Anxiety is the most common problem for which students come to the Counseling Center. Anxiety can be caused by stress—by relatively brief stresses, like exams, and by longer-lasting ones, like having a loved one with a serious illness, or feeling you don't fit in because of the way you look, or because of your sexual orientation. Anxiety can also develop without obvious stress. It can “run in the family.” Regardless of the cause, if anxiety is interfering with your life, counseling can help you.
Anxiety can look different depending on the person, but it typically involves troubling thoughts and emotions (like fear, dread, and racing thoughts) and physical sensations (like rapid heartbeat, sweating, and shortness of breath). Some anxiety is needed to motivate and get you focused, but excessive anxiety can become problematic. If anxiety permeates your daily mood and interferes with your functioning, it can be helpful to learn healthy coping strategies to better manage anxious symptoms.
Students struggle with many kinds of anxiety: feeling “stressed out,” panic attacks, shyness, public speaking anxiety, test anxiety, excessive worrying, and obsessions and compulsions. There are many treatments available that can be specifically tailored to you depending on the type of anxiety, the length of time you’ve been experiencing the anxiety, and your previous history of treatment.
This is the most common kind of anxiety. Students describe feeling nauseous, on the verge of tears, and without their normal self-confidence. They feel indecisive, irritable, “on edge,” and “ready to snap.” They’re often having trouble concentrating and sleeping. Headaches and other physical problems are typical.
About 10% of students will experience panic attacks at some point, usually starting in college. For some, these attacks become chronic.
A panic attack (or “anxiety” or “adrenaline” attack) is an episode of intense fear and dread, along with physical symptoms not normally experienced in the absence of physical exertion or sudden fright. Usual physical symptoms include rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, nausea, sweating, flushing, shaking, and lightheadedness, among many others. These symptoms can fade away after a few minutes or may persist for up to 30 minutes.
Social anxiety is characterized by intense anxiety and self-consciousness in social situations, enough to make a person regularly avoid or really strain to endure such situations. Panic attacks in, or in anticipation of, such situations may occur. Physical symptoms like blushing, trembling, nausea, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and sweating are common. In some cases, the person is afraid of one or a few types of situations, like making conversation, speaking in class (see below), or eating in public, but usually the anxiety is more general. The common fear, though, is that one will somehow embarrass oneself or be negatively evaluated by others.
Public Speaking Anxiety
Fear of public speaking often appears in early adolescence, but is not a major problem until college, when more public speaking is required in many courses. Students may "blank-out," freeze, feel like they’re "talking gibberish,” or fear that they are visibly trembling, sweating, etc. If left unaddressed,, students sometimes drop classes or change majors to avoid public speaking.
Some amount of anxiety around testing is, of course, expected. Without it, you might not study or concentrate adequately. When excessive, however, such anxiety can interfere with test-taking. As with any kind of anxiety, test anxiety involves distressing levels of physical symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, nausea and lightheadedness. It also involves cognitive interference, like "blanking out," difficulty understanding questions, and trouble organizing one's thoughts. It can also lead to panic attacks and the feeling that one must leave the room.
Obsessions and Compulsions
Obsessions are highly persistent thoughts, impulses or images that one realizes, at least initially, are senseless or exaggerated. They are unpleasant and intrusive, causing guilt, fear or other negative feelings. Some typical obsessions are exaggerated fears of contamination with germs, doubts whether you’ve done something correctly (“did I really lock the door?”), or thoughts of harming someone you don’t really want to harm, and might even love. Compulsions are rituals or repetitive behaviors performed in response to an obsession to ease or neutralize it. Typical compulsions include counting (like, counting one’s steps for fear that not counting will cause something bad to happen), checking (like repeatedly checking to be sure the door is locked), and excessive hand-washing to ease fears of contamination. When these rituals interfere significantly with one's functioning, they are called "obsessive-compulsive disorder" (OCD).
Resources for Anxiety
For exercises and videos to help reduce anxiety, please view our Relaxation Resources and suggested Apps.
Counseling provides effective relief for most forms of anxiety, whether it is brief individual counseling, group counseling, or more long- term treatment. If you would like to discuss anxiety, with a counselor, please call 410-617-2273 or stop by the Counseling Center (HU 150) to schedule an appointment. A counselor can work with you to better understand your concerns and how best to alleviate your anxious symptoms.