Anxiety: How It Affects Student Mental Health and How You Can Manage It

How to manage student anxiety

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When it comes to mental illness, students are among the most vulnerable groups. The burden of the constant pressure to achieve academic success, coupled with your student debt and the prospect of finding a job when you graduate can lead to all sorts of emotional problems such as anxiety and depression.

As a result, student mental health has caught the attention of numerous researchers and healthcare professionals. This has led to the development of programs designed to help students overcome emotional problems and achieve well-being.

One of the most common conditions that students are facing these days is anxiety. And there are a million reasons why students might end up feeling anxious and stressed.

From keeping up with the ever-increasing academic standards to facing adult responsibilities and maintaining a social life at the same time, today’s students are clearly under a lot of pressure.

And that’s why it’s crucial for the younger generation to invest in mental health just as much as they invest in academic achievements.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a cognitive, emotional, and biological response that humans experience whenever they are facing a difficult situation that might pose a threat to their physical or emotional balance.

From this perspective, anxiety is nothing more than a mechanism that signals a potential threat; or at least that’s how things were for our ancestors.

What we perceive as ‘threatening’ and ‘dangerous’ today is entirely different from what danger meant for our ancestors. While they were feeling anxious whenever they came face to face with a fierce predator, we get anxious whenever we’re dealing with a big exam or test.

In other words, ‘emotional’ dangers have replaced ‘physical’ threats. Nowadays, anxiety is part of every stressful or challenging situation that life throws down our path. We worry about tuition fees; we get anxious thinking we don’t have what it takes to achieve top academic performance; we’re afraid of failure, and so on.

Most experts agree that today’s students are facing a unique set of challenges. Some of the main reasons why university students are at risk of developing anxiety, stress, and other related problems are increased tuition fees, unrealistic academic standards, and the negative impact of social media use.

But perhaps we can gain a better perspective by looking at the numbers.

Some Stats About Student Mental Health

We know for a fact that mental health problems begin to develop around the age of 24. That’s why many experts believe secondary and university students are a vulnerable group.

In Australia, one study found that 79% of students felt that anxiety had impacted their study over the last 12 months. Furthermore, universities have reported a significant increase in demand for counselling and psychology services.

Some of the main factors that contributed to the student mental health crisis are:

  • The rapid technological and digital changes that exceeded our ability to adapt.
  • The ever-growing financial pressures.
  • The lack of affordable mental health services for students.
  • The constant pressure to succeed.
  • The lack of mental health services on college campuses.

As a result, dropout rates among students have increased dramatically, leading to an entire series of long-term negative consequences.

On a brighter note, the increase in mental health problems and a decrease in stigma has created a favourable context in which students are requesting counselling services more than ever.

But the real question is, are universities, colleges and secondary schools are prepared to assist students in overcoming emotional problems and improving their overall sense of wellbeing?

Unfortunately, counselling services, student-led services, and online self-help aren’t enough. For students who might be struggling with severe mental health symptoms, the best course of action would be to consult a GP who can prescribe treatment or refer them to a licensed counsellor or psychologist.

How to manage student anxiety

How Does Anxiety Impact Your Health and Wellbeing?

Before we discuss the unpleasant consequences of anxiety, it’s essential to draw a line between healthy and unhealthy anxiety.

Since we’ve already established that anxiety is our built-in alarm system, it’s obvious that we can’t just eliminate it. In fact, a life without anxiety is a life where we make risky decisions and take actions that could place us in harm’s way.

When you’re crossing a busy street, anxiety is the reason why you look twice before making any move. When you come across an angry person, anxiety is what stops you from getting into a dispute that might come to a bad end.

However, too much anxiety can make you avoid situations that aren’t as challenging or as dangerous as they seem. For example, when you decide to skip an exam because you’re too afraid of failing. Or when you waste your time and energy worrying about a school project, instead of actually doing it.

But anxiety doesn’t just lead to poor academic performance. One study suggests that social anxiety disorder goes hand-in-hand with depression, resulting in substance abuse, increased suicide rates, and occupational dysfunction.

In other words, dealing with anxiety at an early age increases the risk of developing other mood disorders, which can cost you substantially later in life.

One of the most common and easily identifiable effects of anxiety is sleep disturbance. Students who are under a lot of stress often have trouble falling asleep and waking up at an early hour. Not getting enough sleep can lead to mood changes and a significant drop in performance.

In fact, there are studies which indicate that chronic stress and anxiety can cause changes in brain structure and chemistry. Unfortunately, no one can say for sure how these changes will impact the overall quality of our life. But what we do know is that nothing good can come out of this.

As you can see, anxiety can have numerous negative consequences on our health and wellbeing. The sooner you address this issue, the lower the chances of having to deal with the long-term effects of this condition.

But before you can focus on managing anxiety, first you need to learn how to spot its early signs.

