How to Overcome Academic Anxiety
As If Studying Wasn't Hard Enough Already
Academic anxiety can negatively impact more than just your studying and test performance. If left unchecked, much like any other bout of acute stress, it can begin to define you outside of the classroom. Before I begin detailing ways we can curb the effects of anxiety, allow me to (somewhat ironically) preface that not all stress is inherently bad.
Think of it this way, your brain perceives negative academic performance as a threat that needs to be confronted. The ensuing stress is your body's way of telling you it's time to either "fight" or to take "flight". This episode of stressful misery will usually last as long as your brain is not satisfied you have fulfilled one or the other.
So, what can we do about it? Let's have a look at the form of academic anxiety you are suffering from and take it from there.
Types Of Academic Anxiety
According to a study on academic anxiety by the center for learning and teaching at Cornell University, there are four main ways academic stress gets to us:
Worrying - Thoughts of failure, rejection or lack of worth are vicious cycles that can ultimately lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to deal with this channel of negativity we need to observe it happening. If you catch yourself reinforcing failure, try simply telling yourself the opposite thereby correcting your internal dialogue. While it may seem like a trivial and vacuous exercise, it is well known to drastically improve our outlook on life. Modern fields of study such as neuro-linguistic programming (or NLP) may be of use. Here is a handy guide on how to correct negative self-talk.
Our emotions - Thoughts are not the only threat to our concentration, occasionally our bodies are too. As previously mentioned, sometimes our body's flight or fight response causes us to succumb to our emotions. Symptoms may include panic attacks, sweaty hands, chest pains, pupil dilation, stomach pains and a rapid heart beat.
If your panic is uncontrollable, it may be a good idea to see a doctor, who will be able to advise you far better than I ever could (we may be dealing with chemical process which can easily be corrected with certain kinds of medicine).
In all cases, two great ways to approach episodes of panic and worry are to practice a systematic relaxation technique, a breathing technique or to do a moderate amount of exercise now and then.
Interference - Sometimes we become so fixated on a problem, we can have trouble seeing anything else. An example of negative interference is focusing far too long on questions we are less able to deal with, and not giving ourselves enough space and time to impress with our knowledge on the ones we are confident with. This behavior also makes us believe things are going worse than they are.
If you don't have access to an academic counselor who might be able to advise you, improving your performance may simply be a question of allocating your attention more evenly (and not on the clock).
Study skills - Sometimes we (and I do mean we -- I am certainly no exception) shoot ourselves in the foot by approaching studying without a routine, schedule or plan. As redundant as it may sound, reducing the instances of stress due to poor study skills can be the figurative straw that broke academic anxiety's back.
Improving our studying skill-set can include (thereby also alleviating stress):
- Developing a studying routine (not leaving it too late, or allowing work to pile up over time).
- Switching to group study from individually studying if it isn't working out for you (and vice versa).
- Don't be afraid to ask others for help.
- Go easy on yourself and take breaks by establishing a no-study time of the day where you do something of your choosing.
A Note On Public Speaking
To many, academic anxiety has very little to do with the act of studying itself, rather, with the publicity that sometimes comes with it. Attending most academic institutions involves "appearing" before a crowd at some point and can cause the socially anxious to experience a palpable amount of panic. Overcoming the fear of public speaking, for instance, is one of the most predominant phobias in society (more people state they fear public speaking than they do death!). Sometimes the mere act of realizing that a large portion of society understands our nervousness is enough to help us face the ordeal.
To those afflicted by this particular well of fear, I would urge you to begin by drowning your inner-perfectionist, learning how to break the ice with a humorous bio or introduction, start strong, and employ the aforementioned relaxation techniques before beginning. That, however, is only the opinion of someone who feels every bit as wretched as some of you at the prospect of getting on a stage -- I can relate!