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From One Student to Another: How to Navigate College While Dealing With Anxiety

From navigating your campus to overcoming public speaking stress, these tips will help you jump start your college career while keeping anxious thoughts in check.

Diego Cervo / Shutterstock
Diego Cervo / Shutterstock

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

The new school year is here. I’ll hold for your applause.

All joking aside, the beginning of a new semester can be scary. For many students, including me, that fear manifests itself as anxiety, the most common mental illness in the U.S.

Of the 40 million adults in the U.S. with anxiety disorders, 30 million of them first experienced symptoms before the age of 22. That means a large number of college students are dealing with them right now.

According to the 2016 National College Health Assessment administered by Wichita State’s Prevention Services Advisory Board, nearly 60 percent of WSU students had felt overwhelming anxiety in the past 12 months.

Here is a guide to help navigate the beginning of your college career when you have anxiety.

Oh, the places you’ll go:

The Wichita State campus is fairly compact. It takes less than 30 minutes to walk from any corner of campus to the opposite one. That doesn’t mean you can’t get lost, though.

Luckily, there are plenty of resources to help you find your way. The basic campus map is a great tool to carry with you while you get used to the campus. You can just download it to your phone, so no one knows you are looking at a map. This map is also located on kiosks scattered around campus. Additionally, the interactive map includes 360 panoramas, parking, dining, safety and accessibility information.

The best way to get to know WSU is to explore. You can check out the best selfie spots, visit the Pizza Hut Museum, take a sculpture tour or bring your dog for a walk along the new Shocker Pet Pathway

Stu the cockatoo is new at the zoo:

Possibly the most anxiety-inducing part of college, at least for freshmen, is entering a new space and not knowing anyone. It’s almost guaranteed that you will end up in a class where you don’t know any of the other students, which can feel isolating and intimidating. Just remember that most, if not all, of them are new to this, too.

I know for me, starting a conversation with a stranger is difficult. I don’t want to bother them or say something stupid. However, something as simple as telling the person next to you that you like their shirt/shoes/hair/etc. can naturally set you up to introduce yourself and start a conversation.

One of the best ways to get to know other students is by joining some sort of organization. It is easier to connect and talk about something you have an interest in. With more than 240 student organizations and an active Greek Life, you are sure to find something you like.

Those darned ice breakers:

I don’t know why teachers insist on torturing us with ice breakers. Sure, it can help us learn the names of our classmates and see if we have similar interests, but at what cost? The biggest piece of advice I have for this is to write down three interesting things about yourself before classes begin. This prevents the panic that sets in when your teacher walks in and says, “Tell us your name, major and a couple fun facts about yourself.”

Also, remember this usually only happens at the beginning of the semester. You just have to get through the first day. And if your teacher asks for volunteers, volunteer. The sooner you get it over with, the sooner you can relax.

According to Dr. Jessica Provines, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant vice president of WSU student affairs and wellness, the best way to calm anxiety is to actually do the thing that makes you nervous. The more exposure you have, the more your brain learns how to deal with the situation. 

Public speaking (the horror!):

Look, I know you don’t want to take public speaking or give presentations, but it is good to have the experience. And it’s required. As someone who absolutely hates talking in front of more than three people at a time, I thought public speaking was going to be the most nerve-wracking experience of my life. It definitely wasn’t my favorite class, but it was also not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be.

Most importantly, pay attention to what type of speech you need to give. Rubrics will be your best friend for determining what to include in your speech. Making an outline of my speech with main points and sub points always helped me because I could visualize the flow of it. After that, you need to practice. A lot.

Practicing giving a speech can help build confidence, but you can’t just read a script. Write down bullet points and talk about them naturally (this is easier if you choose a topic you enjoy). Practice the speech in your room. Practice it in your car. Practice it in front of a mirror. Practice it in front of your dog. Practice it in front of friends and family. Just practice.

Now that you know what you will say, it’s time to say it. I suggest volunteering to go first or second. I know that sounds terrifying, but trust me. When you sit and wait, you only let your anxiety build. If you talk first, everyone else in your class is going to be focused on their own speech, and by the end of class no one will even remember yours.

If you need additional help, you can visit the Center for Excellence in Oral Communication. During office hours, a communication graduate student, who has taken multiple public speaking courses, is available to help you with your speech or presentation. 

You will be tested on this:

Test anxiety is common among students, with 34 percent experiencing high or moderately high anxiety. When you look at a test page and your mind goes blank, you actually have to fight your brain to hand over the information, which is tiring and not very fun. The best way to overcome this is to prepare, relax and use positive self-talk.

Studying doesn’t have to be tedious and draining. Rewrite your lecture notes with fun colors and doodles (studies show handwriting notes multiple times greatly helps with retention). Play a game of Jeopardy with your friends. Reward yourself with a piece of chocolate for every chapter you read.

One of my favorite ways to study is by teaching the topics to someone else. If I can explain the concepts and show examples to someone and get them to understand it, I know that I understand it. Sometimes explaining something in a different way, out loud, can help you grasp the concept better, too.

If you need a quiet place to study, free from distractions, the library is your best bet. Something about being surrounded by thousands of books always helps me focus. Ablah Library’s entire third floor is a dedicated quiet zone. Talking above a whisper is discouraged, so you won’t get disrupted by loud voices. The library also features study rooms that you can reserve if you want some privacy.

Dr. Provines explained that in anxiety situations your brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode. Knowing the material is important, but when you look at the test and your mind goes blank, you need to reset. She said the best way to do this is to turn the test over, take some deep breaths and tell yourself that you can do this and that failing is not the end of the world.

Finally, you can find information about tutors and a study skills kit from the Office of Student Success. There is absolutely nothing wrong with needing some extra help with your classes. The resources are here – why not use them? A tutor can be the difference between passing or failing a class, and no one wants to pay to take a class all over again.

Other good stuff:

One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give you is to not mess around on your laptop during class. Listen to your instructors. I have missed important announcements because I was distracted by social media, and it affected my grade. Also, talk to your teachers, they are there to help. If physically talking to them makes you anxious, send them an email.

Some other advice includes getting plenty of sleep and cutting back on caffeine (I only ever drink water, and I am not just a zombie shuffling through the day, promise). If you have trouble sitting still, find some sort of quiet fidget toy to mess with. Just make sure it doesn’t distract you from your work.

Lastly, there are tons of apps out there that help with anxiety and school productivity. I use one with nature sounds for background noise and one that lets me grow cute little trees as long as I don’t look at my phone. Dr. Provines suggests Insight Timer, which comes with 25,000 free meditations.

This story was originally published wichita.edu.

If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental illness and need support, please call the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) helpline, 800-950-6264. Or, in a crisis? Text NAMI TO 741741.

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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