Common Signs of Anxiety Among Students

When it comes to dealing with emotional problems like anxiety, stress, or depression, prevention is the key strategy. In other words, knowing how to spot the early signs of anxiety can help you take the necessary steps to avoid the devastating consequences of this condition.

Here are some of the most common signs of anxiety:

  • Constant worrying
  • Lack of focus
  • Social isolation
  • Poor academic performance
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Poor-quality sleep
  • Panic attacks
  • Procrastination
  • Nightmares or night terrors
  • The constant fear of failing
  • Depersonalisation (feeling like you’re ‘out of body’)
  • Derealisation (alteration in the perception of the outside world)
  • Feeling keyed up and on edge
  • Feeling ‘stuck.’
  • Feeling pressured and stressed out
  • Being ‘in your head’ most of the time
  • An overall lack of perspective

As you can see, there are numerous signs which can indicate the presence of anxiety. But the only way to determine if you’re in fact dealing with an anxiety disorder is to consult a mental health professional who can evaluate your condition.

From there on out, several treatment options can help you manage anxiety and regain control of your life. Some of the most commonly used approaches to treating anxiety are medication (for severe cases) and psychotherapy.

But aside from seeking professional help, you can also use different techniques and strategies that will help you keep anxiety in check and enjoy a well-deserved moment of calm.

Strategies for dealing with student anxiety

5 Strategies to Help You Cope with Anxiety:

1. Meditation

Meditation has been around for centuries, but experts have only recently discovered the incredible effects of this practice.

One recent study revealed that meditation programs lead to decreased levels of stress and anxiety in students.

But aside from alleviating stress and anxiety, meditative practices have numerous other health benefits that improve our overall sense of wellbeing.

From improved sleep and enhanced self-awareness to improved memory and better emotional control, meditation is one of the healthiest habits that you can implement in your daily routine.

And there is a broad diversity of meditation techniques that you can use to deal with anxiety – the simplest, most accessible one is mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness is about putting aside the worrying future and focusing solely on the beauty and calmness of the present moment. When your mind is present in the ‘here and now,’ all that stress and anxiety that have been weighing on your mind for too long will slowly vanish, leaving plenty of room for relaxation.

Find a comfortable position, close your eyes, and imagine yourself sitting on a bench in front of a busy street. Each car that passes in front of you represents a thought that crosses your mind. Some cars are faster; others are slower; some are flashy and eye-catching while others are average and regular.

All you need to do is observe the cars as they pass in front of you. There’s no need to stop them or hop in. Your sole purpose is to sit quietly on the bench and observe them.

By choosing to be an observer, instead of an active participant, you cultivate a moment of calm when your mind can detach itself from all the stress and worries that are taking a toll on your health and wellbeing.

Turn mindfulness into a daily habit, and you will be surprised to see how easy it is to keep anxiety in check.

2. Exercise

Most experts agree that exercising is a cheap and effective way to keep your physical and mental health in tip-top shape.

Current evidence suggests exercise is a great way to relieve stress and anxiety, along with other health benefits that can improve your overall sense of wellbeing.

Whether you choose to practice a sport (e.g., tennis, basketball, football), go out for a jog, or hit the gym, regular physical activity triggers the release of endorphins – the brain chemicals responsible for your well-being.

It is because of endorphins that we feel relaxed, energised, and happy after a workout. But for your brain to release them, you must do at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-intense physical activity.

Aside from short-term effects, exercising can also help you maintain and develop vital mental abilities. These skills (critical thinking, memory, learning) are crucial to your personal and professional growth.

When you’re physically active, your mind is distracted from the everyday stressors of student life. Furthermore, practising a team sport helps you drive away any negative or worry-filled thoughts that fuel anxiety.

If you’re looking for a cheap and effective way to cope with anxiety, start exercising regularly.

3. Journaling

When anxiety hits you, it comes with an entire array of intrusive, worry-filled thoughts. This overwhelming torrent of negative thoughts can quickly drive you to exhaustion. That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day, without having done anything productive.

In essence, anxiety is mostly in our head. In other words, we tend to remain stuck in the same worrying scenario, thinking about a million ways in which things could take a turn for the worst.

And since you can’t keep this up forever, there are only two rational options. Either find a solution to the problem that’s making you feel anxious or put a halt to all that useless worrying.

Unfortunately, telling yourself, ‘Stop worrying!’ isn’t going to do much. When anxiety takes over, it almost feels unstoppable. No matter how hard you try, you still can’t shake off those intrusive thoughts that ruin your mood.

What you need to do is find a way to get out of your head, and journaling is the ideal way to do it. Putting your thoughts and emotions on paper can have a powerful therapeutic effect.

The mere act of writing down the things that are making you feel anxious and stressed allows you to get out of your head for once. Furthermore, writing gives you a different perspective on the problems that are making life difficult.

But journaling doesn’t just help you cope with anxiety, stress, and other emotional struggles that you might be dealing with. When writing becomes part of your routine, you begin to discover new things about yourself. In other words, you learn the value of introspection – a habit that cultivates self-discovery and self-growth.

