Understanding and managing anxiety at University
Understanding and managing anxiety
A guide for university students (in halls)
Mental health is an often overlooked aspect of attending uni.
Anxiety in particular is an increasingly common and challenging issue – which can be easily triggered by a sudden shift in your life like leaving the comfort of home for the first time.
But just because anxiety at university is common, it doesn't mean anyone and everyone will categorically struggle. Thankfully there are a whole host of ways a student can ensure they feel strong and ready to face the challenges ahead.
This informative guide explores mental health at university, how to identify potential red flags, and highlights what you can do to manage your mental health. We’ll look at how to settle into life in halls as well as university in general, and understand all the sources of support available to you when you enter higher education.
- Understanding mental health at university
- Managing your mental health and anxiety
- Getting help for anxiety
- Helping other students with anxiety
- Useful links
Understanding mental health at university
Mental health is something that affects many of us at some point, with 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem in our lives.
But just because we aren’t diagnosed with a condition doesn’t mean our mental health can’t suffer. Major life changes or unexpected events can trigger periods of bad mental health.That’s why it’s important to be aware of how we feel and have the right tools to combat any unwanted side-effects of a stressful period.
Moving to university can be one of the most drastic changes in any young person’s life. And while it’s usually for the better, there’s always the chance being away from home might trigger initial doubts or concerns.. The position some students are in mentally and emotionally when they start university highlights the importance of not only having the tools to cope, but the availability of resources and mental health support at their institutions too.
There are many factors that can affect young people’s mental health as they make the move to university, from leaving your family to adjusting to a new routine. These changes can be difficult to adapt to, which can take an understandable toll on students – and particularly those moving into halls.
If you’re worried about any future challenges, know that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. Read on to better understand how to manage and overcome any problems you might face when moving away to university.
Mental health statistics and figures
How many people experience mental health problems?
Research by Dig-in in 2020 found that 42.3% of university students had experienced a serious psychological issue for which they felt they needed professional help. That same survey also found that 1 in 4 students has a current mental health diagnosis, meaning that 20% of students already need mental health support before they start university.
Mental health remains a social taboo
Figures show that mental health is still something of a social taboo, and when it comes to students, they don’t feel comfortable with disclosing how they are feeling. Dig-in’s student mental health research in 2020 shows that around 78% of students conceal mental health symptoms due to fears of stigma.
Plus, research by Unite in 2019 found that 52% of students feel that mental health is something they have to deal with themselves. However, studies show that 42% of students accessed counselling support last year, indicating that help is readily available at university and students feel comfortable accessing it.
The effect of COVID-19
Like most aspects of society, COVID-19 completely changed university life. Teaching moved online and many students made the choice to either stay at home or live in their university accommodation and attend uni online. This put a lot more pressure on students and universities alike, and made attending university much more difficult.
Research carried out from March 2020 were hugely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, with a survey of university students in November 2020 by the Office for National Statistics finding that 57% of respondents felt their mental health had worsened since the start of the academic year. A follow-up report in January 2021 showed that number rose to 63%.
Don’t fret about the worrying figures
With figures showing us that the proportion of students suffering is high, it’s easy to think that university is a hotbed for troubled thoughts and anxious feelings. However, it’s also important to remember that life at uni is complex and it’s completely normal to find it difficult to navigate the obstacles flying at you.
When we consider student mental health, there are a whole range of factors that affect students’ wellbeing too. They might include:
- Social environments and development
- Academic pressure
- Personal identity
Poor mental health can quite easily manifest itself with anxiety, depression, and low self esteem. However, there are many different ways a student can learn to deal with this in positive and productive ways.
The number one rule is to never focus on the negative figures you read and assume you’re predestined to struggle. Remember that you’re more than just a number in a research study; you’re an individual who has the power to tackle the difficulties of university life head on.
Understanding and embracing anxiety triggers
Anxiety affects a fair chunk of students in some form during their university experience, so it’s important to remember that you aren’t alone. Anxiety is a natural part of life that we all deal with at some point.
Understanding anxiety and what can trigger it allows us to prevent it from affecting our lives negatively. Let’s look at some common anxiety triggers and how you can react to them to better manage anxious thoughts.
Stress is a common trigger of anxiety.. From paying rent to juggling deadlines and having a social life, students can get busy quickly. When we’re stressed little things that might not bother us on a normal day can become an additional worry.
Thankfully, there are 5 simple ways to manage these feelings:
- Prioritise getting 7 hours of sleep (rather than late nights going out)
- Eat a balanced diet (we know your funds might be low, but that’s no excuse for eating nutritious food)
- Exercise regularly (cycling to campus can save money on a gym membership)
- Find the time to relax (mindful meditation or yoga can counteract the stresses of deadlines)
- Talk it out (find a helpful friend or speak to a campus counsellor)
Change is an inevitable part of life that university students are faced with when they move away. University life itself can also be quite unpredictable, with new plans popping up often and circumstances changing.
You can better manage the worries of change by simply accepting it. When we accept change, we are less likely to feel negatively towards it, and can focus our attention on what we can do to adapt, rather than feeling overwhelmed with the fact that things are changing. It also helps if you don’t bottle up your feelings. Speak to someone about your concerns.You might even find your roommates or coursemates have the same feelings of homesickness.
Whether you go on the contraceptive pill or start taking new medication for an existing health condition, the side effects of taking medication can trigger anxiety. It’s important to monitor how you feel when you start taking any new medication, and if you notice any changes in your mental state, to talk to your doctor. Medical professionals are always there to help address the problem before any anxious feelings worsen.
Social events and social anxiety
Social events and parties can trigger social anxiety for some people, especially when you don’t know a lot of the people there. This is a common occurrence at university, whether it’s simply walking into a lecture hall full of strangers or attending a social event.
Thankfully, there are 4 simple ways to manage social anxiety:
- If you get anxious around a lot of people, you can avoid attending large events alone.
- Remember that anxiety is simply a form of fear and something you can work through.
- Practice breathing techniques to control the physical symptoms of nervousness.
- Take your mind off your negative thoughts by distracting yourself (read, watch TV, meditate, etc).
For students living with new people, conflict is bound to happen at some point s. Like other conflicts we encounter in our lives, addressing any problems and expressing how you feel is the most effective way to solve issues and prevent feelings of anxiety in the long term. Even though it may be tempting to avoid conflict, this can actually add to feelings of anxiety. So never shy away from dealing with the problems honestly and openly with each other.
Once you know how to spot the triggers of anxiety, you can better understand how you’re feeling. This knowledge can allow you to take action when you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious.
Red flags to watch out for
Understanding your triggers can help you deal with anxiety in the short-term, but if you feel worried a lot of the time, then you may have an anxiety disorder. This is the case for 42.8% of students, who are often or always worried, according to research by Dig-in and The Insights Network.
There are a few red flags that could indicate that you have anxiety, and if you identify with most of these, then you should contact a medical professional or mental health service. There are also many resources that students can use at their universities, which are covered later in this guide.
Loneliness over a long period of time isn’t healthy for anyone, so if you notice that days or weeks pass without speaking to someone that cares about you, you are a lot more vulnerable to anxiety problems. Research by the ONS showed that 26% of students often or always feel lonely, making this a key driver of anxiety and poor mental health outcomes.
Excessive alcohol and substance usage
Drinking and going out is a part of university life. The drinking culture at university is something that many new students aren’t familiar with, and it can be a challenge at first to monitor and manage alcohol consumption.
While drinking can be considered a social norm at university, students should try to monitor their consumption and notice whether they’re using alcohol or recreational drugs as a coping mechanism for underlying issues. The positive thing is that studies show over half of students in 2020 disagree with using alcohol to cope with problems in life, showing attitudes towards drinking are shifting.
