Anxiety and nervousness

Anxiety means a state where a person feels tense, restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and nervousness or stage fright are very common and natural phenomena among students.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety means inner restlessness and unease, and it is usually connected to physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, trembling, stomach symptoms, sweating or dizziness. Short-term anxiety is natural phenomenon and does not mean you have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are disorders where anxiety is long-term and disproportionate to the situation. Anxiety may vary in intensity or grow depending on the situation. Often people who have felt anxious in a given situation start to avoid that situation. However, avoidance may make the symptoms worse and limit the person’s life.

Social anxiety refers to a condition in which the person is afraid of being the focus of attention or embarrassing themselves in the eyes of others, and often ends up avoiding situations where groupwork or performing is required. The student may avoid speaking in class or may drop out of a course for fear of having to give oral presentations. Establishing new friendships or entering into new personal relationships may be challenging due to avoidance of social situations or difficulties in starting conversations. Some of the difficulties brought on by social anxiety are the result of a vicious circle where the person continues to avoid social situations and therefore does not gain the social skills needed in those situations.

In generalised anxiety, anxiousness varies in intensity and is not related to any particular situation or fear but is generalised to a free-floating state. In such cases, worry or concern may also have to do with different aspects of normal life. 

What is performance anxiety or nervousness?

To a certain extent, performance anxiety or nervousness is a natural part of life: most of us are nervous sometimes. Nervousness becomes a problem when it complicates or hinders performing everyday tasks or studying. Nervousness may be associated with social situations in general or, for instance, with public speaking or eating in front of other people.

Performance anxiety, or stage fright, is particularly common among university students. The person suffering from stage fright or nervousness does not benefit from being given an easy way out of the assignment. Instead, awareness of the acceptability of nervousness, and providing the student with alternatives and support is more useful.

How can anxiety and nervousness affect studying?

Anxiety may cause students to underachieve or even paralyse them to the point where they are unable to function at all. It may also slow down the student’s academic progress or cause them to drop out. In the context of studying, anxiety may arise in exams or other evaluation situations. A very strong momentary anxiety may also trigger a panic attack (See under Panic attack and panic disorder).

Panic attack and panic disorder

Tips for student guidance

  • Giving oneself ‘permission to feel anxious’ is a good starting point. Feeling a little nervous before giving a presentation may even be useful, as it prepares you for the challenge and gets the audience interested.
  • As a teacher, you should aim to create a safe atmosphere for the student with your own behaviour and attitude. Behave in a manner that says ‘it is all ok’ to the students in order to create a calm atmosphere.
  • Talking in a soft voice and breathing calmly will make your actions reassuring and affect the whole group.
  • It is important to make known that you are on the students’ side, maybe even by saying it aloud.

Pay attention to course practices

  • As nervousness or anxiety is not always visible, it may come as a surprise to the teacher or fellow student. However, almost any group will have students with stage fright.
  • If it feels natural for you, you can tell the students that feeling nervous is OK and they should feel free to tell you about their stage fright, if they wish. You can also think about what would make you feel better in a difficult situation. Simply asking ‘How is it going with this assignment/presentation?’ may be a good start; there is no single right way to go deal with the situation.
  • The students may also take up their anxiety in discussion themselves, saying, for instance, that they cannot take part in a course that involves performing or giving presentations because of their performance anxiety. The key is taking the student seriously and dealing with the matter in confidence in a way that meets the student’s wishes.

Best practices in teaching

  • Do not force a student experiencing performance anxiety to speak in front of the group, e.g. by putting questions to them directly in front of others. Instead, let the students think about their answer in peace and let them choose themselves if they wish to share their answer with the rest of the group.
  • Rather than have students discuss in small groups, use pair discussions followed up by a joint wrap-up discussion for the whole class.

Everyone benefits from a safe and accepting atmosphere in learning.

Problems with group work?

  • Help the student find a group for group work assignments, or preferably, decide the groups yourself (e.g. by lot).
  • Those with social anxiety may benefit from smaller groups or pair work, or they may work better with a pair that they already know.
  • A clear division of tasks and responsibilities within the group makes working together easier. Encourage clear and open communication within the group.

Best practices for examinations and evaluations

  • Almost all students are anxious about presentations and feedback.
  • Situations that cause anxiety to the student should be approached gradually, adding to the demand level little by little; being too critical or demanding makes things worse.
  • Performing is a type of interaction. Be an exemplary listener who accepts and encourages the performer.
  • To ease the pressure, remember to mention to the students that they may start over, pause, or stop if they feel too nervous.
  • Give feedback using ‘the sandwich method’: start off with some tangible good sides, then mention development needs related to contents and delivery, and end with positive and encouraging comments.
  • Focus on action and expressions that worked well, for instance: ‘Your eye contact with the audience was good.’

Individual study arrangements

Kirjoittava opiskelija luennolla


Dyslexia is the most common learning difficulty, and 6% of Finnish higher education students have been diagnosed with it (FSHS, KOTT, 2021).Dyslexia is defined as an impairment involving both reading and writing. A key characteristic in dyslexia is difficulty identifying and processing connections in phonologic (i.e. sound-related) information.

Opiskelija kirjoittaa

Visual-perceptual difficulties

Visual-perceptual difficulties refer to difficulties with processing or making sense of visual or spatial information in one’s mind and to create images that support action. In practice, students with visual-perceptual difficulties may find it hard to find their way in the studying environment and find teaching spaces or complete assignments that require them to identify or assemble objects or understand dimensions and patterns.

Opiskelijoita Harald Herlin -oppimiskeskuksessa

Attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges

Attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges may present in tasks requiring concentration or independent study. When diagnosed, attention deficit and hyperactivity challenges are referred to as ADHD.

Opiskelija Harald Herlin -oppimiskeskuksessa

Autism spectrum

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of neurobiological developmental disorders that affect how an individual communicates and interacts with others, and they sense and experience the surrounding world. The condition is life-long, stemming from anomalous development of the central nervous system.

Opiskelijoita Harald Herlin -oppimiskeskuksessa

Mental disorders

Mental disorders here refer to particularly to depression, but also to bipolar disorder. Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. Students should listen to themselves and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.

Ryhmä opiskelijoita

Anxiety and nervousness

Anxiety means a state where a person feels tense, restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and nervousness or stage fright are very common and natural phenomena among students.

Kolmen opiskelijan ryhmä Harald Herlin -oppimiskeskuksessa

Panic attack and panic disorder

A panic disorder refers to recurrent panic attacks, meaning sudden, very strong experiences of anxiety. Panic attacks may be isolated events or related to general anxiety. Panic attacks are rather common: about 10 to 15 per cent of people experience one in their lifetime.

Aallon uudet opiskelijat luennolla

Individual study arrangements

Each Aalto student has a right to receive reasonable individual study arrangements for medical reasons. A medical reason may be dyslexia, a sensory impairment, mental health condition or learning difficulty. Individual study arrangements should not be seen as a reason to stop aiming for the set learning outcomes. Instead, they are a way of supporting the student in attaining the learning outcomes.

Examples of individual study arrangements include additional time for examinations (1 hour at Aalto), a private space or computer for examinations, or adjusted schedules.



Feedback, comments and questions on the individual study arrangements toolkit

Give feedback
This service is provided by:

Learning Services

Did you find what you were looking for? If not, please contact us.
  • Published:
  • Updated: