniques of their own.
- This may just be a personal thing, as there’s not much in the literature to conclusively suggest it works, but having what I term a ‘talisman’ (an object which has personal meaning) has helped me when I’ve felt stressed. Your talisman could be an object such as a taonga, watch, a stress ball or a piece of jewellery, and can act as a kind of physical anchor or centre. My ‘talisman’ is a TARDIS necklace.
Outside of class or lectures you can also:
- Have a go at recognising what triggers your anxiety. This way you’ll be able to identify a potentially stressful situation and mentally prepare yourself. You could also write down your thoughts in a journal to keep a record of what worked for you and what didn’t.
- Take care of yourself. It sounds like a no-brainer, but this can be hard to maintain when you feel ridiculously busy. Try to eat healthy food, ease off the caffeine and alcohol, exercise and get some sleep. Be gentle with yourself and treat yourself like you’d treat your best friend.
- Have a relaxing break. You could try meditation, practising yoga or turning up some music.
- Spend time away from your studies. Sometimes you just need to rest and recharge your brain. Go on, shut those textbooks and step away from the computer. Step outside, go watch a movie or indulge in a hobby. The possibilities are endless.
- Talk to a trusted family member or friend about how you’re feeling. It’s possible that not venting about your struggles with anxiety may be increasing your anxiety levels.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone who can offer professional help. Many schools and universities offer free or subsidised counselling. Even a quick chat with your GP could be helpful. In New Zealand there’s even a free 24 hour anxiety helpline you can call: 0800 14 269 4289.
- Find out more about anxiety. Knowledge is power. Some good online resources are the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand and Headspace.