Changes in energy levels
If you are normally energetic and able to keep up with a busy routine, but find yourself lacking energy and enthusiasm for these same things, you may be suffering from poor mental health. Of course, this could also happen if you aren’t sleeping well or feel physically ill, but if the change happens suddenly and doesn’t seem to be triggered by anything physical, take a step back and assess how you feel emotionally.
Feelings and emotions
As we covered earlier, anxiety and depression are characterised by prolonged feelings of negative emotions. These could be sadness, worry, emptiness or hopelessness. If you notice you feel negative a lot of the time, and the feelings don’t go away even when you try not to think about them, then your mental health is likely suffering.
Our physical and mental health is closely linked, meaning that your body might realise your mental health is suffering before your mind does. The following 3 physical symptoms can actually be feelings of anxiety or stress showing up in the body.
01 Upset stomach.
Conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome are often triggered and exacerbated by stress, so if you have unexplained stomach pains, it could be anxiety causing them.
Many people who suffer from anxiety are restless. This could be in the form of shaking legs, tapping your fingers or fidgeting.
03 Fast heartbeat.
Another telltale sign of anxiety is a quickened heartbeat. Feelings of anxiety and fear cause the body to go into fight or flight mode, which increases your heart rate as your body tries to increase its oxygen intake.
Whilst anxiety and stress might feel daunting or intimidating, it’s important to remember that you ultimately have control over your emotions. Moving to university is an extremely exciting time and opens the door to so much personal growth, which includes how you deal with new situations and changes in your life. As long as you’re equipped with the right coping mechanisms and healthy habits, you’ll be able to deal with these feelings in a positive way.
Coping techniques and mechanisms
When we feel low or sad, we inevitably turn to coping mechanisms. It’s a natural response to stress or negative emotions, but they aren’t always productive. Young people often don’t know how to regulate their emotions and combat negative thoughts. Instead many people use things like social media, TV, retail therapy or going out to avoid dealing with their feelings.
Luckily there are a lot of alternatives available. When you feel sad or low, the best way to feel better is to acknowledge your emotions and work through them. The following activities can help you do just that.
To be mindful is to be present in your life, with your emotions, thoughts and actions. Since mindfulness has been adopted by the western world, research has been carried out and shown through scientific evidence that mindfulness greatly improves our lives.
To practice this technique, you can start meditating, practicing gratitude and educating yourself on the art of mindfulness. It can be a great tool to deal with challenging emotions when they arise, as well as help you process the way you feel when you’re going through a tough time. In regards to university, mindfulness can help you deal with stress and anxiety, whether it’s missing home or academic worries.
Introduce self-care to your daily routine
Self-care is often marketed as buying yourself a new outfit or putting on a face mask. And while it can involve those activities, more broadly speaking, self-care really means doing things to honour your needs and take care of yourself. It requires some self-reflection so that you can work out how you are feeling and what you need to feel better or more positive.
Once you understand how you feel, you can do things that make you feel good and are healthy for your sense of wellbeing. This could be anything from:
- Spending some time alone doing something you enjoy
- Going for a walk or to the gym
- Putting time aside for your hobbies
- Spending time with people who make you feel good and supported
An act of self-care is one that invests in your wellbeing and meets your needs, and can take the form of much more than what we’ve covered above. Each person is different, and it’s about understanding what you need as a unique individual.
Journal your negative thoughts
Journaling can be a powerful tool to help you manage your mental health and regulate your emotions. Using it to write down your thoughts and emotions helps you to make sense of them, and to also process them. Getting into a regular routine of journaling allows you to become more self-aware and therefore understand your thoughts and feelings more.
Managing your mental health and anxiety
The potential of suffering from poor mental health at university can be daunting, but there are a lot of things you can do to help and support yourself while you’re away.
Having good habits and preparing yourself for university life can help you manage your mental health while you’re away.
