Many people suffer from anxiety; approximately 11% of people in Australia do so (Reconnexion Australia).
Anxiety is both a psychological and physical phenomenon. Symptoms of anxiety can range from a mild sense of general uneasiness to feeling like you are having a heart attack or are floating outside of yourself. Some anxiety develops after an experience that overwhelms your psychological capacity to cope. Whatever the history, or mystery, behind your experience of anxiety, the earlier you access help and support the better your recovery.
Some people confuse anxiety with stress. Stress reactions are normal responses to common stressors, such as being late for something important, or going out with your dream date for the first time. However, people who suffer from anxiety have excessive, irrational worries and avoidance of certain situations, which can become debilitating. For example if your anxiety prevents you attending lectures or speaking up in tutorials, that is going to greatly impact on your performance at university and your long-term quality of life.
Some people talk of anxiety as being like an invisible cage that constantly demands their attention, reduces their freedom and stops or limits what they can do in the their lives.
Feelings of anxiety can occur as a result of a stressful, worrying or frightening event or can seem "free floating" - not attached to anything in particular.
Both result in an uncomfortable and preoccupying feeling that can in itself cause further worry. If the anxious feelings are an aftermath reaction to a stressful or frightening experience, it is very important to get help to deal with these feelings and thoughts.
Counselling can help you to understand what is happening, help you develop ways to cope and to reduce the anxiety and eventually to get over it. With the "free floating" anxiety, there are lots of ways you can cope with this and you can manage, reduce and finally rid yourself of their hold over your life.
There are lots of self help books, but nothing beats talking it over with an experienced and sympathetic counsellor. You don't have to deal with these feelings alone.
Make a time to speak with a counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services for a confidential discussion of your situation.
When you study, you are requiring your body to sit in a sedentary position for a significant amount of time while you attempt to remain alert and focussed on the material you are reading or writing. Anxiety initially helps you to stay alert and focussed. However, the more you push yourself to continue to sit and study, foregoing sleep, proper food, social contact and relaxation for your mind and body, the more difficult it becomes for you to have control over the situation. Over time your energy is depleted, your thinking becomes fuzzy, you become irritable and you start making mistakes. These mistakes then trigger more anxiety and you cannot relax because you are worried about what other situations might occur. This in turn increases the likelihood that such situations will occur.
Understanding how we react to exam anxiety is the first step in avoiding these negative outcomes to feeling stressed. We need to keep in mind that there are two main ways of coping:
- coping strategies which we use to manage the problem causing the stress, for instance deciding to study a lot as a way of facing the challenge of the exams, and
- coping strategies which we use to regulate our emotional response to the problem, for instance, getting support from friends.
Read the following tip sheet for more information:
- Tip Sheet: Feeling Anxious about Exams (PDF 110kb)
Assessment anxiety coping strategies
When managing stress it is helpful to approach it on two fronts, first, tackling the task and, secondly, managing your emotional responses. The task we are addressing here is study, but the same model can be applied to other stressors.
- Share the problem with others by having a study buddy for each of your subjects;
- Organise your notes and give priority to what is essential in the course;
- Work hard yet effectively in short bursts in a clearly organised way;
- Seek expert help if you don't understand the material you must learn. Speak with tutors, latter year students or lecturers. Consider paying for a tutor if a large proportion of the material is beyond your capacity;
- Seek information on the time, place and format of the exams and plan how you will get there.
To help you regulate your emotional response to assessment pressure:
- Regularly discuss how you feel with a good friend or a family member and seek their support;
- Actively try to reduce the level of muscle tension you feel by taking breaks, getting sufficient rest, having a period of relaxation every day and engaging in exercise twice a week;
- Be positive. Remember all the times in the past when you have faced challenges and succeeded. Don't ruminate on the possibility of failure. Encourage yourself;
- Seek expert help from medical doctors or counsellors if you are worrying in ways that lead to illness, giving up, or despair;
- Visualise in your mind your plan of action for the exam, and mentally rehearse what you would do if you encounter a difficult situation;
- Rehearse how to calm yourself by telling yourself to STOP negative thinking, to take a deep breath and to start again;
- Spend some time each day on an enjoyable activity. Tell yourself clearly that this short time away from your studies aids your capacity to concentrate;
- Teach yourself to consciously relax and take 20 minutes each day to practise. This will help you to monitor your tension level throughout the day, and give you a strategy to lessen the physiological effects of stress.
Learn to relax
Try it out right now. Lie down or sit in a comfortable chair. As you breathe in, clench your fist, making it tighter and tighter, feeling the tension in your fist. Now relax as you breathe out. Feel the looseness in your hand and notice the contrast with the tension. Repeat this with your other fist. Then go through each muscle group - shoulders, lower back, abdomen, neck, arms, legs, face, remembering to breathe out as you relax. Over time you will become accustomed to checking how tense your body is, and learning to relax the muscle group that is tight when consciously breathing out. Do this routine for at least 20 minutes every day, until you have learned to relax by merely thinking towards the muscle group and breathing out.
This are a few techniques, which many people find helpful. However it is very important to find your own recipe for relaxation and stress management.
See the following external websites for more information:
- University Counselling Services Virtual Pamphlet Collection
- Overcoming Social Anxiety: University of Texas
- Relaxation Exercise: University of Florida