Ask Dr. P. | Useful Strategies for Dealing with Anxiety

Ask Dr. P.


How can I deal with my anxiety?


In the highly stressful world of college life, anxiety is as common as exams and presentations.

While a moderate amount of anxiety can be helpful in improving your performance, high levels can be debilitating. When anxiety is very high, it is difficult to concentrate or remember much of what you studied. Excessive stress is not only painful but it is very unhealthy over the long haul. Thus, managing your anxiety level before it gets out-of-hand becomes critical.

What is anxiety?

More than 25% of college students report anxiety symptoms and more than 40% of freshmen say they feel overwhelmed by all the work facing them. Anxiety is the main reason students seek psychological counseling at their university counseling centers. In contrast to fear, which occurs in response to outside dangers like a stranger chasing you, gunshots ringing out in the night, and/ or tornadoes ready to hit your hometown, anxiety is a reaction to internal or psychological dangers. When you’re fearful of being rejected, shamed, humiliated, or exposed to the world as inadequate in some way, you get anxious.

The most common of all anxieties is “performance anxiety” and its twin sister “test anxiety.” In both these instances, you are afraid of failing, of looking stupid or dumb, of letting others down, of being humiliated by your incompetence. Performance anxiety is likely to occur anytime you are doing something that is important to you—whether you are giving a speech in class, performing on the basketball court, playing your musical instrument for an audition, trying out for a part in a play, or taking a test. In all these examples, the fear of failure can run rampant with accompanying physical reactions such as trembling hands or voice, butterflies in your stomach, frequent bathroom runs, and pounding heart. While you are not running from a tiger in the jungle, your body reacts as if you are, and the anxiety that stems from psychological danger is just as real and intense as the fear about impending physical peril.

What can you do about anxiety?

The best thing you can do is to pursue some type of relaxation training, such as muscle relaxation training, mindfulness, positive imagery, meditation, yoga, or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which strives to change unhealthy thinking patterns that often accompany strong emotion. Be aware that not all of the relaxation strategies will work for you, but if you find one or two that do, work hard on perfecting them for yourself.

Relax your muscles

You might find that learning how to relax your muscles (one by one) will reduce the physical tension you feel. If so, following along with an audio guide, podcast, or YouTube video that gives you detailed instructions on how to relax is worth a few minutes of online research. Along with this, practicing diaphragmatic breathing (slow and deep breathing) for 10-15 minutes each day would be a quick way of getting your heart and body to quiet down at any time, but especially right before a test or a performance.

Practice positive self-talk

Self-talk (a part of CBT), which entails saying soothing things to yourself, like “calm down,” “it’s no big deal”, or “you’ll survive” can be helpful.

Recall positive imagery

Positive Imagery, that is, thinking of a positive scene (walking in the woods, sunbathing on the beach, your favorite vacation) can be a way of distracting yourself to calm down.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness entails focusing on an objective reality, and not the many catastrophic fears in your mind. When you're highly anxious, the reality of the situation gets overlooked and you get lost in overblown and imaginary dangers. Looking the catastrophic fear in the eye, that is, asking yourself "what is the worst thing that can happen?" and then coming up with a plan for dealing with the catastrophe, such as, "so if I fail, I'll take the class again," can reduce the intensity of your anxiety.

Just before my many talks, I have found that focusing on something objective, such as someone in the audience or my Power Point slides, for a few minutes before the presentation took my mind off myself, calmed me down, and enabled me to pursue the rest of the talk with very little anxiety.

Practice mindfulness and muscle relaxation right now with
Propeller Collective's "Mindful Moment" video on YouTube:

Overall, try out different techniques to see which ones will work for you! If your anxiety level continues to be high, go to the university counseling center as soon as possible to see what the staff recommend. The very act of talking about your difficulties with a caring staff member can be helpful, as is anxiety-reducing medication. If you can reduce your anxiety level to a manageable burst of energy, you can improve your performance and feel good about what you have accomplished.


I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.

A new Ask Dr. P. column will be published every Wednesday