Dealing With Anxiety At University

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Photo by Rosina Chalk
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Starting university can be a daunting time. You’re in a new place with new people with new challenges ahead of you. Settling in and making friends usually takes time but sometimes, things can get a bit too much. Not only in your first year but right the way through to third year. I’m almost halfway though my second year and anxiety affects me every day. Some days are worst than others. Here are some tips I’ve found useful for managing my anxiety at university:

Don’t overload yourself

Speaking to new people can be quite a difficult task. When I first started university, I used to try to muster up the courage to find someone new to speak to and make friends. But then I'd feel too nervous to leave my room or join a big Facebook group of other students at my university. I conquered this by joining a smaller Facebook group which was just for the residents of my accommodation block, and writing a post saying that I’d just moved in to one of the flats. A few minutes later other people who lived in the flats above and next door to me commented saying they wanted to meet, and so I decided to meet one person at a time.

Just because you’re new and there’s lots of fresher events put on, it doesn’t mean you have to go to them or that you have to force yourself in to a group of new people. Take it one step at a time.

Don’t isolate yourself

Sometimes when things become too much to handle, I feel a tendency to isolate myself. Alone time is important and you need that to re-adjust to a new situation. However, it's easy to fall in to a habit of doing this almost every day. During my first year I ended up doing this quite a lot whenever my neighbours wanted to go out somewhere. I used to feel so nervous or so anxious like I didn’t have a place in that friendship group or that they would think I’m weird. There was so much doubt in my mind, and I didn’t want anyone to see me so scared.

I ended up missing out on spending time with friends and enjoying myself because I was afraid. At the time, I also had a boyfriend back home who didn’t seem to like me going out and hanging out with them which made both the relationship and the situation stressful. The stress then ate away at me making me want to just shut myself out.

Tell someone that you feel this way

This can be a friend or a family member or if you don’t feel comfortable speaking to them there will be help at the student hub of your university. Sometimes talking to people about feeling anxious can make you feel embarrassed, or like you’ve failed in some way. Making the first step in talking to someone is one of the bravest things you can do. You might find others that experience anxiety too. They might be able to offer advice or comfort, or help you to become more involved in the opportunities you want to take part in.

Other people can also help you to work out the underlying cause of anxiety and offer suggestions of how to overcome the problem. Anxiety used to prevent me from enjoying myself and doing what I want to do, I wasted so many opportunites because I didn't know what anxiety was or why I even felt this way, until I went to see a counsellor who helped me break down the problems.

Look out for opportunities to do with your course

Join facebook groups, look out for events nearby, this is a great way to get to know other people on your course in other years and meet people with similar interests to you. It’s a great way to seek ideas for projects, work experience placements or advice when things don’t go to plan. Finding the confidence to get the most of my course was really difficult for me at first as I used to end up comparing myself to others, thinking that I wasn’t good enough. The only way you will get better is practice.

Monitor panic attacks and anxious thoughts

Use a diary or a notebook to keep track of your instant negative thought: write down why you think you might have felt that way, another way of looking at the problem and attempt to rationalise the initial thought to turn it in to something positive. This method really helped me monitor my panic attacks, working out why they happened and how I could think differently about a stressful situation to prevent this from happening.

Sometimes I still experience panic attacks but very rarely. But it's okay to have panic attacks! You may experience a set-back because of it, but you’ll be in a better position to know how to cope better next time and not let it take over.

After removing stressful people from my life such as fake friends and a toxic ex-boyfriend, I found that I was less anxious because I stopped trying to please everyone all the time and focused on what made me feel positive. I kept track of how I could move forward and take on new challenges. Looking back, I can see how I slowly began to regain control.

Find what helps you to relax

Whether it’s walking the dog (if you live at home or are lucky enoughto be allowed pets at uni!), reading a book or watching a TV series, find an activity that will help you calm down after a stressful day or a panic attack. It’s important to take this time out for yourself when things get too much. I find resting with music on and drinking herbal tea a good way to wind down and put everything back into a rational perspective.

