Anxiety & Stress

image of a water strider on the water - links to anxiety & stress page

Stress is a response to an event. Anxiety is a reaction to stress that continues after stressful events have resolved.

Whilst stress and anxiety are used interchangeably, understanding how they differ is a really good basis upon which to explore how we tackle them. Stress and anxiety share many emotional and physical symptoms, and both can usefully improve our performance. When experienced at high levels for long periods, we can however become distressed and unwell, and our performance can suffer. There is a vast amount of information available to us online around what to do to manage stress and anxiety and links are provided below, yet it remains the primary reason people seek counselling. So what are the common things that block us from putting strategies into practice and how might we give these a boost.

Strategies often suggested

A quick search of the internet will reveal the following suggestions:

  • Balance your commitments
  • Prioritise rest or relaxation time alongside completing study or work commitments
  • Take a break – 1 day off a week, a few hours off every day and 10 minutes off every hour
  • Exercise 
  • Talk to friends or family
  • Delegate or prioritise
  • Get enough sleep
  • Learn to say “no”
  • Meditate
  • Small acts of bravery – try something new to build confidence
  • Practice relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation
  • Slow breathing
  • Cut back on coffee or foods/drinks that make you feel jittery
  • Challenge your thoughts and look for “facts”
  • Plan “worry time”
  • Learn from others through talking about your experiences or joining a support group
  • Be kind to yourself if you are feeling anxious, rather than being harsh  
  • Learn to plan instead of worrying

Blocks

Below you will find three common blocks (barriers and misconceptions) that can prevent us from addressing our stress or anxiety.

  • The strategies don’t work for me

    Our beliefs about how something will help and what that will look like significantly impact our assessment of whether it’s effective. We know that running on the treadmill for 5 minutes will not suddenly make running 10km immediately achievable. Strategies aren’t instant remedies and like anything we become good at, they require time and regular practice.

  • They might work for a while but nothing ‘solves’ anxiety or stress, it always comes back

    Anxiety has a critical function in helping us to avoid danger. In the modern world, anxiety continues to signal danger but has also evolved to signal when something is new or unique. In an ever changing world, we will regularly come upon things that are new or make us feel uncomfortable and require effort to engage with. Anxiety is not a problem to “solve” but a signal that we can learn how to interact with differently.

  • I'll feel embarrassed/ashamed/scared and won't be able to cope

    Trying new things forces us to face one of our core human fears - fear of the unknown. Our fight or flight system activates, often leaving our bodies feeling tense, jittery and uncomfortable. From shallow breathing to fluttering stomachs, anxiety can feel awful.

    It also influences our thoughts and generates 'predictions' that influence our behaviour. For example, if we think "I won't be able to cope in this situation", chances are we will avoid it. Even if the situation isn't completely new, the outcome is unknown. Fear of failure adds itself to the mix and our instinct is to avoid, avoid, avoid.

    Trying something requires a little effort and making space for difficult feelings takes practice. Luckily, uni is full of opportunities to experience new things. If nothing changes, nothing changes so why not embrace the new with some of the skills on this page.

    For example, start by making a plan like this:

    1. What do I want to try? Is there an activity you have always wanted to try? There may be a club on campus to help.

    2. Take some slow breaths. Our breath drives our fight or flight response so it can also sooth it. Push your feet into the ground and focus on breathing into your belly button. Put your hand onto your stomach and count your breaths.

    3. Accept that fear is part of doing something new - some helpful thoughts include, "this feeling will pass, it's my mind trying to keep me safe, I've got this"

    4. Take a brave step forward - make a plan, arrange to meet a friend, or tell someone you care about and get them to ask you how it went afterwards.

Boosters

Below are three things you can do to boost success.

  • Start with one strategy only

    Commit to one strategy alone to begin with and make a detailed plan around how you are going to put it into practice. Make a specific time, think about how you will handle things that interfere, tell someone you trust about what you’re doing or write your plan down. Choose something that is within your control and plan to do it imminently.

  • Set a morning routine

    Set a morning routine that is likely to promote a sense of calm and control. You might change your wake up time to allow 15 minutes to set your tasks or priorities for the day. If reaching for your phone is your first action of the morning, ask yourself, “How does this influence everything that comes next?” If it’s useful, do it. If it subtly influences your mood or increases anxiety or stress, postpone it until later in the day.

  • Incorporate your strategies

    Incorporate strategies into your daily plan and link them to activities you already do. For example, if looking at your diary in the morning and taking time to plan your priorities for the day helps to build a sense of calm and control, leave it open near the kettle so you see it when making a coffee. Coupling activities like planning whilst having a morning tea or coffee might increase the likelihood of forming a helpful habit.