While providing us with a wealth of knowledge and important qualifications that’ll hopefully catapult us into the careers of our choice, the education system can also be a source of deep stress and mental anguish. Coursework deadlines, hard-to-grasp course material, stacks of reading and looming exams can contribute to anxiety, depression and other forms of mental distress, amongst students. Today, I’m going to focus on anxiety, and feeling anxious around stress-inducing periods in school and university.
Many students struggle with anxiety, which is often exacerbated by the stress and turmoil of exam periods. Common expressions of anxiety can include combinations of both the physical and the psychological:
- Feelings of fear, panic, dread and uneasiness
- Sleeplessness/issues with sleeping (insomnia)
- Heart palpitations (a strong, fast or irregular heartbeat when you feel anxious)
- Clammy hands and feet
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling sick
These are all perfectly normal reactions to the stress of increasing pressure on young people within our society to perform and excel. Anxiety is something that many people go through at various points in their lives, and while not everyone’s anxiety is related to exam stress, this can create or increase feelings of anxiousness and exacerbate existing anxiety.
As someone who has suffered from generalised anxiety for the past two years or so, and knows many other students and graduates have similar issues, I’ve found techniques, tools and tips that often help me cope when I’m feeling anxious. It’s important to know what helps you cope, as different things can work best for different people – so try these out, and find out what works best for you:
- Practice deep breathing exercises – Deep breathing helps to alleviate anxiety and feelings of panic by calming you down and helping your body to relax. Find more breathing exercises here, here and here.
- Try these apps designed to help with anxiety – I’ve found that having apps like these to hand, particularly when I’m out and about, lets me feel assured that I have help to hand if I feel anxious. One of my particular favourites is an app called ‘Self-help for Anxiety Management‘ (SAM) designed by experts from the University of the West of England, Bristol. It includes self-monitoring tools to keep track of when and why you feel anxious, 25 self-help options, including relaxation exercises and guides, and more.
- Do 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation every day – Mindfulness is an important way to be reflexive and aware of your anxiety, as well as a useful tool for your general mental wellbeing. One of my favourite mindfulness apps is called ‘Headspace‘, but you can find plenty of resources online, too.
- Speak to yourself! – This may sound a little puzzling, but having an internal dialogue with yourself is an important way to understand your anxiety. Understanding why you’re anxious, where it’s coming from and what will make you feel better by asking yourself questions like, ‘what is making me anxious?’, ‘Is it something to do with my exams?’, ‘Why do I feel anxious about my exams?’ and ‘What is the worst that could happen?’. After asking yourself these questions, move on to reassuring yourself: ‘I have done my best, my exams do not define who I am’, ‘I know that my worth is more than just my exam results’ and ‘I feel proud of myself for getting this far’. Being kind and forgiving towards yourself is very important when you are anxious.
- Write down a list of your anxieties – Seeing your anxieties written down on paper sometimes helps to rationalise and feel more calm about them.
- Practice these relaxation streeeetches – According to the Huffington Post, ‘By transferring focus and attention to the body and breath, yoga can help to temper anxiety while also releasing physical tension’. More relaxation stretches can be found here and here.
- Exercise regularly – Regular exercise helps to combat many symptoms of anxiety. The NHS recommends that anxiety sufferers exercise, as ‘research shows that physical activity can also boost self-esteem, mood, sleep quality and energy, as well as reducing your risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease’.
- Avoid caffeine! – Caffeine can hamper your sleep and quicken your heartbeat – a bad recipe for increased anxiety.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Many, many people suffer from anxiety, do not be afraid to ask for help from your school, university and other trusted sources. Having a good support network, whether that be a few close friends, your family, trusted teachers and professors, or your school/university’s counsellor – provides a place of safety and solace when you are feeling your most vulnerable. Remember – you don’t have to struggle on your own.
- Seek professional treatment – If your anxiety is effecting your ability to function on a day-to-day basis and causing you distress, it may be best to seek professional treatment. A first port of call might be your GP, who can give you a diagnosis based on your symptoms and recommend further course of action. According to the NHS, ‘your GP will ask you about your symptoms and your worries, fears and emotions to try to find out if you could have GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder)’. If you’re looking to try counselling as a form of treatment, you can get referred to a counsellor through the NHS (talk to your GP) or through your school, university or college.