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2023 Mental Health Week: Tips on dealing with anxiety

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 15 – 21 May 2023, and this year’s theme is anxiety. According to Mind, around 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem each year in England. Our team of Mental Health Advisors are here to tell you everything you need to know about anxiety.

By Elsa Tatam. Published 10 May 2023.

First of all, it’s important to say that anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience. It is a natural reaction to situations that are stressful or uncertain/unfamiliar, and it is designed to keep us safe. When it feels under control, it can help us be alert and focused but sometimes anxiety can  become unmanageable or feel uncontrollable, especially if it is being triggered frequently or goes on for too long. This can lead to poor mental health and, in some cases, a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

 

How can anxiety affect you?

Anxiety can affect how we feel emotionally and physically, and it can impact our thinking and behaviour. It can affect people in different ways, but these are some of the common signs that you may be feeling anxious:

  • Emotional changes: Feeling of dread, unease, on edge, irritability or fearing something bad will happen. Some people can also feel detached from themselves or the world around them.
  • Physical changes: This could include nausea, sweating/feeling hot, restlessness, feeling dizzy/light-headed, having shortness of breath or hyperventilating, heart palpitations, appetite changes, tense muscles, wobbly legs or pins & needles, difficulty concentrating or remembering information and panic attacks.
  • Changes to our thinking: Increased worrying or negative thoughts that may focus on the worst that could happen. You may find yourself dwelling on them or struggling to relax as you cannot switch off from them.
  • Behaviour changes: Avoiding situations, places or people that trigger the anxiety, withdrawing from family or friends, overpreparing/planning, changes to your eating and sleeping and having difficulty maintaining self-care.

 

What triggers anxiety?

But what exactly triggers anxiety? There are lots of different things that can influence how anxious we feel, and what might be a trigger for one person may not be for another. This is because we all find different things stressful, and it is influenced by a multitude of factors - for example, a UK Student Behaviour Report commissioned by Chegg’s Centre for Digital Learning found that 71% of students feel anxious about their classes and schoolwork.

Some situations that are known to generally heighten anxiety include:

  • Running late.
  • Confrontation or conflict with others.
  • Financial or housing concerns.
  • Family or your own health difficulties.
  • Major life events, such as going to university, moving house, getting married, and having children.
  • Worldwide events, such as wars or pandemics.

How anxious we feel can also be influenced by other factors, including:

  • Upsetting or traumatic life experiences, whether they were recent or further in the past.
  • Genetic predispositions.
  • Underlying physical health problems.
  • Alcohol and drug use – including different forms of prescribed medication.
  • Early life experiences that triggered anxiety, stress or fear, such as parents’ separation, bullying, moving schools frequently or abuse.

Sometimes it might be one thing that triggers our anxiety, or it could be many things that have accumulated and caused us to feel overwhelmed. Other times we may not know what is causing our anxiety and this itself can be frustrating or upsetting. If you are struggling to identify what is increasing your anxiety, you could try keeping a mood diary. This is where you write down when you feel anxious, what was happening before the feelings intensified, what situation you are currently in and the thoughts you have. This can help you identify the triggers you find anxiety-provoking.

 

Anxiety affects us the way that it does due to our threat response – also known as ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’. This is a basic biological system that has supported humans in life-threatening situations, such as if you were suddenly faced with an angry lion. Generally, a lot of situations we face daily are not life-threatening, however, our threat response can also be triggered by situations that cause an internal threat, such as a worry or negative thought. These thoughts suggest that the worst-case scenario could happen, which our mind interprets as a danger.

 

When a threat is detected, our fight, flight or freeze response is immediately activated and different hormones are released to prepare our body to either fight the threat, flee from it or in some cases freeze. The response can cause our minds to race and increase the number of negative thoughts we are having. The more worries we have, the more the response is activated and so you can end up in a vicious cycle. Sometimes the response can be so intense it can lead to panic attacks. Panic attacks typically reduce within 20 minutes, but you can still feel anxious afterwards. The more frequently our fight, flight or freeze response is triggered, the more hyperaware our mind becomes to ‘threats’ and the more easily the threat response is triggered. Therefore, things that may not have made you anxious in the past could start to trigger anxiety. This is why people who are experiencing simultaneous external demands, such as multiple deadlines from university or work, may start feeling more anxious than usual.

 

How to help manage anxiety

Although anxiety is something we all experience, it can become very challenging if it is happening regularly or is starting to impact your day-to-day life. However, there are ways to help make it feel manageable and there is support available to help you. Below is a list of recommendations on things that can help with anxiety:

 

  • Incorporating the five steps to wellbeing in your life. These are connecting with others, being physically active, learning new skills, giving to others and using mindfulness to help you pay attention to your present moment. All these steps have been suggested as they can increase positivity and help you connect with others and the world around you.

 

  • If you notice your thoughts or worries are heightening and the feeling of anxiety is intensifying, try to take a pause by utilising different breathing techniques, such as 4-7-8 breathing. This method involves closing your mouth and breathing through your nose, counting to 4 in your head. Hold your breath and count to 7. Breathe out your mouth for 8. Repeat three more times.

 

  • Keeping a basic routine to help you feel grounded and ensure you are looking after yourself. This can include having a set time to go to bed and wake up, having reminders for things you can forget when under pressure, such as to eat and drink water regularly, and taking regular breaks from studying.

 

 

We understand that our students might need extra support adapting to their new lifestyle and their studies. Our Student Support Services are here for you every step of the way, whether it’s personal or study based.