Anxiety is a familiar feeling for college students, but for a lot of students, anxiety was a part of the picture long before college. I often wonder what kind of student I would be without generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Would college have been fun instead of being a battleground of due dates and obligations?
Even if college with GAD hasn’t been easy, in a way, my academics have been blessed by anxiety; I worry so much about getting things done that I have to start right away, and the fear of a bad grade pushes me to sacrifice other important realms of my life like sleep and socializing.
However, a lot of students with clinical anxiety do not share similar experiences — procrastination is anxiety’s best friend. In fact, not being able to get started on important tasks is a major symptom of anxiety.
Clearly, academics and clinical anxiety don’t mix well. Anxious thoughts about school can prevent you from getting your work done or alternatively working so much that you don’t sleep enough. You deserve a life where your academics don’t dictate your anxiety and your anxiety doesn’t dictate your academics; if you ever feel overwhelmed by your anxiety, you might even want to consider getting online therapy through BetterHelp.
If you are a college student who suffers from anxiety, here are five tips to succeed in school without sacrificing your mental health.
1. Use an agenda
This first tip is an eye-roller, but agenda books and calendars are critical to staying on top of your clinical anxiety in college. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t at least feel a little relief when they get to check off something on a list.
Agenda books also serve another function when you have anxiety. Because clinical anxiety is largely related to maladaptive and irrational thinking, you need to have evidence in front of you that it’s not as bad as your mind is making it seem. I look down at my agenda book and realize the stuff that is keeping me up at night is nothing more than an assignment, the same assignment that every other student in my class has.
Similarly, I have a friend who writes down every single thing she has to do for the rest of the semester and that helps her with anxiety as well; it’s especially comforting as the list gets smaller and smaller throughout the semester and just serves as evidence of what you’re capable of.
2. Take a walk
Sometimes when you’re feeling overwhelmed you might tell yourself to just power through it, but this can actually make things worse. If you’re worried about all the assignments you have to get through, sometimes you just need to walk away.
For me, this is literal; I take walks when I’m flooded with anxiety, and they clear my head and remind me of how much more there is to life than homework and exams. Walking, and any type of exercise for that matter, has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, so it can help improve your clinical anxiety even when you’re not feeling completely overwhelmed by school.
Another effective way to give your mind a break from intrusive, anxious thoughts that could affect your student life is meditation. Meditation is a method to improve a person’s mindfulness, or their ability to live consciously in the present moment and be aware of their thoughts.
Mindfulness is an effective way to combat anxiety because many of the thoughts that drive generalized anxiety disorder are worries about the future. Mindfulness also allows someone to be aware of their own harmful thought patterns and recognize them as thoughts, not facts.
The easiest way to start meditating is through a guided meditation app, like Insight Timer. Meditation doesn’t have to be a major time commitment either; it could be just five minutes of your day and still improve your anxiety.
4. Find your perfect study environment
It’s important to make your study environment as stress free as possible. Consider every detail, such as how it sounds, how it looks and even how it smells. Relaxing candles or essential oil diffusers can both be used to craft a calm space. Likewise, a messy room signals a messy mind, so it might be best to study in a tidy place so as not to trigger any more anxiety while doing homework.
I also think that one of the best ways to make your homework experience more bearable is by finding music that you work well to. Instrumentals are particularly useful for studying and writing, but if you can listen to lyrics without getting distracted, go for it. Make sure the music makes you feel good, but be careful not to choose a playlist that will lull you to sleep. All of these tactics can help you conquer the dread and avoidance of starting assignments that so many students with clinical anxiety experience.
5. Encourage yourself
It’s a little dorky, but as I type this now, I have a note next to my keyboard that says, “you are capable.” My anxiety is constantly pushing me to believe that I cannot handle the assignments and obligations that come my way, and sometimes I fall victim to these thoughts, regardless of the fact that I have always been able to do them in the past. I put the note there to remind myself not to give in to these hurtful thought patterns.
Phrases like these are called positive affirmations, and some believe this technique works because of the assumption that if you say something enough you start to believe it. I’m not sure if this is true per se, but at the very least, they can remind you to separate anxious thoughts from reality. You can write yourself sticky notes for your mirror or desk, or if you’re interested, there are apps for positive affirmations too. (There’s an app for everything, let’s be honest.)
One such app is called ThinkUp and claims to help you cultivate a more positive mindset through affirmations and self-talk. For example, one ThinkUp affirmation that a therapist recommends for someone with anxiety is “I choose to fill my mind with positive, nurturing and healing thoughts.” This method may work for you and it may not, but if anxiety is getting in the way of your life, it certainly can’t hurt.