How to cope with anxiety at university
University is a time for personal growth, where you get to embrace independence, make new friends, study a subject you love and live according to your own rules.
But the prospect of living away from home, being surrounded by new people, facing student debt, and having deadlines, expectations and exams on the horizon, can be extremely overwhelming.
While these feelings are entirely normal, they can run a bit deeper for some people and trigger anxiety – a common mental health condition causing persistent feelings of fear, panic, worry or unease. Here, we provide some self-help tips for dealing with anxiety at uni to help you stay on track.
When we get anxious, our ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in, which is our body’s way of protecting us in threatening situations. Your heart rate goes up and adrenaline is released to help you be stronger (fight) or move faster (flight).
When you feel like this, really focus on breathing in and exhaling, slowly and deeply. This can help your body settle down to a more natural, resting state and reduce feelings of panic. Panic attacks can happen, but it's important to remember that the attack will pass.
Reach out and talk to someone
If you’re struggling with anxiety, don’t withdraw and isolate yourself as this is likely to make things worse. Instead, try talking to someone in your seminars or to one of your flatmates. You might find that they also feel anxious in their new university life and you can then support each other. Remember, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’.
Challenge your thoughts
Our minds can play tricks on us when we’re anxious, which can cause us to have negative thoughts and incorrect beliefs. For example, you might convince yourself you’re going to fail a module, even if there is no evidence to support it. Before you accept your beliefs, try challenging them. Ask yourself whether what you’re thinking is a ‘fact’ or an ‘opinion’. If it’s an opinion, you may be getting anxious for nothing.
Don’t fall into the avoidance trap
Anxiety can be uncomfortable and many people fall into the trap of avoiding the thing or situation they fear in order to avoid the anxiety. For example, you may avoid going to lectures because you don’t want to walk into a room full of strangers staring at you. Rather than avoiding lectures altogether, try getting there early to miss the rush so you get in a ‘safe’ routine.
By avoiding situations you’re anxious about, you don’t deal with the anxiety itself which means it can get worse. By facing your fears, you will gradually adjust to the thing you’re worried about and reduce your unease.
A big source of anxiety for university students is their workload, especially since it is likely to be the first time you’re managing it entirely on your own.
Take steps to help yourself by not leaving things until the last minute. Make a work schedule, give yourself plenty of time for each assignment and stick to your plan. This means that you won’t be rushing or trying to do too much at once, which will help you feel more relaxed and in control of your workload.
Take time out
It’s so important to make time for yourself to relax and do the things you enjoy. Even little things like making time to listen to your favourite music, watch Netflix or read a book can help to calm your worries and do you the world of good.
Look after yourself
Try and make sure that you get enough sleep at night and take regular exercise. This can be difficult during the first few weeks as you’re likely to be so busy, but once Fresher’s has died down, it’s important to try and get into a healthy routine. You could even try taking up a hobby such as yoga, which has been found to reduce feelings of anxiety, so look out for a yoga society at your uni.
Also, avoid smoking, taking illegal drugs and try to limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol – all of these substances can make you even more anxious in the long run.
When to seek professional help
It’s important to understand that anxiety and worry are natural, and sometimes useful human emotions. However, when these feelings are prolonged, excessive, cause other symptoms like anxiety attacks or prevent you from functioning on a daily basis, this is a sign you need professional help.
All universities provide access to counsellors, so make an appointment to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Alternatively, you could speak to your GP about your difficulties (whether this is a GP at home or at university), who will be able to provide you with advice on next steps. You can also get in touch with Priory. We can provide you with access to expert psychiatrists, therapists and other mental health professionals, who will be able to help you overcome your anxiety.
Another option would be to access charities such as Samaritans who are available 24/7 to talk to you about any problems that you’re having. You can call Samaritans on 116 123.