The spectre of uncertainty has long tormented the student experience. It is the source of feelings of impending doom for an upcoming midterm or presentation, and the reason why talking to a group of new people can be a task of herculean rigor. It is in many ways the origin of the anxious mind. We live in a time where there is no cause for wonder of the manifold reasons why students may be living with anxiety. Consequently, it is of paramount importance that we demystify anxiety and its role in our lives if we are to obtain any control over it. Knowledge is one of the many invaluable tools to attaining control over our minds. To this end, I will be examining anxiety critically in the hopes of reworking the narratives we tell ourselves about this shared feeling so as to build strength and solidarity. The end of this article should leave you with a more nuanced understanding of the reality of fear and anxiety and in an empowered position to make change or seek support in your own life.
Of Caution and Cavemen - A Lesson from Evolution
An important point to consider when discussing the pervasiveness of anxiety is that the anxious mind is the human mind. An evolutionary perspective contends that dysfunctional anxiety is the result of a hyperactive fear circuit in the brain. Brain structures like the amygdala have evolved to make our brain attuned to risk and protect us from environmental threats. However, this biological boon, taken out of its environment of evolutionary adaptedness, is often the source of much paralyzing fear (Price, 2003). At one point in time, it was a strategic advantage in the game of survival and reproduction to incessantly fixate on the future world of dangers. Anxiety and the physiological changes it produced told us that danger may lay ahead and that it threatened to take something important away from us and that we must rise to the occasion to protect ourselves from harm or eliminate the threat itself. Nowadays there are no sabre-tooth tigers or mammoths, but instead more mundane and chronic concerns that can trigger this neural system and condense our worries into a cloud of apprehension that hangs over us. The salient observation from this model of anxiety is that there is no dread to be found from the symptoms of anxiety itself. The sweaty palms, the racing heart, and the hyperawareness are all echoes of a primordial warning flare.
The Fuel of Harmful Anxiety - The Role of Cognition
The discussion surrounding the utility of anxiety begets another question. Where does it all go wrong? When does anxiety cause us to seize up and fall apart? In my estimation, the mind and the ideas that populate it form important influences in determining whether the subjective feeling of anxiety disables or enables function. This answer is aligned with the paradigm of cognitive behavioural therapy, a branch of psychotherapy that asserts that mental illnesses can emerge from dysfunctional thoughts and problematic behaviours. A review of some research related to cognitive behavioural therapy has identified that people employ different types of evaluations and beliefs that can exert a profound influence over the impact of any potentially triggering circumstances. These beliefs can be divided into rational and irrational categories. Irrational beliefs are like the gasoline that we unknowingly pour over our smoldering concerns. They magnify the likelihood of a stimulus producing a disproportionate response.
Here are some types of irrational beliefs that were identified in this review of the prevailing literature for their associations with poor mental health (Turner, 2016). Some liberty was taken in their description in order to help identify what they sound like as thoughts emerging in the mind:
- Low Frustration Tolerance - “I can’t stand that I can’t do X”
- Depreciation - The idea that “I was so awkward last night, I guess I’m just a reject.”
- Catastrophizing – “If I fail this exam, then my parents will hate me and I will lose everything.”
If you recognize your internal dialogue sounding reminiscent of any of these thought patterns, it would be prudent to consider getting an outside perspective or challenging them yourself. These thought patterns which orient your mind’s attention toward cost and loss versus potential triumph can be hugely influential in determining whether or not you are overwhelmed or energized by anxiety. In a study (Tomaka et al, 1997) participants performed a mental arithmetic task (yuck) after hearing one of two instructional sets: a threat set emphasizing accuracy performance and potential evaluation and a challenge set that emphasized doing one’s best. In both cases, accelerated heart rates were observed. However, those that were being challenged to do their best and not threatened by the stimulus, showed more relaxation of their arteries. The researchers suggested that the body was mobilizing to deal with stress instead of being overly agitated by it. Although the researchers did not explicitly make this direct link, one can infer that this difference in beliefs is key to distinguishing positive anxiety that uplifts and strengthens from negative anxiety.
Diffusing Discomfort with Compassion and Courage - The Importance of Action
Sometimes anxiety emerges as a consequence of traumatic experiences which may teach us the flawed lesson that we are insufficient in dealing with the world’s challenges. During these moments, the decisions we make about ourselves and the actions that follow make a tremendous difference. The act of fostering more rational beliefs is generally associated with a greater capacity to manage negative life events (Caserta et al., 2009). One of these beliefs that you can start practicing in your own life is unconditional self acceptance. This is the notion that, as a person, you have inherent worth regardless of any adversity or personal short-comings. An example of a cognitive style that is more rational and forgiving of your shortcomings and counteracts anxiety would be, “I did poorly on this test, but I am still worthy and capable of doing better.” It can be difficult as students to employ this technique of rewiring our thoughts actively in our lives. Our university life is a complex performance environment that places heavy burdens on us which can undermine our sense of self worth. Our circumstances demand a thirst for excellence to thrive and progress but we must also balance such strivings with the compassion needed to sustain success in the long run.
Inextricably linked to this process of changing your thoughts is changing your actions. It can be said that the only way to change how you think is to change your behaviours at the same time. This is one of the principles that underpins the ABCs of cognitive behavioural therapy:
- The Activating Event - The Midterm/Public Speaking Event
- The Beliefs we Have- “I can’t/can do this.”
- The Consequences of these beliefs - Taking on or running from the event.
The C component of this model is hugely relevant, because anxiety claims a harmful foothold in our lives when we change the way we navigate the world in response to it. When we avoid confronting stimuli because they appear intimidating, we are given short term relief but this momentary reprieve only reinforces the myth that the event is bigger than we are. These avoidance behaviours strengthen our physiological alarm signals to dangerous levels and so anyone seeking to improve their relationship with anxiety should work to break them and step out of their comfort zone. It is important to note that this is not a journey you have to take by yourself.
A Helping Hand Can Carry You a Long Way - Don’t Suffer in Silence
UBC provides a number of mental health support systems accessible to persons battling anxiety or other mental health issues. The Student Assistance Program offers their services to address and assist students through a number of mental health concerns. It is offered in multiple languages and is accessible 24/7. They can connect you with counsellors in your area or provide in-moment support. UBC also has a walk-in wellness clinic run by graduate students and advised by registered clinical psychologists that offers free in person and virtual drop-in appointments and an array of clinical services to students and the wider Okanagan community at a lower cost. Additionally, The Wellness Centre, now a part of the psychology clinic run at UBC, provides online self-care modules and resources offered directly through Canvas for those seeking a more self-directed approach to their well-being.
The ubiquity of the student struggle with uncertainty ensures that you are never alone. There will always be people who can relate in some capacity to your personal struggles and be willing to extend support. It is my wish that this article has left you knowing one important truth. The preeminent message in this discussion of overwhelming and consuming worry is one of hope that through your own timing and process, you can rewrite the role of anxiety in the story of your own life.
Caserta, D. A., Dowd, E. T., David, D., & Ellis, A. (2009). Rational and Irrational Beliefs in Primary Prevention and Mental Health. Rational and Irrational Beliefs, 173-194. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195182231.003.0009
Price, J. S. (2003). Evolutionary aspects of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience Anxiety, 5(3), 223-236. doi:10.31887/dcns.2003.5.3/jprice
Tomaka, J., Blascovich, J., Kibler, J., & Ernst, J. M. (1997). Cognitive and physiological antecedents of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(1), 63-72. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.11
Turner, M. J. (2016). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Irrational and Rational Beliefs, and the Mental Health of Athletes. Frontiers in Psychology, 07, 6-8. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01423