Is your Academic Stress Actually a Treatable Anxiety Disorder?

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By Lisandranette Rios

Going into the classroom to take the test, she feels confident. She has spent time reading handmade study guides, she’s written and rewritten her notes multiple times, and has put in up to five hours a day of study time with a tutor between work and school. But as soon as the test begins, she gets sick.

Rajene Harris, an allied health student at Seminole State College, has academic anxiety. When she takes tests she gets an “instant cold.” Her mind goes blank when the test begins and she says it’s like putting a puzzle together to remember what she studied.

“My nose starts to run like a faucet so I find myself running back and forward between the center and the restroom,” Harris says. “I get anxious over the answer I chose, not wanting to check it. All of that hard work can’t go to waste for me to get the wrong answer.”

Harris has academic anxiety and she says a neurologist confirmed the instant colds are from test anxiety.

The prevalence of anxiety disorders in adults age 18 to 29 is 30.2 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health’s website.

Anxiety can increase performance in some cases but for others, it becomes a daily issue. Academic stressors can be dealing with a tough professor, always having another deadline to meet and studying for a final worth more than half of your final grade.  

Dealing with these stressors is important, but students should be aware of symptoms in case they are dealing with academic anxiety and not just academic stress.

Jamie Furr, Ph.D, and associate clinical director for children and families at Florida International University, says people who have academic anxiety worry about a range of things related to academic performance.

“What we would tend to diagnose with young adults would be generalized anxiety disorder,” Furr says.

She says if a student is worried about several stress factors for at least six months and have physical symptoms such as being tired and irritable, they are a candidate for anxiety disorder,

But if your worry or fear doesn’t really get in the way and it doesn’t affect your academic, social or family functioning, then you may just be experiencing academic stress.

When Dana Okab was enrolled in Organic Chemistry at the University of North Florida, she says she cried a lot from all of the stress. Every time there was a test in the class she says she would get a huge knot in her stomach.

“I would always psych myself out, despite the fact that I studied really hard and was prepared for the exam,” Okab says.

Throughout the semester, Okab says she felt afraid that she would fail the course or have to drop the class. In fact, she remembers that many of her classmates were attempting the course for the second time.  

“I feared that there was going to be no hope for me and that I was going to fall in the same category as the rest of my peers,” she says.

Okab got through the course despite the stress. She says she was proud to make it through the course that caused so much stress and anxiety.

To get through anxiety, whether it a disorder or academic stressors, try these tips:

Relaxation

Try deep breathing exercises (you can download free meditation apps on your phone, such as Headspace, and Insight Timer). Look at positive imagery to help you stay calm right before an exam.

Repeat positive coping statements

Positive coping statements and mantras can help focus you and keep you centered before an important test. Try phrases like: “I can do this,” and “I’ve done well on lots of tests,” to remind you of the bigger picture.

Seek professional help

Know when your anxiety has gotten out of hand, and don’t be afraid to seek professional help. Many campuses have free counseling services for students to help them deal with anxiety, and even programs specifically geared toward helping with academic performance, or you can find someone in your local community to help you.

 

Related: “Depression in College: You’re Not Alone”

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