5 Tips to help control Anxiety
5 tools to control anxiety before it controls you
by Psychotherapist Helen Vaughan from Maynooth Counselling
I remember sitting in the middle of up to 400 first year students in my first sociology lecture at Trinity, and I was truly afraid. The Edmund Burke Theatre was vast, with rows and rows of seats filled with bubbly, excited teenagers and mature students chatting away. How was I supposed to get to know people in my class when there were literally hundreds of them? And they all seemed to know each other already.
The lecturer welcomed us all and encouraged us to feel free to interact with him, and not to be afraid to ask questions. No way was I going to speak up in front of all these people. In fact, I vowed not to speak to anyone at college. Ever. And I had been a pretty outgoing, confident student at secondary school. But the sheer size of this class was mind numbing. I was petrified.
What I didn’t realise at the time, or what I hadn’t mentally prepared for, was the size of the shift from secondary school to college. I felt so caught up in the excitement of Leaving Cert results, the points race, and getting offered a college place, that never thought about what it would actually be like on day one, or two, or even day ten. I hadn’t anticipated having the absolute fear as I navigated a brand new campus, tried to find where the toilets were, figured out my classes, subjects, assignments, let alone trying to meet new people on top of that.
Looking back now, I realise that of course some anxiety and fear is a natural part of the process of embarking on something new. And there are many young people who go through this kind of social anxiety every academic year. The HSE describes anxiety as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at some point in their life.” But when we don’t understand these thoughts and feelings, or how to spot the physical sensations that go along with them, it can add to the terror.
Learning about some of the physical symptoms of anxiety might help you to link these two things for the first time. When you’re in a new situation, do you feel dizzy sometimes? Or like your heart is racing? What about butterflies in your stomach? Needing to go to the bathroom? All of these are perfectly natural sensations that go along with a feeling of anxiety and the most important thing is to understand and accept them and realise that although they’re not pleasant, they’re not dangerous. And they will pass.
Starting college for the first time is a very exciting time for you, your family and friends. But it can also be very scary. The loneliness of moving away from the comforts and familiarity of home to a new town where you might not know anyone. And joining a college like Maynooth with a record number of new first years this year. 3,150 undergraduates started this academic year swelling the university’s population to more than 12,000 students from 95 different countries. If you weren’t feeling anxious before, are you now?
The aim of this piece is not to add to your fears, but to help you to understand anxiety, to recognise the signs and to control them better. It would be nice to flip it around so anxiety is not in charge of you, but instead you learn to manage and control those anxious feelings.
Other fears for first year students include wondering if you’ve chosen the right course, if you feel up to the work, learning to deal with the increased freedom of not having to turn up for lectures. And there are the lifestyle changes; living away from home for the first time, the financial strain of having to survive within a tight budget and building a network of friends, hobbies and other social activities.
So if you’re feeling anxious, whether it’s having a tight chest, feeling dizzy or having shaky hands, what can you do about it? The first big step is to recognise what it is and not to misinterpret the regular physical sensations of anxiety as an illness, as this can add to your fear.
Here are five handy tools to help you control anxiety:
This is a fairly simple exercise that can be done in a lecture hall, busy bar, or anywhere really. Try to slow down your breathing to the point where you’re counting to seven as you breathe in, and then breathe out counting to 11. This helps to regulate and calm your breathing, brings your consciousness to your body and generally brings about a calmer state of mindfulness.
The key is to make your exhaled breath longer and if counting to 11 is too much at first, try using 7/9 and see how you find that. Counting also helps to distract your thoughts from whatever it was you were worrying about and allows you to feel more physically present in your body in the moment.
2) Don’t fight a panic attack
One of the main ways to better control anxiety is not to fight against it. This may sound weird and counter intuitive, but bear with me. Trying to resist your anxiety can make it become more intense and last for longer. The key is to try to accept it instead and to tolerate it so that the anxious feelings pass faster. When you feel a panic attack coming on, it can help to repeat this mantra to yourself. “This isn’t pleasant. But it’s not dangerous, and it will pass”. Just let your anxiety do its thing and wash over you, rather than fighting against it. Feel and notice the physical effects, and notice them gradually fade away.
3) Measuring your anxiety
Learning how to rate and measure your anxiety is a really helpful way of figuring out what triggers your fears and what situations create most anxiety for you. So, for example if a busy lecture theatre full of people makes you feel anxious, you can learn to rate this fear. First, write down what the trigger is. Then rate your anticipated anxiety or discomfort from 1-10. One is when you’re feeling completely calm and 10 is you at your most anxious.
Then, go and confront this fear by going to the lecture. While you’re there, rate the actual level of your anxiety or discomfort from 1-10 and see how it compares to what you expected. It can also be helpful to rate your level of anxiety half way through the class, and at the end, to see if it has eased or not.
4) Letting go of perfectionism
If you’re the kind of person that strives for perfection in most things you do, college may be a tough challenge. Learning to accept that an essay or a presentation is good enough, instead of perfect, can take a while. Perfectionism can cause you to waste time on tiny details, like tweaking the colours in your Powerpoint presentation or being disgruntled about the 2.2 you got in one paper, rather than the 2.1 you got in three others.
It’s important to recognise that perfectionism can lead to anxiety so look out for the physical signs and learn to allow yourself to accept when you’ve done enough on an assignment and just hand it in. Signs of perfectionism include focussing more on what’s wrong than what’s right, tension in your neck or back or headaches etc.
5) Everyday mindfulness
Mindfulness is a real buzz word at the moment and can seem intimidating to some, or difficult if you have a busy mind. So try incorporating some mindfulness into your daily activities to start off with. For example, while you’re in the shower, try focussing your attention on your body, becoming conscious of your feet on the ground and scanning your attention up through your body, noting any areas of tension along the way. It might be easier to imagine a laser or ray of light passing up through your body as you check in with your body parts to see how you’re feeling.
Try to keep your focus on your physical body and pay attention to the sights, sounds and tastes that you’re experiencing at the time. Also, concentrate on each part of your body as you’re cleaning it and it might help to think about cleansing out the negative, stressful feelings and trying to breathe in positive, clean thoughts. This body scan mindfulness exercise can also be done while brushing your teeth or eating breakfast or dinner, driving or walking to college. Just try and keep your attention in your physical body and the area around you, rather than drifting off into what ifs or fears about the future.
One of the most interesting things about anxiety is the wide variety of things that we fear in our day to day lives. It might make you feel a bit better to hear that some people have a phobia called Arachibutyrophobia, which means they’re afraid of peanut butter sticking to the roof of their mouth. Or there is one called Soceraphobia, which means you’re afraid of parents-in-law. People who have a fear of books have Bibliophobia, and Ombrophobia is being afraid of rain or being rained on. Perhaps now you won’t feel so bad about your fears and challenges trying to navigate the challenging world of third level education.
Hopefully, some of the contents of this article have been helpful or useful to you in some way. If you want further information, you can contact me, Helen Vaughan, Psychotherapist and owner of Maynooth Counselling and Psychotherapy via our website (link: www.maynoothcounselling.ie) or ring me for an appointment on (087) 970 6027.