How to cope with anxiety

When Scott Aylwin helped prepare his two sons for university, he advised them to “find your tribe.”

That sort of parental counsel often goes unspoken, lost beneath admonitions to study hard, use money responsibly or have fun. But Scott knew one of the key factors in his sons’ health and academic success was surrounding themselves with the right network.

“And when I say tribe, I mean like-minded people, people with the same kinds of interests or outlooks as yourself,” says Scott, adding that it might take awhile to find them. “They are there, that’s the reassuring thing. It doesn’t matter what your interest is, it doesn’t matter what your personality type is, you can find your tribe at a large university.”

Scott, Senior Director, Addiction and Mental Health, says university can be a difficult transition for some students as they manage societal and parental expectations, whether real or perceived, and find their place in a new social setting.

“It’s a strange paradox because all around you there is nothing but people,” says Scott. “It’s a crush of humanity. But at the same time, it can feel exceptionally lonely.”

A growing body of evidence shows increasing numbers of students are wrestling with their mental health, and anxiety is the most common concern. In the 2016 National College Health Assessment (NCHA), two-thirds of Canadian post-secondary students said they had felt overwhelming anxiety within the previous 12 months, and 18.4 per cent said they had been diagnosed or treated for anxiety in the prior year, up from 12.3 per cent three years earlier. Citing that research, the Alberta government recently committed $25.8 million over three years to support post-secondary mental health across the province.

Anxiety in itself is not a bad thing, says Scott. In fact, it is essential for our survival.

“Anxiety is a response to a perceived threat. If you and I are in the jungle and there’s a tiger in the bushes, (anxiety) is very good because it will keep us on our toes and ensure we respond quickly in the event the tiger chases us,” says Scott. 

“It keeps the organism (us) safe. Without it, we would die.”

The problem comes when we perceive there to be threats that we have, in fact, manufactured.

“If I’m hesitant and fearful to make a presentation because I think people might laugh or think badly of me, that’s something I’ve constructed in my own mind,” says Scott. “It’s not an actual threat. It’s not actually going to harm me.”

The symptoms of anxiety can be behavioural, cognitive or physical. They include a gastrointestinal response like a knot in your stomach or feeling like you have to go to the bathroom. It can surface as feeling tension in your neck and shoulders, having tremors or worrying about bad things happening to you.

The University of Alberta has participated in the NCHA survey since 2011. Kevin Friese, Assistant Dean of Health and Wellness, says in each survey they have seen marginal increases in the percentage of students who say they feel anxious. Students may be on their own for the first time and having to learn to juggle academics, work-life balance and relationships. Kevin says other factors that could contribute to student anxiety include expectations to succeed and pressure to have a clear career path.

Anxiety and post-secondary students

The good news is anxious students are not just disclosing their struggles through anonymous surveys, they’re also seeking help. In 2017-18, nearly half of the university medical clinic’s 32,000 visits were identified as seeking support for a mental health disorder. The university offers a range of services for students, from peer support groups and community support training sessions to psychological and psychiatric services. Kevin says part of the university’s approach focuses on prevention, encouraging students to build social networks and develop healthy habits around nutrition, exercise and sleep. Research shows that a lack of sleep can affect mental health.

“The reality is, unfortunately, we still see with our student population a real struggle with life balance.”

Balance needs to include students giving themselves permission to fail and periodically stepping away from academics, says Kevin. “And identifying the other things that help you in terms of mitigating anxiety, whether it’s taking a walk or doing yoga or rock climbing or whatever that may be.”

Talking to someone and getting help is key, says Scott.

“Anxiety is typically quite treatable for most people. It is probably the most treatable mental health disorder. Medications can be very effective, stress management works well, and challenging thinking errors helps to add rationality to an emotional state that is being driven by misinterpreted threats. It’s unfortunate that people will often not reach out for years and they’ll just suffer in silence.”

Scott says there are steps people can take to lessen anxiety. 

Remind yourself it won’t last

It’s helpful to know that anxiety is a state, which means it’s temporary. “So while at any given time I might feel anxious, it is very useful to remember that I will not feel like I do at this moment, forever,” says Scott.

Remind yourself of things that give you comfort and calm

Find what works for you. For some people, it’s yoga. For others, it’s music. It could be sports or family or meditation. Scott says you can either engage in the actual activity or distract your anxious thoughts by imagining a calming activity or situation.

“When you’re in a state of anxiety, go to your happy place.” It might sound like a cliché, but the benefit of this type of visualization is grounded in science, he says. 

Keep a diary

Start documenting the times of day and situations where you feel most anxious, paying attention to patterns: how you feel when you’re around certain people or how you feel when certain people are not around.

“Journalling can be incredibly informative,” says Scott.

“When you journal and start to figure out when and how your thoughts arise, you can start to untangle some of the unproductive thoughts and beliefs that might be fuelling your anxiety.”

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