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Students experiences with anxiety at university


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Anxiety and panic attacks are scary, debilitating and can leave you feeling helpless.

It’s becoming more common for students to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. A YouGov study showed that 1 in 4 students in the UK are suffering from mental health issues, more frequently females. Over 74% of these students have anxiety issues, and over 70% experience both anxiety and depression related issues. The number of students seeking help at University is also on the rise – 1 in 5 had utilised the mental health services, seeing a counsellor. So, how can you cope and what is it like to have anxiety at university – surrounded by a new place with academic pressure and completely new people?

As a sufferer myself from age 15, it’s safe to say that I’ve had my fair share of ‘bad’ mental health days. When I was first diagnosed, I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate and go to school for fear of being judged by people who I thought didn’t understand. Being at university has certainly made me realise just how many people are affected by mental health; some of them being open about it, others suffering silently.

From Year 10, I have made huge progress – from panic attacks every day to academic and social confidence, becoming the outgoing, life-loving extrovert that I really am. Friends and teachers couldn’t believe how different I was. By the time Freshers came about, I hadn’t had a panic attack for months and from the beginning, I was known as ‘the social butterfly’. However, this all changed when, after having 2 awful periods in 3 weeks, I was put onto a new pill, ‘Cerelle’. I became very depressed and anxious again, having panic attacks and being teary every day. I didn't have the energy to socialise or motivation to live life how I wanted. I questioned whether I was good enough for my university and my course. Now, on a different pill, I don’t suffer anywhere near as much as I did in that difficult time period. I was so lucky that I had an amazing support network from my family, flatmates, boyfriend and friends, that made being away from home with anxiety less daunting.

To explore what it’s like having anxiety at university further, some students have shared their experiences:

Annie, Royal Holloway:

"I go through phases. Sometimes, I feel so confident and I’ll be the person that I know I can be – but then for no reason at all, I start to shut myself off. It’s hard because it takes a lot for me to open up to people, which means most people here have no idea what’s going on. They just think I’m being antisocial or ‘boring’, but sometimes I simply don’t want to leave my room. Even in the kitchen, the thought of bumping into someone in halls is just way too much."

Lizzy, University of Exeter:

"After a traumatic event before university, I started having panic attacks and anxiety, triggered by certain things which made me hysterical and unable to go to lectures. It was terrifying because I had no control, and despite me wanting to take back control and go to lectures, it was physically impossible. Luckily, it has lessened as time has passed, and I don’t get frequent anxiety. The worst part about the attacks was knowing that it wasn’t normal for me."

Guy, Royal Holloway:

"My mental health issues at university have been cyclical. A common thread of behaviour would be having anxiety attacks over a certain piece of work or general academic stress, but, due to other mental health issues such as depression, I have remained unmotivated despite panicking about an issue. This would, naturally, increase my feelings of anxiety due to procrastination, resulting in many pieces being completed the night before a deadline. Consequently, I feel that this has resulted in me not achieving the marks that I should be attaining."

Kit, University of Exeter:

"My anxiety basically makes it really hard for me to be in a room full of people. I get hot flashes, feel sick and dizzy, and, in a worst-case scenario, pass out. Packed exam halls are a nightmare and sometimes even the thought of sitting in a crowded lecture theatre makes me throw up. Logically, I know that I should seek some sort of help, or at least disclose my anxiety to the University, but somehow that would make it too real. I wouldn’t be able to ignore that I had a problem anymore."

Bethan, Gloucester University:

"My anxiety hit hugely during Freshers; I struggled to go out and talk to my flatmates and found myself staying in my room. Even now that I’m closer to my flatmates, there are still times that I stay in my room because I’m scared that they don’t actually like me and that they wouldn’t understand if I told them about my anxiety. I’ve found that I can’t go to my lecturers to ask for help with work because I struggle expressing how I feel. On days where I’ve had to skip lectures, because I can’t bring myself to go outside, I’ve been unable to explain absences. I’ve found my medication helps (propanolol) but sometimes I can’t bring myself to take it because I feel like I shouldn’t have to take tablets to not feel constantly nervous or judged."

George, University of Exeter:

"For me, my anxiety hit in the first couple of assignments when I had a deep feeling that I was in way over my head. I felt that everyone around me was smarter and my anxiety manifested itself in a lot of self-doubts. I was very lucky that I had good friends on my course who were also struggling, so I was able to talk about it."

Meg, University of Exeter:

"At the start of university, I mainly suffered from generalised anxiety, not only in the fear of failure but also concerns for the future whilst being in a new environment. Making friends, deciding who to live with in second year, and the course all seemed utterly overwhelming as I knew they were important regarding the future. Particularly during the first few weeks, I struggled with constant worry over what other people thought of me and became less confident in myself. Even though my confidence has definitely grown, there will always be moments where I feel anxious and sometimes there isn’t even a cause. Often, it stems from low self-esteem, over-thinking about others’ perceptions, and generally being a sensitive person. Surrounding myself with supportive people has definitely helped to prevent it."

Tab, University of Birmingham:

"I feel like my mental health definitely impacted my outlook during my first few months – it felt like my anxiety was in overdrive because of the change. I’d find myself worrying about seemingly everything possible to worry about at university, like whether I’d made the right choice and whether I’d manage to keep up with the workload. It also made me feel pretty isolated because I obviously was apart from everyone who’d provided a support network in the past. Luckily, things didn’t stay that way and I’m now adoring my time here."

As shown by the students above, mental health affects different people in different aspects of university life; there are a huge variety of triggers. Freshers and first year generally is a period of emotional instability so it’s definitely normal to feel anxious or overwhelmed. Social anxiety tends to manifest itself in isolation, so, if you’re someone who suffers or know someone who you think may be isolating themselves – it is SO important to reach out. From my experience, having friends who had anxiety themselves or at least tried to comprehend it made me feel like I was understood. It’s hard for your friends to understand why you are isolating yourself if you don’t tell them why.

Furthermore, more and more students are acknowledging mental health issues - 52% of students know between 1 and 5 people that suffer. Encouragingly, 74% of a student sample have said they’d be mindful and show concern, and 19% said that it wouldn’t affect how they saw a person. A lot of my friends, myself included, also suffered from course-related self-esteem issues – but, as I was told by my Tutor, you have been accepted to do the course and you wouldn’t be at the university if you weren’t good enough.

Universities also have services in place for mental health. These include group led sessions (sometimes but not always led by students) about various anxieties, such as presentation anxiety and 1 to 1 counselling sessions, including CBT. They can also refer you to NHS services, though there are usually waiting lists. There are also extenuating circumstances for deadline extensions and the option of circumstantial consideration in exams. These services are generally well received – 30% said that they were very helpful and 45% said that they were somewhat helpful.

From someone who absolutely hated the idea of needing help, there is nothing humiliating about asking for help when you need it. I only really needed one session, but I found that my university is individually tailored and I’ve had a lot of pastoral care from my seminar leaders. Although it can seem all-consuming, anxiety shouldn’t, and doesn’t define you or stop you from enjoying University life.

If you are struggling with mental health issues and need help, there are many ways you can get it:

-Reach out to your university. Tell a professor or speak to the university's mental health advisor. 

- Go see your GP and discuss any issues you have had.

- Call the Samaritans at 116 123. They are open 24/7, 365 days of the year. The number is free to call and you can phone them to talk about whatever you're struggling with.

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