How to manage anxiety at university
Transitioning from school to university can be daunting. It’s an exciting time to finally study what you want on your terms, but it’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed. Sometimes that feeling of unease passes and sometimes it develops into something more. Psychologist and Associate Professor David Austin from Deakin University says that many people with psychological disorders like anxiety first experience symptoms while studying. Feeling anxious at uni is incredibly common and there are many ways to manage it.
What is anxiety and why does it occur at university?
While we all feel stressed or worried sometimes, a persistent feeling of concern, especially when there’s no obvious cause, is a sign that you’re experiencing anxiety. If this is the case, you’re not alone. According to Beyond Blue, anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, with one in three women and one in five men experiencing it at some stage. According to Prof. Austin, who’s been researching anxiety for more than 20 years, ‘Anxiety is twice as common as depression, but it doesn’t get the air time.’ He adds that anxiety commonly occurs between Year 12 and university. ‘A lot of psychological conditions manifest during this period, as people are transitioning to adulthood,’ he says. The reason, Prof. Austin points out, is it’s a significant change in life stage. ‘One minute young people are in school uniform, then they’re adults in a grown up social environment.’
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
Prof. Austin says we’re all meant to feel anxiety sometimes. If you have a presentation to make or you’re going to an event where you won’t know anyone, it’s understandable you might feel uptight. And a little anxiety can be good: helping us to stay alert under pressure, or motivating us to study before a test. But anxiety becomes a problem when it’s persistent and pervasive, causing your worries to interfere with daily life. There could be cause for concern ‘if it’s drifting into weeks and months, and you’re not going to things, or not doing things you’d normally do,’ Prof. Austin explains. Anxiety can also have an impact on your diet and sleep patterns. If you’re binge eating or under-eating, or if you have trouble sleeping through the night, these could be signs of anxiety.
Are incidents of anxiety rising or are we just more aware of it?
Generation Y and Z are far more aware of global issues than Generation X and baby boomers, according to Prof. Austin. They’re exposed to an onslaught of information, good and bad, through media and social networks. ‘A generation of kids exposed to this volume and intensity of media is an untested experiment,’ he says. ‘This is likely to lead to higher levels of anxiety.’
He also suggests that social and personal pressures that we place on ourselves can add to incidents of anxiety. For example, ‘Students often have rigid ideas that getting a credit at university is a fail. The concept of failure is really damaging,’ Prof. Austin says. He urges students to be kind to themselves and understand that failure is ‘better conceptualised as re-direction’ when it’s used as a positive to help us perform better in future, or re-evaluate our path.
'Students often have rigid ideas that getting a credit at university is a fail. The concept of failure is really damaging.'
Associate Professor David Austin, School of Health,
How can you manage anxiety?
‘Anxiety is one of the most successfully treated mental health conditions and has a really high recovery rate of 70 to 90%,’ Prof. Austin points out. He says people should be hopeful about recovering from anxiety, and know that with good support they can develop better management mechanisms. If you’re a student struggling with anxiety, you can draw on access to campus counselling in most universities, such as Deakin’s counselling facility. Or seek help by speaking to your GP, and setting up a referral to a psychologist. Prof. Austin also suggests talking to those close to you, like your friends. He says mindfulness techniques, which allow you to acknowledge thoughts and let them go so you can focus on the present, can help people relax. Prof. Austin also recommends treatments such as mentalhealthonline.org.au, which is funded by the Australian Government and provides reliable psychological assessments and therapist-assisted programs.
Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, Deakin University
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