Anxiety and social anxiety
To a certain extent, feeling nervous about different situations is a natural part of life: most of us are nervous and tense sometimes. Regular nervousness becomes something to pay attention to when it complicates or hinders performing everyday tasks or studying.
Short-term anxiety is a common phenomenon, and not necessarily related to a disorder. Disorders refer to situations where feelings of anxiety are long-term and disproportionate to the situation. Anxiety means feelings of inner restlessness and unease, and it is usually connected to physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, trembling or dizziness. 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, avoiding situations, that have previously caused anxiety could in fact make the symptoms worse and limit the person’s life significantly.
People with social phobias (social anxiety) are afraid they will be humiliated or that they will embarrass themselves in front of others; therefore, they avoid situations where they are the centre of attention. Anxiety may be associated with social situations in general or, for instance, with public speaking or eating in front of other people. Examples of the consequences of social anxiety are avoidance of responding orally in student groups, or dropping out of courses for fear of giving an oral presentation. Establishing new friendships or entering into new personal relationships may be challenging due to difficulties in starting conversations. Some of the difficulties brought on by social anxiety are the result of a cycle where the person continues to avoid social situations and therefore does not gain the social skills needed in those situations.
Of the different types of anxiety, performance anxiety, or stage fright, is particularly common among university students. The person suffering from stage fright does not benefit from being given an easy way out of the assignment. Instead, awareness of the acceptability of anxiety in different situations, and providing him or her with support is more usefulIn generalised anxiety, anxiousness is not related to any particular situation or fear but is generalised in a more comprehensive manner. In such cases, worry or concern may also have to do with different aspects of normal life.
Anxiety may cause students to underachieve or even paralyse them to the point where they are unable to function at all. 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).
Tips for student guidance
- Giving oneself ‘permission to feel anxious’ is a good starting point. Feeling a little nervous before giving a presentation prepares one 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. How you say something is more important than what you say.
- It is important to make known that you are on the students’ side, maybe even by saying it aloud.
Course arrangements on the right track?
- As 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 anxious is OK and they should feel free to tell you about their anxiety, if they wish. You can also think about what would make you feel better in a difficult situation. Simply asking ‘How is it going?’ 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.
Learning in lectures
- Don’t 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.
Problems with group work?
- Help the student find a group for group work assignments, or 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 yourself an example of a good 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 anxious.
- 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’.
For more information on anxiety, see:
Finnish association for Mental Health on Social Phobias:
- Finnish association for Mental Health on Generalized Anxiety Disorder: https://www.mielenterveysseura.fi/en/home/mental-health/mental-disorders/generalised-anxiety-disorder
- National institute of Mental Health (U.S) on Social Anxiety: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/
- FSHS pages on anxiety (in Finnish) http://www.yths.fi/jannittaa
Individual study arrangements
In Finnish higher education, 4.4% of students have been diagnosed as having dyslexia (Finnish Student Health Service 2016). Reading is slow for people with dyslexia due to difficulties in perceiving and mentally processing the sounds of words and text.
Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder may present in students as a difficulty concentrating, making mistakes of ‘carelessness’ , or encountering hurdles to independent study.
Of mental disorders, particularly depression is common with young adults. With mental disorders, it is important to listen to one’s own feelings and remember to reserve sufficient time for recovering from the strain of studies.
Anxiety means a state where a person is feeling restless and worried. Short-term anxiety and performance anxiety are very common and natural phenomena. Anxiety disorders refer to situations where feelings of anxiety are long-term and disproportionate to the situation.