Preparing for life in halls
For first year students coming into university halls, you’ve likely never had the experience of living with people you don’t know. Halls can be tricky with all the new people, but they have been set up to provide new students with a safe, supportive environment as they make an important step in their lives.
Life in halls is going to be different from what you’re used to, in terms of having new responsibilities and generally being in a new environment. But there are lots of things you can do to prepare yourself for your new living situation. Let’s look at a few.
You have to juggle new responsibilities
Moving out of your family home means taking on new responsibilities, including:
- Cooking for yourself
- Paying your own bills
- Cleaning and maintaining your space
This, together with full-time studies can be quite difficult to manage. The best way to prepare yourself for these things is to make sure you’re in the best position to take care of yourself when you move to uni. From investing in a cookbook to asking a trusted adult to teach you the ropes of the washing machine, whatever you don’t feel like you can do independently, you can learn.
You have to manage your time wisely
University is a busy few years. Balancing all of your work commitments, leisure activities and relationships can be tricky. There is often a busy social schedule that everyone wants to keep up with in order to make friends and establish a social network, but this can bleed into the other areas of your life. A great way to deal with this busy period is to practice good time management, whether it’s keeping a diary or planning your time at the beginning of each week.
You have to meet new people
Halls life means meeting countless new people, and can be a daunting experience. In fact, a survey carried out by accommodation provider UPP found that 87% of first-year students struggle with the social and academic aspects of student life. But it’s crucial to remember that everyone is in the same boat, and the overwhelming majority of people are eager to meet new people and make new friends.
Adjusting to the wider university experience
University culture is often described as a bubble for students, where young people practice fending for themselves with the safety net of university resources and support. Going to uni is about more than simply gaining a degree, there are invaluable life skills that each and every student learns throughout their time away.
The process of learning these skills isn’t always easy, however, and getting used to the university experience can be tough. There are two main areas outside of accommodation and social environments that can also affect student mental health.
Learning how to handle your money can be tough when you first move to university, and with student loans not always covering your living expenses, money can become a source of stress.
Effective budgeting is crucial to stop money becoming a concern, as according to Save the Student’s 2020 Money Survey, 58% of those who struggle to manage their money say it affects their mental health.
Budgeting is easier than you think, it just takes some time and organisation to look at what your expenses will be, and work out how much money you can spend each month or week. There are a lot of tools available online too, such as Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert’s Student Budgeting Planner.
For those whose parents are in a position to support you financially or subsidise costs that your maintenance loan doesn’t cover, you can use Save the Student’s Parent Contribution Calculator to work out how much extra cash you need from your parents to cover your costs throughout the year.
For lower-income students, many universities offer bursaries and additional financial aid. Looking on the Student Services area of your university website, you’ll be able to find out if you are eligible for financial support.
58% of those who struggle to manage their money say it affects their mental health negatively.according to Save the Student’s 2020 Money Survey
Getting a degree takes some work, and for those who have chosen new topics to study, there can be a lot to learn. Arguably the biggest difference is the need to independently study, which is a shift from the guiding learning provided at school.
A full-time university schedule, alongside independent study time, averages out to around 40 hours per week. However, proper time management and making use of support resources at your university can help make this easy to stay on top of.
Many students aren’t even aware of the resources available to them, but they are there, and often in abundance. You just need to be aware of what they are and how you can use them.
Fortunately, there are a range of different people and resources available that can help you if you’re struggling with the academic side of university. Let’s look at a few:
Each student has a personal tutor at university whose role is to help their tutees through any issues, provide advice and support, and ensure they are feeling safe and happy. If you’re struggling with academic pressure, you can talk to your personal tutor and they will help you find solutions.
If you’re struggling with a particular module, you can get in touch with your lecturer. They can offer additional resources and readings, as well as advice. Many lecturers have open office hours where you can drop in and talk to them if you need to.
