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3 strategies to manage anxiety I learnt at university

I’ve come to the point in my life where I realise that what I did one day does not epitomise who I am; but it epitomised who I was that day. I look back to things I’ve done even in the last week and cannot understand how I did them -it becomes unrecognisable to me because of my constantly changing self-perception. Without this progress, I wouldn’t be able to succeed academically.

This year hasn’t been significant for me academically inasmuch as it has personally. I’ve progressed a lot since I started university last year. To do well at university, it’s necessary for me to have first learnt how to plan and approach assignments in the way which works best for me. Having increased my knowledge and awareness of how I best work -when to take a break, when to start, when to stop- has helped massively and made things a lot easier. If I had not learnt to recognise how I work best and what I need, then the times where I might not do any work for a day would be regretted instead of accepted.

Before now, I would make myself feel bad and increasingly anxious through creating the expectation of myself of having to do work as soon as I get it; and, in my mind, it’s bad if I don’t. I’d cause myself anxiety, stress and worry, spending a long time starting my work but then feeling like I hadn’t done enough. Combining this with the self-set expectation of needing to finish it as soon as possible, I’d end up putting myself down. But now I know it’s okay to not work every day. It’s okay to have a day off. Even if I don’t work on my assignments every day, when I have had the thought that I hadn’t done any today, I felt secure knowing the exact the point I was at with my work because I am using my introverted strengths and planning well. This sums up the transition I’ve experienced of approaching university work but also how comfortable I am with myself. To me, they go together.

There have been some insightful realisations for me along the way. I’ve improved my coping mechanisms and found solutions for anxiety since I first started university. University has been a catalyst for me and all the experiences I’ve had of it have equal value and significance in teaching me about myself and others. Here are three strategies I have been practising that work for me:

Where’s your focus?

The first realisation I had regarding anxiety happened when I was on my way to a social event, and anticipating a number of people far higher than my comfort zone was used to dealing with. It was a weekly event and I had been invited on previous occasions. The prospect of it, or at least the way I imagined it to be, was unsettling to the point where I wanted to escape the idea of it, let alone the real thing. I eventually decided to go for no reason other than just to see how it is and try it. I was walked from my accommodation and was of course thinking of nothing but the event. The typical thoughts starting with ‘what if’ and thinking of all things which I believed would make me uncomfortable but not necessarily realistic. I became aware of these thoughts and for the first time, instead of entertaining them, I ignored them. Instead, I simply focused on getting there. After all, I wasn’t doing anything else than walking to it. When I was aware of just walking, I thought, “Hey, I made it easier by not thinking about it.” Having learnt I worried less when I placed my focus elsewhere, I approached similar scenarios in the same way.

How are you breathing?

I came across something which said its philosophy is exemplified by simply walking down the street and not worrying what others think of you. Although it seems really obvious, I had not tried that before. The next time I went out, I put it to practice, especially at traffic lights. I found those encounters with other people when I was just out and about the most challenging. The fact there is a period where I am standing opposite someone else, trying not to catch their attention by looking at them and then thinking about whether they have noticed me and what they think of me. But for the first time, I tried to stand as still as I could and look around as little as possible whilst I waited for the light to go green.

I noticed that when I became aware of what I was trying to do, this was when I was my most restless, anxious and self-conscious. To counter this, I focused on my breathing more than normally. I breathed in calmly but breathed out heavier. I did this each time I was at the traffic lights and after several of these scenarios, I worried less and was less restless whilst waiting. I became less concerned with what others thought and instead relaxed more and did what I was comfortable doing, ignoring thoughts of ‘what if’.

What if you let go of your thoughts?

Focusing on my breath and what I was doing, made it possible to not have to look at every person that I walked past. Instead, I just let them pass. If I had any irrational thoughts about them, I let them pass as well. It was around this time where I became aware that how I thought others saw me, did not reflect how they really saw me. How I portray myself to others is based on how I see myself. There were still thoughts which were negative, and when I became aware of these thoughts, I reminded myself, “They don’t reflect who I am.” I was disappointed with myself for having those thoughts because I was constantly striving to behave in a way which reflects my nature –which these negative thoughts contradicted. It’s like those thoughts were almost automatic and for so long I identified with and as them.

What I’ve learned is that when I don’t entertain thoughts of worry, I don’t worry. The thinking therefore causes the worry. The more you think about worrying, the more anxious you become. We don’t have to chase our thoughts, we can watch them pass us by. Importantly, I now know that I am not the same as my thoughts. Not everything I think is true about myself or others, so they shouldn’t be treated as if they are. As an observer of my thinking, I get to choose where to place my focus.

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