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Stress and Anxiety

Some anxiety is normal in everyday life. When anxiety becomes excessive or overwhelming, it can present significant problems for college students. It may impact your ability to function in school, socially, or in relationships. Anxiety may manifest itself in many ways, including:

  • Frequent and uncontrollable worrying
  • Physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, stomach problems, and headaches
  • Sleeplessness, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, fatigue
  • Sweating, heart palpitations, shaking
  • Lowered self-esteem

Types of Anxiety

There are many different ways that anxiety can manifest itself.  Symptoms can be categorized into different anxiety disorders which a professional therapist can help to diagnose. Some of the more common anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic Disorder: People with Panic Disorder will often experience unexpected attacks of anxiety and intense fear, which occur frequently and randomly. These feelings may be accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. A panic attack will usually peak within a few minutes, but some symptoms may last longer, and the fear that the panic attack will return can be debilitating.

  • Social Anxiety Disorder: Also known as Social Phobia, this disorder describes a frequent, irrational fear of social situations. The fear may be of being watched and judged by others, or acting in a way that may be embarrassing. As a result, a person may avoid social situations entirely, or try to ensure that they are not the focus of attention.

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: People with OCD may experience constant thoughts or worries that result in the performance of specific routines or rituals. These rituals may significantly interfere with a person’s life and daily routine, such as a person who frequently washes his or her hands because of a fear of germs. In this disorder, obsessions are the thoughts that a person will have about a situation, and compulsions are the ritualistic behaviors.

  • Specific Phobias: An intense, persistent fear of objects or situations. Examples of these include snakes, spiders, heights, and water. When a person is in the presence of one of these objects, he or she may have an immediate and intense reaction, in which the level of fear is greater than the actual threat.

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: The more common of the anxiety disorders, GAD is characterized by excessive worry and tension. Sometimes there is a focus for this anxiety, such as specific events or situations, but often people will have an overall feeling of always being “on edge” and have difficulty in managing their level of anxiety in most aspects of their lives.

Where to Go to Manage Anxiety

If you are experiencing problems with anxiety, you can contact the Drexel University Counseling Center at (215) 895-1415 and ask to speak with a professional counselor who can help you to understand and better manage your anxiety. In addition, there are a variety of excellent resources available online, some of which we have included below:

There are also many books available for purchase to learn to cope with anxiety concerns. Some of the more popular ones include:

  • The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 5th Edition. (2011). Edmund J. Bourne, New Harbinger Publications.
  • The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, 6th Edition. (2008). Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, and Matthew McKay. New Harbinger Publications.
  • Mastery of Your Anxiety and Worry: Workbook, 2nd Edition. (2006). Michelle Craske and David Barlow. Psychological Corporation.

Stress Management

What is stress?

Stress is our mind and body’s reaction to any perceived physical or mental demands placed upon us. When we perceive a situation as dangerous or threatening, or don’t believe we have the resources to cope with the situation, we often experience stress and may have a “fight or flight response.” This is when our body rushes to protect itself – it’s a survival response.

For example, if public speaking feels stressful for you, you may start to notice physiological changes such as racing heartbeat, sweaty hands, shaking, shallow breathing, or other signs of the “fight or flight response.”

Is stress normal?

Having some amount of stress is adaptive and protective. It helps us prepare for challenges and alerts us to danger. Also, a certain amount of stress helps us perform at our best and adds flavor, challenge, and opportunity for growth.

Not all stress is bad for you. There are two types of stress:

  • Distress – a chronic feeling of being overwhelmed with little relief in sight.
  • Eustress – a push that allows us to engage with the challenges and opportunities in life that are meaningful to us.

What can lead to stress?

  • Environmental factors such as noise, bad weather, busy traffic, problems with roommates.
  • Social factors such as disagreements, dating, contact with others.
  • Physiological factors such as illness, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, alcohol/drug abuse, sleep disturbances.
  • Thoughts, including our perceptions, expectations, making decisions, worry, self-criticism.

