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Managing Anxiety in College: 3 Situations, 3 Game Plans

If you live with anxiety, even raising your hand in class can make your heart pound. Here are some practical steps you can take to manage your fears.

Moment of complete honesty? Anxiety blows. It messes with your mind in ways that leave you paralyzed by apprehension and fear. It can take all that you know to be true—you’re a smart and resourceful student, good at your job, a generous friend—and turn it inside out, leaving you overwhelmed by negative, irrational thoughts. And it doesn’t just tie knots in your brain. Anxiety can also provoke some scary and painful physical symptoms, like migraines, burning skin, or dizziness. Some people get nauseous and even vomit.

Anxiety is different from stress, which is triggered by a specific event or situation—for instance, an overloaded schedule, an upcoming exam, a breakup. Anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. Once the stressor goes away, however, so too should those uncomfortable feelings. Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. When those feeling of worry and fear linger, when they’re out of proportion to an actual “danger,” when they happen frequently in response to everyday situations, it’s a problem.

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Chances are you’ve had some experience with this. And while you may think you’re alone in the struggle, a recent survey of college students found that 62% feel “overwhelming anxiety,” which means the pressures of being in college are triggering anxiety in more of your classmates than you might think. Anxiety has, in fact, become so pervasive that it has surpassed depression as the number one mental health concern on college campuses, a fact that is bringing the topic out of the shadows.

“The only way to get rid of the stigma is to talk about it,” says Jesse, a 20-year-old junior at Ohio State University who writes openly about anxiety on his blog. “You may be afraid people are judging you, but most of them can probably relate.”

Danielle, a 19-year-old freshman at Hofstra University, says she speaks candidly with friends about her anxiety. “When I’m having a panic attack, it feels like my entire body shuts down. My muscles get tight, I get dizzy, and if it lasts a long time, my hands start to go numb.”

If you’re prone to anxiety, there will always be situations or circumstances that challenge you—walking into a room full of strangers or giving a presentation, for example. But learning what steps you can take to minimize anxiety’s impact can help set you up to ride the wave—in school and later in life.

For now, here are three (common) situations where anxiety may be undermining your success—and what you can do to manage a better outcome.

The situation: Participating in class

class participationIt’s not unusual for class participation to count toward your final grade, which means that hiding in the back of the lecture hall won’t do much to boost your GPA. If the fear of speaking in front of other students has you looking for an out, try this: Get your participation points by asking questions, rather than answering them. Why? You can prepare questions ahead of time, without being put on the spot in front of classmates.

Another useful strategy: Meet with your professor or TA before or after class, and also during office hours, to demonstrate your interest in the material. This is a good time, too, to be completely honest with your professor. “Teaching college classes relies upon effective group dynamics,” says Kathryn Tuffy, MSEd, BCBA, adjunct instructor at St. John’s University School of Education, and director of education for the Hance Family Foundation. “I would want every student to share their apprehension with me and participate in active problem solving.”

You may be surprised to find that some of your professors are willing to offer accommodations. Tuffy, for example, works with students to set short- and long-term goals, helping them become more comfortable in group situations. “I am always willing to work with a student,” she says, “including giving them the option to break into smaller groups or create online discussions.”

The situation: Eating alone

eating aloneA reality of campus life is that friends’ schedules don’t always coincide. Which means there will be times that no one’s around when you’re ready to head to lunch or dinner. So unless you want to starve, you’ll most likely be eating some of your meals alone.

If the thought of walking into the dining hall as a party of one makes your stomach lurch, understand that eating alone can be stressful, even scary, for many students. Most of us think of meals as social events—family dinners, lunch with friends—but the reality of campus dining often paints a different picture. Plenty of students find themselves standing nervously in the cafeteria, hands gripping a plastic tray, as they scan the room for a friendly face.

Just because you don’t have a dining buddy doesn’t mean you should hide out in the dorm eating microwaved bowls of Easy Mac every night. Try tuning out the negative voice in your head—everyone will judge me, I have no friends, only losers eat alone—and think of the next 30 minutes as an opportunity to take a breather from your busy day. Bring something to read, write in your journal, text a friend back home, or listen to a podcast.

If it still feels too hard, ask for some help. “Get to know your RA and let them know what’s going on,” suggests Mary McLaughlin, director of residential education at Colby-Sawyer College. “They tend to be remarkably good at getting people together in a way that seems natural and spontaneous, but is actually thoughtfully planned.”

The situation: Figuring out your housing after freshman year

choosing housingThe freshman dorm was a sure thing, but what happens next can be messy and nerve-wracking—which is just what you want to hear when you’re prone to anxiety, right? If you plan to live on or close to campus your second, third, or fourth year, it’s likely you’ll have to submit to a complicated, multistep process, with commitment deadlines that are often 9–12 months in advance of your move-in date. The truth is, locking in upper-class housing is an arduous process that demands attention to detail and an open mind.

After two years on campus (a requirement at OSU), Jesse and his roommates took their search for housing to a nearby neighborhood, where the pressure to beat the competition to a good deal in the shortest amount of time took a toll. “I think that was the last time I had a really bad panic attack, and it was the worst feeling in the world,” he says. “I just don’t think I was prepared for all the decisions that would need to be made. Trying to deal with a landlord and a lease, and think about things like location, square footage, rent, and utilities, was overwhelming.”

If the idea of so many moving parts (Who will I room with? Will I need to buy furniture? Can I afford my first-choice location? How will I get to and from class?) makes your heart race, consider using a checklist to rein in all your thoughts. Breaking an entire process down into smaller, actionable tasks makes it less overwhelming. It’s a good idea to make note of any questions you have so you can track down answers before making decisions. Don’t try to keep it all straight in your head—human memory is fallible.

“And don’t rely on an older student to explain the process to you,” advises McLaughlin. “Things change from year to year.” Use your checklist to keep track of the steps you need to take and the upcoming deadlines.

A happy side effect of breaking down a huge endeavor into smaller, bite-sized pieces to manage, and accomplish, is the release of that feel-good brain chemical dopamine. When we experience even small amounts of success, our brains release dopamine, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, learning, and motivation. When we feel the effects of dopamine, we’re eager to repeat the actions that resulted in success in the first place. Neuroscientists refer to this as “self-directed learning.”

And above all, college is a learning experience. One that goes beyond time in class. “The most important thing I’ve found,” says Jesse, “is that I can use these experiences, these challenges, to build character and strength. I just have to trust the process.”

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