Many universities run centres where older students or postgraduates volunteer their time to help undergraduates with anything specific to do with your course. These come in the form of seminars and drop-in sessions.
Whilst also being a place to work, your university library is full of resources and support with your studies. You can access a huge amount of literature relating to your course content that provides beginners knowledge as well as highly specialised information.
Your coursemates can also offer a lot of support and advice, as you can work with them to go over lecture materials and teach each other sections of your modules.
Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle
We all know that maintaining a healthy and balanced diet and lifestyle is vital for everyone, regardless of whether they’re a student or not. But as we’ve already covered, university presents a variety of new challenges, and it can be easy to slip into bad habits when you’re struggling to cope.
Prioritising your physical health is a good way to support your mental health, as the two are inextricably linked. The routine of eating regular meals and exercising is also a good way to combat some symptoms of ill mental health and help you retain a sense of control over your life.
Tips for eating healthily at university
Eating healthily at uni is crucial for helping you feel happy and do well in your studies. Here are a few tips.
01 Meal Plan
A meal plan helps you to make sure you’re eating a varied and balanced diet, full of different vegetables, protein sources and complex carbs. It’s a great opportunity to get creative in the kitchen too, and try out some new recipes or ingredients. Student meal plan ideas can help here. Plus, planning your meals isn’t just good for your body, but also for your wallet. You can save hundreds of pounds by simply deciding in advance what you’re going to cook.
02 Find the right snacks
Snacks are notorious for being unhealthy, and whilst it might be tempting to take crisps and chocolate to the library with you, these foods can actually make you feel sluggish. Try to stick to healthier alternatives like fruit, nuts, popcorn or vegetables. Tasty’s snack ideas for students have you covered if plain old almonds won’t cut it for you.
03 Balance what you eat
We’ve all been told to eat a balanced diet a thousand times growing up, but it really is important. Try to eat as many fruits and vegetables as you can, and opt for fresher foods that haven’t been processed. This may seem difficult on a student budget, but budget retailers like Lidl and Aldi offer fruit and veg at really affordable prices.
04 Avoid too many takeaways
It can be really easy to order takeaways at uni. Between late shifts at the library to simply not having the energy to cook some nights, a hot dinner is just a few easy clicks away. But they’re often high in fat, oil and processed foods, so try to keep those to a treat every now and then rather than a regular occurrence.
Getting help for anxiety
Sometimes self-regulation isn’t enough to keep anxiety and stress at bay, especially for young people.
Luckily, there are a variety of resources and sources of support available to students. Seeking advice and support is the most effective way to safeguard your wellbeing and work through any periods of poor mental health.
Talk to friends and family
Reaching out is one of the best things you can do if you’re feeling low. Whether you’re feeling stressed, anxious or lonely, regularly speaking to loved ones is always important. Even if you don’t feel comfortable talking to parents or friends about your problems, checking in with them regularly and talking to them about how you’re feeling day-to-day is a good way to get support.
As well as speaking to your loved ones back home, you can get help with anxiety by talking to the people around you at university too. Sharing your worries and fears with someone else means you can get reassurance from them, and feel supported and heard. Fellow students will be able to empathise with you when it comes to feeling down or missing home, so speaking to your flatmates or friends at uni reminds you that you aren’t alone.
Maintaining support systems, whether they’re at university or over the phone, is a big part of fighting symptoms and maintaining a sense of wellbeing.
Get support from your university
Every university has provisions in place to protect students’ mental health and support them through difficult times. These range from general advice and online resources to counselling support. All you need to do is search on your university’s website for student services, or use the Student Space support service search function.
General wellbeing services can range from financial advice and accommodation concerns to mental health support. Many campuses have a dedicated space for wellbeing services where students can have appointments or attend drop-in sessions.
Many universities offer free counselling services to all students. Whether you feel as though you are struggling generally or have a specific mental health concern, you can access face-to-face or online counselling.