Ways to reduce your stress level

  1. Find a support system. Find someone to talk to about your feelings and experiences. Speak to friends, family, a teacher, a minister, or a counselor. Sometimes we just need to "vent" or get something "off our chest." Expressing our feelings can be relieving, we can feel supported by others, and it can help us work out our problems.
  2. Change your attitude. Find other ways to think about stressful situations. "Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to it. Talk to yourself positively. Remember, "I can handle it,” "This will be over soon," or "I have handled difficult things before, and I can do it again." Also, practice acceptance. We need to learn to accept things we cannot change without trying to exert more control over them.
  3. Be realistic. Set practical goals for dealing with situations and solving problems. Develop realistic expectations of yourself and others. Setting our expectations or goals high may seem like a useful way to push ourselves and get things done, but we may also set ourselves up for disappointment and continued stress. Find the courage to recognize your limits.
  4. Get organized and take charge. Being unorganized or engaging in poor planning often leads to frustrating or crisis situations, which almost always leads to feeling stressed. Plan your time, make a schedule, and establish your priorities. Do this regularly until it becomes a productive habit. Take responsibility for your life. Be proactive. Problem solve and look for solutions rather than worrying.
  5. Take breaks; give yourself "me time." Learn that taking time to yourself for rejuvenation and relaxation is just as important as giving time to other activities. At minimum, take short breaks during your busy day. You might purposely schedule time in your day planner just for yourself so that you can recharge for all the other things you need to do. Learn your "red flags" for stress, and be willing to take time to do something about it.
  6. Take good care of yourself. Eat properly, get regular rest, and keep a routine. Allow yourself to do something you enjoy each day. Paradoxically, the time we need to take care of ourselves the most, when we are stressed, is the time we do it the least. When we feel overwhelmed we tend to eat poorly, sleep less, stop exercising, and generally push ourselves harder. This can tax the immune system and cause us to become ill more easily. If we take good care of ourselves to begin with, we will be better prepared to manage stress and accomplish our tasks in the long run.
  7. Learn to say "no." Learn to pick and choose which things you will say "yes" to and which things you will not. Protect yourself by not allowing yourself to take on every request or opportunity that comes your way. It is okay to decline a request for a favor. Saying "no" does not mean you are bad, self-centered, or uncaring. Learn skills of assertiveness so that you can feel more confident and have effective ways of saying "no."
  8. Get regular exercise. Exercising regularly can help relieve some symptoms of depression and stress, and help us to maintain our health. Exercise can build confidence, self-esteem, and self-image. It is also a great way to take time for yourself, blow off steam, and release physical tension.
  9. Get a hobby, do something different. For a balanced lifestyle, play is as important as work. Leisure activities and hobbies can be very enjoyable and inspiring, and they can offer an added sense of accomplishment to our lives. For ideas on new hobbies, browse through a bookstore or a crafts store, surf the internet, look up local organizations, see what classes or courses are available in your community or from a nearby college or university. Don't quickly dismiss new opportunities.
  10. Slow down. Know your limits and cut down on the number of things you try to do each day, particularly if you do not have enough time for them or for yourself. Be realistic about what you can accomplish effectively each day. Also, monitor your pace. Rushing through things can lead to mistakes or poor performance. Take the time you need to do a good job. Poorly done tasks can lead to added stress.
  11. Laugh, use humor. Do something fun and enjoyable such as seeing a funny movie, laughing with friends, reading a humorous book, or going to a comedy show.
  12. Learn to relax. Learn some relaxation exercises such as those discussed later on in this workshop. Develop a regular relaxation routine. Try yoga, meditation, or some simple quiet time. Relaxation techniques are skills that need to be developed with patience and practice so that we can use them effectively during difficult times of stress later on.

Academic Stress and Anxiety

Most students experience some level of nervousness before or during an exam. Some anxiety can be very helpful since this can motivate us to do our best on exams. Feeling anxious also tells us that we want to do well and that we care about our performance on tests. Too much anxiety, however, can become a problem if it interferes with our ability to do our best

    What causes test anxiety?

    Test anxiety can be caused by many different factors, each of which can impact a person in a unique way:

    Inadequate preparation:

    • Cramming the night before the test
    • Managing study time poorly
    • Failing to organize the study material
    • Having poor study habits

    Worrying about:

    • Past performance on tests
    • How other students are doing
    • The negative consequences of failure

    Negative thinking:

    • Telling yourself you are going to fail, are dumb, or are not as good as your classmates
    • Giving up because you believe these things

    What does it feel like?

