What is anxiety?
Everyone will have moments where they feel anxious - extreme feelings of nervousness that often have physical symptoms like sweating or feelings of “butterflies” in your stomach - but extended or prolonged experiences like this are often signs of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders range from mild to severe, and there are several different types, including: generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and various phobia-related disorders.
Plenty of research is showing the increasing numbers of anxiety in students. A UCL study indicated that young people in higher education in England are at an increased risk of depression and anxiety, compared to their peers not in HE. The first author of this study, Dr Tayla McCloud, said:
Dr Tayla McCloud
Polls on HE students show that almost three quarters (71%) of them feel anxious about their classes or assignments, and less than 48% said they feel comfortable asking questions.
As for further education, an Association of Colleges report stated that 99% of colleges reported having students diagnosed with severe anxiety.
Why is anxiety so common amongst students?
Many are putting this increased risk of anxiety for students down to the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s certainly been a factor. For example, over a third of further education students stated that their mental health has worsened since Autumn 2021.
Furthermore, a study that analysed the impact of COVID-19 on long term health found that mental health had deteriorated from pre-pandemic scores.
But COVID is not the only cause of students’ anxiety. Additional factors contributing to increased risk of mental illness include: moving away from home, the stress of developing a new social identity, workload and financial pressures, to name a few.
Classroom and work-based stressors can also be the root cause of anxiety for students. Group work assignments and presentations can be a challenge for any student, but they can pose a significant hurdle to students with anxiety disorders. Social anxiety can cause more stress than exams, even causing distress to the point of illness.
Anxieties like this that stem from fears around public speaking can cause students to completely avoid any situations where they may have to speak, which can lead to some withdrawing completely from their degree programmes.
And if students complete their degrees without dropping out, there's an interesting dynamic at play post-graduation. While 79% of university graduates express confidence in securing a job, nearly a third identify anxiety as their primary emotion upon entering the workforce, surpassing feelings of confidence (23%) and uncertainty (16%). While there’s a lack of research into exactly why graduates feel this way, suggested causes include uncertainty about which career path they should follow, fear of receiving rejections, and feeling as if they have a lack of work experiences or skills.
It’s also key to mention that the levels of poor mental health intersect with other factors beyond environmental. For example, certain groups of students are at higher risk than their peers, including students from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, mature students, LGBTQ+ students, and care-experienced students.
Mental health is a complex beast, but there are certain coping strategies and tools out there that institutions can offer their students in order to make a difference.
How to help students with anxiety: coping strategies and tools
Generally, there are three main types of coping strategy: active coping, passive coping, and avoidance. Active coping typically involves movements to adapt how you feel, characterised by strategies such as problem-solving, while passive coping is more maladaptive and results in behaviours such as blaming yourself or targeting yourself with negative emotions. Avoidance coping, as the name suggests, is when you adapt your behaviour to completely avoid thinking about, feeling, or doing the thing that is making you anxious.
It’s important to promote active coping strategies in order to help students build mindsets that can help them tackle anxieties they have now and may have in the future. Traditionally, anxiety is aided through in-person counselling sessions, which often trial Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as a first step.
However, a substantial number of students don’t seek formal help, and so with the concerning increase in mental health problems among this group, it’s key to move beyond traditional forms of support and provide alternative, more accessible interventions aimed to help students with anxiety.
Encourage the building of social networks
And we don’t mean Instagram and Facebook. Though they can be a tool to do so, of course. By “social networks”, we mean the building of relationships with peers and staff to prevent students from feeling lonely or like they don’t have anyone to turn to for support.
We've seen that a big boost to well-being comes from having solid, supportive social connections. One way we encourage this is by promoting various clubs and societies - after all, everyone has their thing, and chances are you won't be alone in your niche. . Joint interests are often the best way to build bonds between peers.
It’s also vital to have a visible student support presence on campus, which is as accessible as possible so that students know they have staff to go to for support.
These student support centres should have at least a basic knowledge of anxiety support, if not formal qualifications. There are many non-profit organisations out there with free resources. For example, for FE colleges specifically, there is the Anna Freud Centre, which focus on supporting schools and FE colleges to embed good mental health practices, with plenty of free resources, such as:
- Five resources for FE staff on how to support students, covering a range of common mental health concerns
- Their 2021 ‘Working towards mentally healthy schools and FE colleges: the voice of students’ report
Encourage mindfulness activities
Simpler advice you can offer your students include the integration of mindfulness exercises into their daily routines. There are a variety of different types of exercises to do - such as breathing exercises or journaling - and different ones will work for different students. Students who participated in daily mindfulness practices reported an increased sense of calm and a decreased feeling of anxiety. Visual journaling (journaling through both writing and drawing) has been proven to lead to a decrease in anxiety.
Running workshops or even simply trying out breathing exercises before or after classes can help to encourage students to adopt these behaviours themselves. Combine this with an emphasis on self-care, such as promoting exercise as a helpful coping strategy, and offering tools such as the Feeling Good app can act as intervention for students dealing with anxiety.
Promote active coping strategies
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do to help students with anxiety prepare for life beyond university or college is to provide them with opportunities to enact active coping strategies.
One way to do this is by offering resources such as worksheets to encourage students to think over the potential triggers for their anxiety in their own time in a safe space such as their own home or accommodation. Worksheets focused on cognitive strategy, such as these, can help students to alter their thinking around the work, event, or situation that is causing them anxiety.
Another common active coping strategy is seeking information, which can help to alleviate anxieties, particularly work- or assignment-related anxiety. By making detailed information about courses easily accessible, as well as ensuring educators have a clear and open line of communication with their students, can ensure that those who are anxious about certain unanswered questions can easily find the solutions they need.
Another active coping strategy for students is giving them the chance to build resilient mindsets around that which triggers them. One way in which to do this is by allowing students to reframe their anxieties through simulation or roleplay. By giving them an opportunity to tackle the triggers for their anxiety in a psychologically safe environment where any potential “negative consequences” aren’t real, students can develop skills and confidence to help alleviate some of their worries about certain situations.
Through our immersive learning scenarios, Bodyswaps can help students to tackle anxieties relating to presentations, public speaking, and group work, helping them build and feel more confident in their soft skills relating to these moments.
Improving soft skills to help students with anxiety thrive
Bodyswaps provides learners with an immersive, safe space to practise the activities that make them anxious, without the worries of another person being there to watch, or worrying about peers’ judgement
Equip your students with the tools to overcome classroom and public speaking anxieties through Bodyswaps. Download our Discovery Package today to learn more.