College is a big adventure. It’s a huge step up from school and a great opportunity to discover and develop your talents, making memories and lifelong connections along the way.
With a variety of lessons, the chance to meet new people and the day-to-day buzz of college life on campus, it can be a positive experience for some. However, for others, it can be a daunting place where anxiety and stress creep in, affecting your mental health while studying.
What are anxiety and stress?
Anxiety is a broad term used to describe feelings of unease that include emotions like worry, nervousness or fear. Although anxiety is a standalone mental health condition, it can be described using a sliding spectrum from mild to moderate to severe and is usually a symptom of some common mental health conditions including phobias or panic disorders.
Stress often sits together with anxiety and describes the body’s natural reaction if you feel at risk, nervous or if you’re facing pressure. It is a very common symptom of a range of mental health conditions and it can affect how you think, feel and act in daily life.
Why do people feel anxious or stressed?
People feel anxious and stressed for lots of reasons and it is very common to feel both anxious and stressed at the same time. It is a normal bodily reaction and you’ve probably felt anxious before about something, too. Common situations in college that can impact and cause moments of anxiety and stress to occur could include:
- Thinking about exams or assessments
- Meeting new people, peers and teachers
- Presenting work to a class
- Busy common rooms
- Navigating around campus
In wider society, situations that can impact and cause moments of anxiety and stress to occur could include:
- Family life
- Managing your finances
- Social interactions
3 common myths about anxiety and stress
Anxiety and stress are seen as big buzzwords these days and many myths and fake news exist around their origins, who they affect and how to treat them. Let’s look at three big myths and debunk them with facts.
Myth 1: “Anxiety is no big deal. It doesn’t really exist.”
Fact: Anxiety is a very real condition that should be taken seriously. If it wasn’t real, do you think approximately 8 million people in the UK experience an anxiety condition at any one time? It’s a big number, and this is only what is reported. Could you imagine the unrecorded cases of anxiety? Even if you do not have a diagnosis of anxiety or a mental health condition you can still experience it in mild, moderate or severe ways.
Myth 2: “People with anxiety just want attention.”
Fact: Again, anxiety is a real condition which affects people in many different ways. There is, unfortunately still a very present stigma and a lack of education around how the physical symptoms of anxiety are perceived. In reality, anxiety and its symptoms do have both an internal and external effect on human behaviour, as visible signs of stress or nervousness can affect the way people interact in society, what they say and where they spend their time.
Myth 3: “You can cure anxiety and get rid of stress by doing exercise and changing your diet.”
Fact: Anxiety cannot be cured and there’s no magic button you can press to make stress disappear. Although taking part in physical activity and eating nourishing food can help people to manage their physical and mental health, maintaining positive levels of anxiety and stress in life needs individuals to do more than just run a few laps or eat more vegetables.
How to spot anxiety/stress in a friend
Because anxiety truly does affect us all at some point in our lives, it is important to have accurate and factual knowledge about the conditions. In college, you will meet lots of people from different backgrounds and with varying life experiences to you, so it’s important to be aware of what anxiety and stress can look like and what you can do to help yourself and others. Signs and symptoms of anxiety can include:
- Withdrawing from normal day-to-day activities
- Avoiding busy situations and social environments
- Tightness in the chest and racing heart rate
- Challenges when focussing and concentration
- Difficulty sleeping
5 ways to combat anxiety and stress
Supporting yourself or your friends and family with managing anxiety and stress can be challenging. There is no one size fits all approach to maintaining good mental health, but there are tools and techniques you can use.
Five senses grounding technique
When we are stressed, we often have physical sensations that can get diluted by anxiety. Grounding your senses can help to lessen anxiety by taking a whole body approach to maintaining good wellbeing. Don’t worry if you don’t get them all – the trick is to try and focus on the senses as individual parts of you that all work together to make you unique.
Challenge yourself to find five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Body scan and meditation
Performing a body scan can help you to regulate your emotions, distant your mind from negative or anxious thoughts and bring your focus back to the present moment. Body scanning is simply focusing on parts of your body and bodily sensations in a sequence from your feet to your head.
First, start with sitting or standing in a neutral position. Your eyes can be open or closed. Begin at the feet, notice where they are in the space, how they feel and if there are any sensations. Acknowledge these and don’t try to change them. Follow this process up your legs, to your hips, your torso, then to your chest and arms, followed by your neck and then your head until you have “scanned” your whole body.
One-object focus grounding exercise
When we are anxious, our minds sometimes take things out of proportion and distract us. By focusing on one object, you can recentre your attention. Find an object in the space you are in. Try to imagine you are describing the object to someone who has never seen it before. What would you say? How would you describe the colour, texture, use and size?
Support in college
Accessing support within educational settings can help when you feel anxious or stressed. At most colleges, there is a student services team and qualified counsellors who can support you if you are struggling with anxiety. They may be able to offer in-house support such as drop-in counselling sessions, reasonable adjustments within the classroom or peer support groups.
Asking for help is never easy, but it is a courageous and healthy step to take. If anxiety is affecting you, it’s important to speak to a professional such as your GP. You can ask a friend or family member to go with you. They will have lots of knowledge about methods to manage anxiety and may refer you for specialist support that could include CBT therapy, medication or anxiety support groups.
Anxiety and stress will affect us all at some point in our lives and it’s important to remember there is no one size fits all method to maintaining good mental health. Try building your own mental health ‘toolkit’ filled with a variety of strategies and support that you can draw on when situations get tough. Don’t be afraid of trying new things, you may find some great coping strategies. You can also access websites such as Mind, ChildLine and Samaritans. Each of these offers up-to-date advice, guidance and information about anxiety, stress and mental health conditions.