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How anxiety stunts learning (and how to stop it)

Posted by & filed under Careers and Beyond, Student Support.

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Anxiety is the brain’s way of telling the body it’s in danger, causing the body to prepare for fight-or-flight. While fight-or-flight reactions can be useful at certain times, they are not very helpful during the process of learning. In the fight-or-flight state, your heart rate rises, breathing speeds up, blood pressure and body temperature increase — these symptoms are not conducive to learning, retaining information or concentrating.

For effective learning to take place, you need to feel safe and comfortable. Below are eight things you can do to trump anxiety and keep your learning on track:

  1. Self-talk. If taken seriously and done mindfully, self-talk can reduce anxiety. When you feel panicked, try talking yourself out of it. Tell yourself comforting and soothing thoughts that can help calm you by either distracting you from the stressor or putting things in perspective.
  2. Breathe. When we are in a flight-or-flight state, our breathing changes and becomes less regulated. If panic begins to overcome you, be mindful of your breathing. Take control of it: Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold the breath for two seconds, and then let the breath out through your mouth for six seconds. Repeat several times until you feel the panic pass.
  3. Take charge. In an academic setting, do what you can to reduce stress-inducing triggers. For example, if you take classes in large, busy lecture halls that cause you anxiety, sit by the exit so that you feel you have the option to leave if you need to. Or if your workload feels overwhelming, break it up into smaller, more manageable chunks. Take short breaks to get water or air so that you give yourself the opportunity to refresh your outlook.
  4.  Don’t procrastinate. Don’t put off your work. It will just end up overwhelming you, causing you more anxiety. At the very least, commit to starting. Commit to doing five minutes. Once you get started, you might gain momentum and want to keep going. If nothing else, you will have started, which makes coming back to your work less daunting.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up. Not everything comes easy, and that’s okay. Let yourself feel challenged without feeling inadequate. Accept when something is difficult and instead of abandoning it or beating yourself up about it, face it and work through it.
  6. Avoid anxiety producers. Limit your consumption of caffeine and alcohol, which can cause anxiety.
  7. Share your feelings. Many people in your position are stressed out even if they don’t look it. It helps to talk to others and share your feelings and concerns. You’ll realise you’re not alone, and you might even discover some strategies and solutions to reduce your anxiety.
  8. Eat, sleep and move. Remember that a healthy diet, sleep and exercise are a great base for living anxiety-free. We all struggle with stressors, and anxiety is an inevitable part of life, but if you have a healthy lifestyle on your side, you are less likely to experience high levels of anxiety, which makes successful learning much more possible.

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