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How to spot and manage anxiety


What is Anxiety? 

Anxiety can affect our whole being.  It can affect how we feel, how we behave and has very real physical symptoms.  Anxiety can feel a bit like fear but whereas you know what you are frightened of, people often don't know what they are anxious about.

Mild anxiety is vague and unsettling but severe anxiety can be extremely debilitating. Anxiety causes a person to avoid situations that makes them feel anxious, but this can create a vicious circle that can be hard to break.


Reducing avoidance

People often get into the habit of avoiding situations that cause them difficulty but this coping strategy can unfortunately make the problem worse.  This is because the longer we avoid something, the more intimidating it can become.  By avoiding situations we also stop ourselves from proving that we can cope in them.  As a result, our anxiety towards the situation continues and our confidence remains low.  Take the example below:

Someone who tends to worry about being judged negatively by others:

  • May avoid going out socially in case people don't like them or they make a fool of themselves. For instance, they may avoid going to work nights out, parties, restaurants, or taking part in a hobby.
  • May avoid speaking when in large groups, instead staying quiet and not really 'being themselves'.
  • May avoid all performance situations, such as giving a speech or showing off a piece of work, due to their fear of being negatively evaluated. 

By avoiding all of these related situations, they never have a chance to practice in, or become accustomed to them or prove that they could cope well.

It is easy to see how using avoidance as a strategy to cope can soon begin to have a negative impact on people's lives as they start to avoid more and more situations.  If instead we confront difficult situations then it is possible to build up our confidence. This will help your anxiety to reduce significantly.


Things that you may begin to avoid in University when you are anxious:

  • Attending nights out
  • Socialising with other students
  • Speaking in public or small groups
  • Giving presentations
  • Submitting academic work
  • Joining new groups or activities.


What causes anxiety?

Anxiety is often triggered by stress in our lives.  Some of us are more vulnerable to anxiety than others but even those who become anxious easily can learn to manage it effectively.  People can also make themselves anxious with "negative self-talk" - a habit of always telling themselves the worst will happen.


How will I recognise anxiety?

As well as feeling apprehensive and worried (possibly without knowing why), you may experience some of the following physical symptoms:

  • Tense muscles
  • Trembling
  • Churning stomach
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Headache
  • Backache
  • Heart palpitations
  • Numbness or "pins and needles" in arms, hands or legs
  • Sweating/flushing.

It is easy to mistake symptoms of anxiety for physical illness and become worried that you might be suffering a heart attack or stroke.  This of course only leads to increase the anxiety.


When is anxiety a problem?

We all become anxious from time to time.  Anxiety may become a problem when it interferes with everyday life in the absence of real threat, or goes on too long after the danger has past.


What if I just avoid things that make me anxious?

Avoiding situations that make you anxious might help you feel better in the short term.  The problem with this is that the anxiety may keep returning and can spread to other situations.  This can lead to avoiding things like shopping trips, crowded places, lectures or tutorials.  


So, although avoidance makes you feel better:

  • The relief is only temporary - you may worry about what will happen next time.
  • Every time you avoid something it is harder next time you try to face it.
  • Gradually you want to avoid more and more things.


What else you can do to feel better?

  • Learn to manage stress in your life.  Keep an eye on pressures and deadlines and make a commitment to taking time out from study or work.
  • Learn a variety of relaxation techniques.  Physical relaxation methods and meditation techniques really do help.
  • Look after your physical self.  Eat healthily, get regular exercise and try to keep a regular sleep pattern. Avoid alcohol, cannabis and junk food.
  • Practice deep abdominal breathing.  This consists of breathing in deeply and slowly through your nose, taking the air right down to you abdomen. Visualise the air travelling right down to your abdomen and say the word "calm" to yourself as you breathe in. Then breathe out slowly and gently through your mouth. As you breathe out visualise the stress and tension leaving your body with your breath and think the word "relax." Deliberately let your muscles go floppy as you breathe out. Take three deep breaths at a time. If you breathe deeply for too long you may feel dizzy from the extra oxygen. You can repeat the three breaths after a short time of breathing normally.
  • Learn to replace "negative self-talk" with "coping self-talk."  When you catch yourself thinking something negative like "I can't do this, it's just too hard," try to change it to something more positive, like "This is hard but I can get through it." It can be helpful to think of "changing the tape" that runs through your mind. It is useful to make a list of the negative thoughts you often have and write a list of positive, believable thoughts to replace them.


Anxiety can be exhausting and debilitating. Don't suffer alone. It often helps to talk to a Counsellor. The Counsellors are situated on the first floor of the Gateway Building.

We can help you find ways to deal with stress in your life and teach you skills to manage anxiety.