Managing Anxiety in University

Part 1: Managing Anxiety IN University

University can bring you such amazing things in life – new friends, careers, more opportunities, memories and copious amounts of fun. Despite this, I know how hard it can be when you struggle from a mental disorder such as depression and anxiety and how it can get in the way of supposedly ‘the best years of your life’ (they really are though!). Personally from largely dealing with anxiety and panic disorder (check out my story here, I know how much it can meddle with my University work, attendance, social life and the overall balance of my responsibilities. It’s important to recognise that everyone struggles at some point, maybe they’ve got themselves into a rut or have been struggling for a while. Despite this, there are little ways or lifestyle changes you can implement in your life to make you feel better overall. From personal experience, my anxiety completely changes when I’m physically NOT in University and at home, opposed to when I’m in my lectures etc. so have written a two-part blog post on managing anxiety. Here we go with the first part – Managing Anxiety IN University.

Anxiety IN University

For some odd reason, being in lecture rooms really set off my anxiety and panic. It may be the echoey noise of the room, the busy rooms, the lights, or the feeling of being trapped and not being able to ‘get out’ if I’m about to have a panic attack. If I’m having a bad day where I may be feeling a bit more vulnerable, I always try and implement these ideas:

1) Sit on the end of your lecture row

I can’t stress the importance of this one. As I get nervous in lecture theatres generally, it’s key for me to feel like I will be able to leave if I feel shaky and a big panic attack coming on. Having a panic attack is bad, but the feeling of not being to get out added is worse. I normally just wait till my lecture is about to start and then pop in last minute to get the last seat on the end.

2) Sit with a friend who is aware and understands

Alternatively, I sometimes find sitting with a friend makes me feel more at ease if I’m feeling panicky. It’s more the occasional chatting and laughing that will make you feel better. I’ve told most of my friends at University about my anxiety as I’m open about it, and so it’s nice when I have them there who understand. Additionally, it’s a huge help that if you are feeling panicked or low, you can tell them and they can support you through it.

3) Distract yourself

As weird and non-helpful as this one sounds, it can sometimes do the world of good. If you concentrate on how you feel when you aren’t feeling too fabulous, it can intensify things 10x worse. If I feel a strong panic attack coming on, I’ll think of random things – such as the weather, whose wearing yellow in the lecture room, where my professor’s accent comes from etc. There are so many things you can do to avoid concentrating on your own body and feelings – you just have to find what works for you. On the other hand, I know how a panic attack can manifest itself as 1,000 things streaming through your head, and so its also a good idea to open your notes on your phone and just write down what you are feeling and experiencing. I use this tip less often as I try not to focus on what and how I’m feeling; however it works just as well.

4) Sleep Well Before University

I feel like this is a big one. I try not to go out/sleep late the night before I go to University, as I know when I’m tired or hungover, it massively intensifies my anxiety. As I suffer from Chronic Fatigue, a huge lifestyle change I’ve had to implement is sleeping at least 7/8 hours (uninterrupted). If you are dealing with sleeping issues (I know that feeling), try and get yourself into a good routine for the week (maybe sacrifice that one night out that week), waking up early and going to sleep early. If this doesn’t work for you, have a look at herbal supplements that may drowsy you – my favourites are this one and this one. If all else fails, speak to a counselor at your University or doctor about your lack of sleep and they may be able to guide you.

5) Get Disability Support

I genuinely think this is the most critical one, hence why I’ve put it last. If what you are experiencing is affecting how your work is going and primarily, your attendance, make your University aware of it! It’s not fun getting those attendance warnings and having to stress further whilst work is creeping on you. My University’s mental health support is incredible and offers free counselling sessions – individual and group. Make sure to make yourself aware of what tools your University has to support student’s mental health. Additionally, my student support officer is amazing and I’ve established a relationship with her in that I can just go and chat if I’m ever feeling like it’s getting too much. University is there to make sure you do well, however, to ensure you FEEL WELL whilst you do this and so they should prioritize your wellbeing over whether you’ve missed lecture etc. It’s always good to ask for Disability support – such as deadline extensions etc if you really need them.

Most importantly, if the University can provide exam arrangements, ask for them! I’m put in a room with less than 10 people and by the door. Frankly, being in a large, echoey room with 100s of people freaks me out and puts so much more pressure on me than needed as I’ve got the added stress of calming myself down. If I didn’t have these arrangements put into place, my grades would suffer and it would be unfair this would reflect my performance throughout the year. There’s always something that they can do for you, just pop an email and see what can be put into place.

Furthermore, there are different resources that Universities promote, such as online chat rooms. The Big White Wall is a new tool promoted by my own University – you can sign up and talk to strangers anonymously and safely. Conversations are monitored so no trolls allowed (!!) and if you’re just seeking advice ionhow you feel, it does the world of good to just let it out. The Big White Wall also provides guided support/focused courses and it’s not just focusing on anxiety, so you should be able to find something that is specified for what you are going through.

If you are having a panic attack:

Lastly, I just wanted to write about my own advice that I use when I am mid-panic attack. I normally do these things in the following order:

1) Acknowledge it, but don’t think about it too much

Understand that you are having a panic attack, however don’t dwell on it too much because you won’t die from it and the more you panic about the fact you are panicking, it puts your body into flight-or-flight mode (that’s when all the dreaded scary symptoms come).

2) Belly-breathe

Place your hand on your belly and ensure that you are taking deep breaths (hand should be lifting up and down.) I used to take shallow breaths through my chest and this doesn’t allow enough oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange, and that’s when you start getting that worsening of symptoms. I shut my eyes doing this and concentrate on my breath.

From having 5 years of panic attacks, I’ve pretty much mastered how to calm myself down. Despite this, if the shakiness or numbness doesn’t calm down after these two steps I:

3) Drink Water

Water is literally my best friend. When you feel like your throat is tightening up because of the anxiety coming on, having a sip of water is almost acknowledging you that it’s okay – you can still breathe and your throat isn’t closing and you’re not gonna die!!! However, don’t let yourself depend on this as sometimes you can find yourself without water available and you don’t want this to be your only tool of calming down.

3) Excuse the room

I don’t really care if I’m in a lecture, I will leave the room if I feel like it’s escalating into something big. Sometimes lecture rooms are stuffy and warm – not helping you get through it basically! Leave the theatre (easier if you are on the end of the row as above) and just sit outside getting fresh air, ensuring to keep breathing through it.

4) Do what helps calm you down

If I’ve gotten this far, I will sit outside the theatre, close my eyes and plug my earphones in. Basically, I try and get a tiny glimpse of quiet. It just allows my mind to quiet for a bit, let the thoughts calm down and so I can think of catching my breath again. I’ve found this works for me, as well as going for a short walk to push through that ‘buckly knee’ feeling or going outside to catch some cool air.

I have so many tips that have helped me get through to my second year, but ultimately, it’s all about what you find works for you (plus I can’t write ALL about it cos it would be 1000 pages!). It is key that your University is made aware of what is going on with you as it alleviates so much pressure off you and they will offer resources to you to help you feel so much better. Always remember that you are not alone and ALWAYS have someone to talk to it about – more people struggle than most think and you deserve to know how good it feels to let it out.

Ari xxx

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