Earlier in to my second year I wanted to take some photos of a punk music conference at my university. We had some interesting guest speakers there - including an ex-Sex Pistols member - and I wanted to capture the interviews. However, I remember feeling quite unorganised, as I hadn’t brought my camera so I borrowed one from the university, they only had Cannon so I was quite unfamiliar with the settings. This began to make me very stressed.

My instant thoughts were “my pictures are going to be terrible”, “why can’t I just do it without feeling so stressed”, “everyone’s looking” and “she’s so much better than me”. It got to the point where I couldn’t breathe and I literally ran away. I ran out of the room and back to my house. I couldn’t breathe, I was sweating and crying. I felt like such an idiot. But after a hug from a housemate, a cup of tea and TV I slowly began to regain control of my breathing and explain what I felt. After a few days of feeling embarrassed I wrote down why this went wrong and how I could avoid this in the future.

Avoid caffeine

This is something which was scarily dangerous for me during a panic attack. Although everyone’s different, I feel that it’s something to be aware of. Back in school, I was incredibly tired one day and I had a mock English exam in the afternoon. I had drank an entire can of an energy drink beforehand thinking that it would just make me feel a little bit more awake. Ten minuets in to the exam, I began to tremble and I couldn’t stop. My mind then started feeling very overworked with constant “why can’t I write?” “why has everyone got a page written already?” “I haven’t even done anything” and “what is going on” running through my mind. It then worsened: my heartbeat rapidly increased and I began to get upset, so I had to leave the room.

It took me about an hour to even feel remotely calm. I have never drunk an energy drink before a stress-inducing event like an assessment or an interview again. It seemed to heighten the panic attack, making it last longer and feel much intense.

Find an outlet

Finding a healthy outlet to manage feelings of anger and stress is important to look after yourself and others around you. For me, going to the gym and exercising with a routine really helped to work anger in to a more positive form, which was good for me. It made me feel a lot better about myself and motivated me to do more. Being creative, editing photos,  playing an instrument and drawing are also great for channelling negative thoughts and releasing stress.

Sleep well

I’ve found that anxiety can lead to other issues as well, one being insomnia. Things that made me anxious during the day would then keep me up at night. This has been a problem most of my life. It would make me less productive during the day and gave me headaches. I worked nightshifts for about 2 years, which used to help tire me out during the weekends. Instead of feeling upset or down, I was doing something productive. However, going to and from university it made my sleep pattern non- existent from sleeping in the day to getting up for early morning lectures. Nightshifts are a huge adjustment to yourself and affect everything from your bodily functions to social life. I decided to leave permanently as my workload increased at university and I needed to be sleeping properly at night.

Using an eye mask and trying to go to bed and get up and regular times in the week over time has really been improving my sleep. Having a cup of tea and winding down an hour or so before gets your body ready to start falling asleep. I still experience some issues with my sleep but it’s improved significantly by making a regular routine.

Don’t feel ashamed

Although many people experience anxiety on a daily basis, sometimes you can’t help feeling embarrassed or ashamed, like you’ve just made a fool out of yourself in front of everyone. Sometimes, comments are made like “you’re just being silly”, “why do you have to ruin everything?” and “stop making everything about you”. These are upsetting and unhelpful when your heart feels like it’s about to explode and no words are coming out of your mouth.

But, everyone experiences a degree of anxiety in their lifetime. You are your own person and you know what’s going on inside. If you have to take the time out to yourself and can’t make an event, that’s ok. I used to hate myself so much for feeling this way, I got so frustrated at myself all the time for not being able to do the simplest task. Then I started to address the issue and be a friend to myself. By that, I mean looking after myself properly, putting myself first and putting the time in to learning about my anxiety to see how I can make it better. All you can do is try your best.

I hope you've found these tips useful. Anxiety can make university a very scary and lonely place at times, but just remember, there are plently of other people who go experience it as well and will be willing to help and listen.

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Hi,

I'm Rosie, I'm a music journalism student at Southampton Solent University. I am currently in my second year. I love cats, dark colours, music and photography.