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What is anxiety? What are the signs?

Anxiety, fears, and worry are part of our human experience. Under appropriate circumstances, anxiety helps to heighten our alertness in dealing with unfamiliar situations, and ready our body for any action that is needed. Mild anxiety about an upcoming event (like an exam or important interview) also spurs us to prepare beforehand. Worry often helps facilitate problem solving and seeking out alternatives for handling situations that we rehearse beforehand in our minds.

Fears and worries are not "normal" when they become overwhelming and interfere with our daily living and ability to cope effectively. When fears and worries have reached this proportion, they are symptoms of an anxiety disorder, a general name for a group of more specific difficulties such as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Phobias
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The following is a list of symptoms typical of anxiety disorders:

  • unrealistic or excessive worry
  • unrealistic fears about objects or situations
  • exaggerated 'startle' reactions
  • 'flashbacks' of previous trauma
  • ritualistic behaviors to reduce anxiety
  • shakiness, trembling, muscle aches
  • sweating
  • cold, clammy hands
  • dizziness
  • racing or pounding heart
  • dry mouth
  • numbness/tingling in hands, feet, other body part
  • upset stomach
  • diarrhea
  • lump in the throat
  • rapid pulse and/or breathing rate

What can I do to help?

Generally, anxiety disorders are treated with a combination of specific kinds of therapies and medication. Some of the milder anxiety disorders can be very effectively treated with behavioral therapy. Even for the most severe anxiety disorders, many people will have some significant improvement. Contact the Counseling Center for further information or for assessment and treatment.

If you would like to learn more about treatment for these concerns, the Counseling Center has a variety of resources to help you. Call or stop by the Center to schedule an appointment to talk with a counselor. The Counseling Center is located in Hazen Hall across from the Faculty Office Building, next to the Dailey Hall. Call us at 585-395-2207

Everyone needs some level of stress or anxiety in order to motivate and energize them. However, if these levels become too high, they can interfere with academic performance. Moreover, each person has his or her own point at which stress begins to interfere. The information below will help you to determine what your optimum stress level is and provide some tips on how to manage stress when it goes "over the edge."

Stress chart:

You will notice that stress improves performance up to a certain point, and then performance begins to diminish. When the point of diminishing returns is reached is varies from individual to individual. Indicators that you may have reached your "overload point" include:

  • Feeling unable to engage with your work
  • Feeling unable to divide the work into manageable units
  • Feelings of panic
  • Feeling unable to absorb/learn any more material
  • Feeling as if the work is "the enemy"
  • Solutions include the following:
  • Stop and breathe
  • Talk to someone you trust
  • Reassess to see what's doable
  • Formulate a plan including a timetable
  • Set priorities*

*(These are "possible" courses of action. As with any activity designed to reduce stress and/or ward off panic, the exact steps to take will depend on who you are and what makes you feel in control. Whatever you choose to do, engage in some action to break the cycle of inaction. Sometimes talking to a counselor can be helpful in determining a course of action.)

Test anxiety: a special kind of anxiety

Some students perform poorly on tests for reasons other than lack of preparation or poor study skills.   This common problem is called test anxiety and it occurs when students are too nervous to recall learned material during an exam.  If a student has not adequately studied for a test and feels very nervous, that does not qualify as true test anxiety.  Test anxiety may be caused by a number of factors such as poor test performance in the past, lack of confidence, feelings of extreme pressure or fear of failure, nervousness about having to perform or a number of other problems.  For many people, test anxiety is often a long term problem that began as far back as elementary school.  For others, it starts in college.  Whatever the origins of test anxiety, it is important to understand that a small amount of anxiety is both normal and beneficial.  It helps improve motivation and often improves performance.  Too much tension, however, hinders performance and becomes damaging.  If you experience extreme nervousness, dread or fear before exams and have put forth your best effort to prepare in advance, you may be suffering from test anxiety.  Simply put, test anxiety prevents you from doing your best on exams.

Symptoms of test anxiety can be separated into 2 categories: mental stress & physical stress.

  • MENTAL STRESS- includes your thoughts and worries about tests (before, during or after tests)
    • Negative thoughts - “I can’t pass this test.”
    • All or nothing thinking - “I always fail tests!”
    • Pressure - “I have to make an A on this test.”
    • Inability to concentrate
    • Personal myths - “I’m not the brains in the family.”
    • Irrational beliefs - “Everyone in class can tell I failed.”
    • Mind reading - “My teacher thinks I’m stupid because I made a mistake.”
  • PHYSICAL STRESS- includes physical feelings, sensations and tensions
    • Muscle tension, Nausea, Shortness of breath
    • Perspiration, Clammy hands and feet, Rapid heartbeat
    • Restlessness, Increased blood pressure
    • Heightened awareness of surroundings (especially the behavior of others)
    • people sitting nearby, watching the clock, awareness of when others finish their test, classroom noise, etc.)
    • Mental blocks or a general inability to perform complex intellectual task

Qualities of Test Anxiety:

  • Test anxiety is more intense than average nervousness before a test and is not subject specific (i.e. only occurs during math tests)
  • Not caused by lack of preparation or poor test testing skills (although, these circumstances will likely cause someone with test anxiety more nervousness)
  • The anxiety is basically limited to test taking scenarios (general anxiety will overlap into other areas of life)
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Last Updated 8/15/18