Anxiety and Worry

Have you ever felt nervous before a new experience or event? Your heart might have been beating faster, you may have felt a little shortness of breath, or had some doubtful thoughts. If so, you understand what worry or anxiety can sometimes feel like. It is a completely normal and common experience to feel anxious, apprehensive, or worried from time to time. This feeling is one of our body’s natural responses to stress. 

If you were hiking in the wilderness and saw a grizzly bear, you would probably feel a little (or a lot) anxious or panicky. That signals your brain to take precautions like pausing in place or fleeing to safety. What might happen if you didn’t have that feeling and went about approaching the bear? Those feelings that give you pause have a protective purpose. Throughout life, you will experience many figurative “grizzly bear moments” that can trigger worry or anxiety. Things like coursework and tests, meeting new people, managing relationships, managing acute or chronic injury or illnesses, the unknowns of your future, and financial concerns, students experience many stressors that can cause anxiety. Taking steps to manage stress, including having strategies to manage it in the moment, can prepare you to rebound when worry strikes. 

Just as there is a range of stressors people may experience, there is also a range of responses that people can have when they feel nervous or anxious. This includes physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. Physical symptoms include things you may notice in your body like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, a shortness of breath, tensing of muscles, or a pit in your stomach. Emotional reactions can encompass feelings like fear, dread, or worry. 

For some people these feelings, sensations, and reactive thoughts can be very motivating. If we react by telling ourselves “I can do this” or “Maybe this will be fun,” the worry can be a cue to action—for example, studying longer for a big test or going to a social event where you may not know anyone. For others, however, the opposite can occur. If we tell ourselves “I can’t do this” or “I am going to do poorly on this test” or “I am going to make a fool of myself” we may turn to avoidance tactics like procrastination to minimize the cause of our feelings.

When Anxiety or Worry Is Too Much

As we discussed above, not all anxiety or worry is bad, and normal levels of anxiety often subside when the stressful event passes or when you take steps in the moment to regulate your feelings. You should seek care from a mental health or medical provider if you identify with either of the following:

  • Your feelings of worry are more constant or don’t subside.
  • Your feelings or worry seem to be more intense or over-reactive compared to the size of the stressor that causes them.
  • Your feelings get in the way of your participating in activities.
  • You find your studies, relationships, sleep, or self-care are disrupted because of your feelings or thoughts.

A provider can best help you decipher your symptoms and experiences and identify if your symptoms are reflective of an anxiety disorder, which is one of the most common mental health concerns experienced by college students. Providers can also give you strategies to help cope with feelings of anxiety and help you establish a plan for moving forward. Even if your symptoms are not severe nor causing disruptions, a provider can always answer any questions you may have related to anxiety, so don’t hesitate to contact your campus or community mental health providers. 

Keeping a log of your symptoms is a good way to assess your experiences and prepare for an appointment with a provider. There are many smartphone apps that offer mood tracking and journaling. You should make a note of the following:

  • Physical and emotional symptoms you are experiencing
  • The frequency in which you are experiencing them
  • The duration of your symptoms
  • The intensity of your symptoms
  • The impact of your symptoms on other areas of your life, like your studies, friendships, and other health experiences like sleep, nutrition, and self-care

Learn more about anxiety:

National Institutes of Health
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Mental Health America