ESOK-hanke 2006-2011


Anxiety disorders and higher education

Anxiety can be general anxiety in social situations or, for example, anxiety about performing in front of an audience or about having a meal in company of others. Performance anxiety is quite common among higher education students.

Because of anxiety,

  • the student's academic performance might suffer, whereas they would otherwise be able to do much better
  • it is harder for the student to concentrate, they feel physically sick and might even freeze up
  • discussions and performances cause stress and might even be frightening.

Anxious students often demand a lot from themselves, even to the point of being ruthless. They might become depended on the approval of others and they won't see anxiety-causing situations as positive opportunities for self-improvement. Feelings of shame might cause the student to avoid situations that cause anxiety, which means they won't get the important performance experience. At worst, their studies might be hindered or even cut short.

How do I bring up anxiety in conversation?

Anxiety is not always apparent on the outside, so it might come as a surprise to the teacher or fellow students when they learn about it. Groups almost always include students who are anxious, though.

If you feel it comes naturally, you can say that it is alright to feel anxious in class and that if a student wants to, they can come discuss their anxiety with you. You can also try to imagine what you would wish someone would say to you in a difficult situation. "How are you doing?" might be a good starting point in itself; there are many good ways to open a conversation.

A student might also bring up their anxiety themselves. They might, for example, tell you that their anxiety prevents them from taking a class which requires performing. The important thing here is that the matter is taken seriously and handled confidentially according to the student's wishes. It does not help the anxious student if you let them take the easier way out with the class in question.

Awareness of acceptance of anxiety, available options and support helps the student cope better. For these situations, consider

  • if encouragement benefits the student
  • if video records of the lectures will help with the studies and if work from home or writing a reflective learning journal will help with grading
  • if the performance part can be carried out in a smaller group, to the teacher alone or if the performance can be delivered to the teacher as a record of some kind
  • if group assignment methods and performing together might help.

Teaching and guidance

Anxiety can cause problems in almost any situation where one has to deal with other people directly or indirectly. Even being in public places, doing ordinary things and using machinery might build up stress. Usual challenges faced in studies include

  • speaking and other communication
  • feedback and evaluation situations
  • talking to an audience and giving a presentation
  • speaking a foreign language
  • answering and asking questions during lectures and reading out loud.

It is beneficial for everyone's learning if the atmosphere is safe, accepting, and takes individuality into account. Anxiety-causing situations need to be approached with baby steps and by increasing demands gradually. Too harsh critique and too many demands only make the situation worse.

  • The attitude of "it's alright to feel anxious" is a good place to start. Slight anxiety prepares the student for a challenge and gets the recipient's attention.
  • Creating a safe atmosphere starts with yourself. Your being should send the message "no worries", which reflects tranquility over the group.
  • Composed speech and rhythm of breathing calm down both your own behavior as well as the group. The way you speak is more important than what you say.
  • An attitude that indicates you are on the students' side and not against them is important. Sometimes you should even say this aloud.

Presentations and feedback

  • A presentation is interaction. Be yourself an example of a listener who is interested in the topic, accepting to the presentation and encouraging to the speaker.
  • Let everyone know that they can start their presentation over, take a short break or cut their presentation short if they feel too anxious. This helps to take off pressure.
  • Use the so-called hamburger model in your feedback: first solid good things about the presentation, then in the middle suggestions for improving contents and performance, and at the end positive and encouraging words.
  • In your feedback, note the successful expressions and actions of the speaker. Say, for example, "you made good eye contact with the audience".

Roots and causes of anxiety

Many individual and communal background factors and triggers have a simultaneous effect on anxiety. These include, for example,

  • hereditary tendency
  • family relations
  • stressful changes and transitional phases in life
  • feedback that is too harsh
  • experience of increased demands
  • traumas experienced in childhood or adolescence.

Students can improve themselves and their skills to reduce anxiety. The staff of the higher education institution can develop practices and safe atmosphere which support students in performance situations.

An anxious student can get help from

  • pertinent information about anxiety as a phenomenon; the problem is often long-lasting and doesn't always get easier without support
  • attitude changes to more merciful and lenient
  • changing their convention, with baby steps, away from avoidance and towards challenges
  • developing their skills by practicing alone, with peers, and with professionals
  • individual therapy
  • medication.

The following are examples of people and places that offer help:

  • Communication skill courses, peer support or a therapy group, which might be arranged by higher education institutions, summer universities or institutes.
  • Anxiety support groups, which are offered by, for example, the student health care services, student psychologists or career services.
  • Through health care, individual meetings with a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Many practices that promote accessibility help all the students - take a look at other guides on

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