Helplines and charities to turn to
A lot of universities have their own mental health helplines that you can ring 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, such as Nightline. Search on your university’s website or online student space for mental health resources and helplines.
For nationwide support, there are lots of places to turn to. Let’s look at some of them.
Samaritans 116 123 (Freephone, 24/7) Sane’s SANELINE 0300 304 7000 (4:30pm-10:30pm, 365 days a year) NHS 111 (24/7, 365 days a year)
Mind’s Infoline 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm) CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) Helpline 0800 58 58 58 (5pm - midnight, 365 days a year) Switchboard (LGBT+) Helpline 0300 300 630 (10am - 10pm, everyday)
The NHS also has an urgent mental health helpline finder that provides 24-hour support and assessments to decide the best course of care.
Mind is the biggest mental health charity in the UK, offering advice, resources and support to thousands.
The biggest mental health charity dedicated to students and members of the university community. They help to empower students to look after their mental health.
Hope For The Day work to change the way we talk about mental health and suicide, working to eliminate the risk factors of suicide.
This charity improves the lives of people severely affected by mental illness.
A charity that works to improve the mental health of all young people.
Helping other students with anxiety
When we learn more about our own mental health and develop healthy habits to manage our feelings and emotions, we also gain the ability to help others.
At university where students are often away from their main support systems, the relationships forged at uni can help them take care of each other whilst away from home.
Spotting signs of anxiety or depression in others
The red flags of anxiety and stress that we covered earlier apply to your peers too, so if you notice any of the following in others, you may want to offer them support or point them in the direction of mental health services:
- Excessive alcohol or substance abuse
- Changes in routine
- Behavioural changes
- Physical symptoms
If you notice these in your flatmates or friends, it could indicate that they’re feeling anxiety often and need support. You can offer an ear to them and encourage them to talk about how they feel.
Advice on talking to others about their mental health
Mental health is a highly personal and sensitive subject, so approaching it with someone else should be done carefully. It can be easy to offend someone if you assume things about them, so here are some tips when talking to others about mental health.
Make them feel safe
Mental health has historically been treated as something a person should hide, or accept. This can make opening up about how we are feeling much more difficult. So if you’re talking to someone about their mental health, it’s important to do so in a safe, caring environment. Reassure the person you’re talking to that they can trust you and be honest, and be an active listener when they speak to you.
Ask ‘what’ questions, rather than ‘why’
Mental health charity Hope for the Day advise that when it comes to talking about mental health with others, you should ask ‘what’ questions, rather than “why” ones.
For example, you could ask ‘What makes you feel that way?’ rather than ‘Why do you feel that way?’. “Why” questions can come across as judgemental or abrasive still, even if your intention is good.
Don’t try to diagnose
If you aren’t a mental health professional, it’s important not to try to diagnose the person you’re talking to. Even if they show symptoms of anxiety or depression, try not to assign a particular issue to them. If you’re concerned that they are suffering from a mental health condition, then point them towards a professional.
The other thing to keep in mind is to not judge someone for what they tell you. Mental health is a hugely sensitive subject, and everyone’s struggles are valid. Try to listen and give advice if asked, rather than volunteering any opinions.
What you can do to help
Helping those around you with their mental health is more simple than you think. In reality, it’s about showing up for them and providing support, the same way you would for anyone you care about if they were sad or upset.
When you go through a tough time, it helps to have someone offer a non-judgmental ear to listen to your feelings. Speaking to someone about how you feel can help you to process your emotions better, and also help you to feel less fearful of the future, because you aren’t alone.
Be there for the people you care about
We can’t fix people’s problems for them, and the best we can do is be a source of support for the people we care about. Whether it’s a partner, friend or family member, providing emotional support and care is one of the best ways you can help support the mental health of those you care for.
Pass on resources
Equip those around you with the same resources you use, whether it’s a charity website, helpline or other content on mental health. Sharing these things can help us all to learn more about mental health and approach it in a constructive way.