4. Breathing

Since breathing has a direct impact on our mental state, breathing exercises can be used to induce a state of calm. Just like in the case of meditation, people have been practising various breathing techniques for centuries.

According to recent studies, breathing techniques facilitate emotional regulation and can serve as a first-line treatment for conditions like anxiety, depression, and stress.

Whenever there’s a big exam coming up, and you begin to worry about your performance, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). Once these hormones spread throughout your system, your heart beats faster, and your breathing becomes rapid.

As a result, you become anxious and restless. You spend hours imagining different ways in which you will fail your exam; you lose focus and motivation; and no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that it’s just an exam, your mind continues to fabricate excuses and find reasons to keep on worrying.

Unlike other relaxation techniques, breathing exercises are designed to cultivate a state of calm within your body. And once your body achieves relaxation, your mind will gradually follow.

Here’s a simple one-minute breathing exercise that is guaranteed to help you relax:

  • Find a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Take a deep breath while counting to five.
  • Exhale while counting to five.

While doing this exercise, try to focus solely on your breathing. Forget about exams, evaluations, and tuition fees for a minute and enjoy a moment of peace and tranquillity.

5. Social interactions

Social interactions play a crucial role in our health and wellbeing. Spending time with your family members, friends, and colleagues can have a positive effect on your mood.

Unfortunately, when we’re dealing with anxiety, our first instinct is to isolate ourselves. We binge-watch sitcoms, procrastinate on our school projects, and avoid hanging out with the people who love and care about us.

In time, our friends and colleagues will grow tired of our excuses and stop asking us out. And that’s when problems like depression and anxiety creep in, making us feel alone and helpless.

To avoid reaching this point, it’s essential to invest time and energy in meaningful social interactions. A friend can be someone who understands what you’re going through and might be able to lend a helping hand.

When you’re going through a rough patch, the people who are closest to you can offer an empathetic ear or a shoulder to cry on when you feel overwhelmed by all the difficulties life throws down your path.

In a way, investing in social interactions is a preventive strategy that helps you avoid having an emotional breakdown. In other words, making time for fun hangouts allows you to de-stress and prevent those worry-filled thoughts from ‘piling up.’

Bonus: Study Tips to Help You Prevent Stress and Anxiety

Sometimes, preventing stress and anxiety is a matter of self-discipline. In other words, the way you study for your exams can have a significant impact on how you cope emotionally.

Here are three simple study tips that will help you prevent school pressures from ruining your academic performance.

1. Start early

We know for a fact that procrastination is the #1 enemy of students. Constant delays, coupled with feelings of guilt and helplessness, result in enormous emotional consumption.

That’s why you feel exhausted at the end of the day, even though you haven’t done anything productive. But as weeks go by and the exam day is getting closer and closer, you begin to feel anxious and stressed.

To avoid burning out, it’s crucial to start as early as possible; even if you don’t feel like it. Whenever your mind tries to trick you into believing that you have plenty of time to study so there’s no need to start right now, just remember that the more you delay, the more anxious you will feel.

2. Set reasonable goals

OK, so you’re motivated and eager to start preparing for your exams. But the moment you look at the massive pile of books waiting for you on the desk you start wondering: “Will I be able to go through all those books?” “Will I have enough time to study?”

And that’s when anxiety becomes a problem.

To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of a task, the best thing to do is break it down into small, manageable steps. That way, you will feel less anxious about how much you have to study.

 3. Reward yourself

Once you divide your task into smaller steps, make sure to reward yourself whenever you reach a milestone. That way, you will feel more motivated to reach the next one, and the next one, and so on.

All work and no fun can lead to anxiety and stress just as much as procrastination. And that’s why occasional breaks and rewards are an essential part of the learning process.

Take a moment to think about some motivating rewards that will make learning and studying less stressful and more engaging.

Final Words on Student Anxiety

All and all, student life can be quite overwhelming. Today’s students are facing a whole new set of problems, which is why mental health professionals are continuously looking for new strategies and techniques to combat issues like anxiety, stress, and depression.

But no matter how hard experts might strive to deliver viable solutions for anxiety management, it is up to each of us to prevent this condition from interfering with our personal, academic, and professional success.

Whether you’re a first-year uni student striving to adapt to student life or a seasoned uni-life veteran working hard to finish your Ph.D., make sure to prioritise your health above all else.

About the editor, Beth Andrew

About the editor, Beth Andrew

Beth Andrew, Psychologist Registrar, BA(Psych); Hons (Psych); MPsych (Clinical) is studying to become a clinical psychologist. Beth works with clients who often have a sense of being trapped. Clients who tend to fall into the same unhelpful relationships, who display the same patterns of self-sabotage, isolation, or withdrawal. Beth's therapeutic style is warm and validating and is driven to seek client outcomes by building insight into new ways of forming relationships and responding to life’s problems while learning to let go of old patterns.

Find out more about Beth Andrew

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