    The symptoms of text anxiety may be different for different people. However, some common signs include:


    • Having difficulty reading and understanding the questions on the exam
    • Having difficulty organizing your thoughts
    • Having difficulty retrieving key words and concepts when answering questions
    • Doing poorly on an exam when you know the material

    Mental blocking:

    • “Going blank” on questions
    • Remembering the correct answers as soon as the test is over

    Physical symptoms:

    • Increased heart and breathing rates
    • Excessive sweating
    • Muscle tension

    How can I reduce test anxiety?

    Practice good time management

    • Learn to pace yourself when studying, and try to avoid laziness, procrastination, and day dreaming
    • Build confidence by studying throughout the semester and avoid cramming the night before the exam!

    Develop better study habits

    • Study the material well enough so that you can recall it even if you are under stress
    • Learn to concentrate on the material you are studying by:
      • Generating questions from your textbooks and lecture notes
      • Focusing on key words, concepts and examples from your books and notes
      • Making charts and outlines which organize the information

    Control your body

    • Use relaxation techniques, such as taking deep breaths to relax your body and reduce your stress
    • Maintain a healthy lifestyle by getting enough rest, eating properly, and exercising

    Think positively

    • Remember: “I can do this!” and “I have studied and I know the material!”
    • Make note cards with positive phrases that you can read when you find yourself thinking negatively

    Meditation and Relaxation

    Managing the demands of being a student, along with trying to maintain a social life and relationship with your family, can be a stressful experience. While some stress can be good for you and may help you to stay sharp and motivated, too much stress can result in feelings of anxiety, heightened physical concerns such as muscle tension or headaches, problems with sleeping, procrastination, and poor academic performance. Relaxation can be a key component in managing stress and becoming a successful student.

    Learning to relax can be accomplished in many ways. Developing a regular relaxation routine can help you to manage your overall level of stress while also providing you with the tools to handle unexpected events. As odd as it may sound, remember that learning to relax requires patience and practice. You may choose to learn these techniques on your own, or you can visit the Drexel University Counseling Center to work with a professional counselor on developing a relaxation lifestyle.

    Techniques and Suggestions

    • Learn how to breathe: When you are not relaxed, your breathing may be short and labored. Slowing down your breathing is a key first step in learning to relax. We have included two basic breathing exercises for you to try.

      • Relax your muscles: Muscle tension is a common complaint of people who have difficulty relaxing. Through the careful use of techniques such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, you can learn how to systematically relax and gain control over those aching muscles.
      • Practice meditation: When you hear the word meditation, you may think about sitting in a cross-legged position while chanting over and over. However, meditation can mean any number of practices that encourage you to remove yourself from a situation and enter into an alternative state of consciousness. The use of repetitive tasks can be an integral part of meditation, but it does not necessarily have to involve chanting. You may find that doing anything in a rhythmic, repetitive fashion helps you to relax and calm yourself. This may include walking, writing, exercising, or something as simple as counting to 10 (similar to counting sheep at night if you can’t sleep). The key is to focus your mind elsewhere, and doing so can help to relax you.
      • Listen to music: Music can have a powerful effect on our mood. Certain songs may inspire you to action, while others may have a soothing effect. Identify songs, artists or genres that help you to slow down and relax. When you know what works for you, take time for yourself to listen to the music and relax!
      • Learn to visualize yourself as relaxed: Another technique for relaxation involves imagining yourself in an environment where you feel comfortable and peaceful. For some, this may be at a favorite location such as a beach or mountain, while for others it may involve being with family or your partner. Once you have identified your stress-free spot, you can use it in the future to help relax yourself. Close your eyes and picture yourself in that location. Experience the sounds and smells and feelings that come from such a wonderful place. If you allow yourself to do this, even for 5 minutes at a time, you will be surprised at how relaxed you may feel.

      The content provided here is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended for self-diagnosis or self-treatment, nor should it replace the consultation of a trained medical or mental health professional. Please note that outside links are not under our control, and we cannot guarantee the content contained on them.