Feeling anxious, stressed or that they're "going to pieces" are common concerns reported by students who come to the University Counseling and Testing Center. Test anxiety, social anxiety and panic attacks are different anxiety disorders that have crept into our everyday vocabulary and often generate images of loss of control.
Despite these examples, however, anxiety itself is not always a negative. In fact, anxiety is often a necessary ingredient to propel us to perform at our optimal level. In low to moderate levels, anxiety can be an energizing and motivating force. In fact, when anxiety or stress is low or absent, students often feel bored, disengaged, or unmotivated. As anxiety rises, students report feeling more invested and interested in achieving success.
One expression of this optimal stress in the classroom is when students are engaged and connecting with the material being covered. At these times, learning seems to occur effortlessly. Stress that leads to optimal performance is called “eustress.” Eustress is an important part of engaging with the world and is an important source of motivation. Similar feelings can be experienced in other aspects of college life, such as building social connections with peers, honing new skills and discovering previously unknown cultures and customs.
Stress added on top of one’s optimal stress level, however, can lead to a decline in performance. This is when students can suffer test anxiety or anxiety attacks. Symptoms can include rapid and shallow breathing, increased heart rate, inability to focus or recall learned material, and a feeling of panic.
If your son or daughter reports confusion about why he or she didn’t do better on midterm exams, in spite of the fact that they studied and learned the material, test anxiety might be at play. Or if they don’t leave their room to make friends because they feel too overwhelmed by the prospect of talking to people they don’t know, social anxiety might be responsible. Another symptom of disordered anxiety is when your student is unable to sleep because they can’t stop thinking about the preceding day or what will happen tomorrow. In each of these cases, anxiety may be limiting your student’s academic success and participation in college life.
Because some anxiety disorder symptoms (i.e. social withdrawal, insomnia, irritability, diminished attention span and distractibility) can overlap with other disorders such as depression or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a referral to a mental health professional is usually a good first step toward resolving the issue. Once the problem is identified, students with anxiety disorders often respond favorably to treatment. Sometimes just the idea that their anxiety is understandable and even predictable can be enough to start giving students a sense of mastery and control over their state of mind.
Ron Miyaguchi, Ph.D.