Working through anxiety

You may have noticed a theme to this week’s posts: anxiety. I have noticed this past week that the level of anxiety in students is rising. Assignments are due, the workload is high and the census date is approaching. Students are trying to make decisions about subjects, full or part time study, transferring courses, changing career paths. They are trying to make these decisions under pressure and based on the assumption that they need to know the answers now. Whilst the reality is that we have a lifetime to make these decisions and that we never really close a door to anything—there is always a way back when it comes to our education—our worries and anxieties stop us from seeing this reality. So if you, like so many students, are finding yourself pondering some big decisions over the coming week, you may want to try a few of these strategies to reduce your anxiety before making them.

1. Learning to identify anxiety. There is a lot of information on the internet, in journals and the library about the signs and symptoms of anxiety. Understanding both the physical symptoms (increased heart rate, tightness in the chest, sweaty palms etc) and the cognitive symptoms (unhelpful thoughts, irrational beliefs, patterns of thinking) will help you know what strategy to use when. For example when you are walking into an exam and your heart rate increases and you start shaking it won’t help to try challenging your anxious thoughts. At this time you will need to use one of the relaxation skills we talk about below.

2. Learning to relax. There are a number of ways you can learn how to relax. People usually start by learning some breathing techniques and then progress to progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and mindfulness tasks. These skills all require practice before you can use them effectively in a moment of panic. Like any skill, if you want to be good at it you need to invest the time in developing it. It’s not like representing Australia at the Olympics, you don’t have to spend hours every day working towards success. Usually you can spend between 5 and 20 minutes each day for a couple of weeks and you will notice that your skills are improving to the point where you can use them in these situations.  These techniques are not the only way people relax. Some people do Yoga or Pilates to relax, some surf or go to Zumba. These are great strategies to help maintain good mental health but they can’t be used when walking into an exam.

3. Challenging your anxious thoughts. Anxiety can trigger unhelpful thoughts, usually about yourself, or these unhelpful thoughts trigger the anxiety response. So what are unhelpful thoughts? If we take the above example of anxiety walking into an exam you might be thinking along the lines of “I’m going to fail”, “Why am I even trying, I’m useless”, “I’m going to bomb out, leave early and everyone will be looking at me”. Are these familiar? So now you know they are unhelpful you will stop thinking them, right? I wish it were that easy. Identifying them as unhelpful is the first step. There are a number of different techniques you can use to gather evidence against them and accept them as false. After you have mastered the art of identification and changing your beliefs about the thought it’s time to try and generate new rational thoughts to replace them with and believe in. For example, “I’ve been anxious about exams before and passed them”, “No one is looking at me, they are too consumed in trying to pass the exam themselves”.

4. Facing your fears and sitting with anxiety. This is the time to test out your new skills. Sometimes it’s a good idea to do a test run before the event. Get up, get ready and arrive at the exam destination the week or day before at the right time. Notice the feelings that are coming up, any physical symptoms you are having and try using one of the relaxation techniques to see if you can reduce your symptoms. Use different ones and see which are the most effective. Now notice what thoughts are coming to you and practice challenging them and replacing them with more rational thoughts. Exposing yourself to this and practicing will help you reduce the fear you have and change your experience of the situation.

All these tips are great to have but where and how do you learn the skills that I’ve mentioned? There are a number of ways you can go about this. You can make an appointment to see a counsellor on campus or online by phoning 49215801, or a private practitioner in the community. You could also enrol in an online workshop like those offered throughout the year by Mindspot. Or you could have a look through some self-help resources like  the tips sheets and online resources and smartphone applications mentioned on this website or those offered on Beyond Blue or Anxiety BC to get you started, then reach out for more help if you need it as you go.

Anxiety is a normal part of life, in fact it’s how we avoid dangerous situations like swimming in the ocean when we have seen a shark or walking into a building when we see the roof collapsing in. You can’t avoid anxiety, you need to learn how to identify it and manage the physical sensations and thoughts that come with it so you can have a different relationship with it – You control it, it doesn’t control you.

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