By Lucy Berrington, MS
Anxiety is prevalent among students, and harms them academically, studies show. First year students appear to be especially vulnerable. Counseling and other interventions can help students develop resilience skills that support their success through college and life changes. Students report that they are open to seeking help—but seeking help requires that they recognize their anxiety as a valid and treatable issue, and this is often a barrier. Here’s how faculty, staff, and parents can help students access help when they could benefit from it. [For a checklist of anxiety symptoms that merit professional support, scroll down.]

1 Constructively motivate students

Academic demands and expectations are among the primary sources of anxiety for students, experts say. That anxiety undermines’ students learning and performance. “For well-understood adaptive mechanisms within the brain and body, the fight-flight-freeze response inhibits cognitive processing, complex problem solving, and efficient recall,” says Dr. Rick Hanson, associate vice president for academic and professional success at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas. For faculty, he says, “The challenge is to create just enough anxiety to motivate students to prepare, then help them become calm and focused prior to the exam.” Here’s what helps:

  • Set expectations clearly. “Make sure everyone in class has a syllabus on day 1; what’s coming up, deadlines, grading schemes. I’ve heard of courses where the professor provide the syllabus three weeks into the semester; anxiety at that point is almost inevitable,” says Dr. Keith Anderson, staff psychologist and outreach coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
  • Keep student-friendly office hours (not 9–5) and encourage them to check in; also emphasize the availability of TAs and academic tutoring.
  • Avoid over-emphasizing the importance of tests and projects. Remind anxious students that college is a developmental process and that setbacks are integral to success.
  • Help your students retain perspective. “Students rank school success very high in importance. On a 1–20 scale, they rank it 18,” says Dr. Anderson. “Eighteen should be for your best friend dying, your parents’ house burning down, a chronic illness. A test should not be that important.”

2    Emphasize the academic value of emotional health support

Reframe and normalize help-seeking behavior as the emotionally intelligent choice. Here’s how Dr. Carol Lucas, director of counseling and support services at Adelphi University, New York, frames the message for students: “When you are experiencing certain symptoms, it might be due to overwhelming mental stressors. To help avoid an impact on your academic performance, you might consider using the mental health services on campus. There is a cost associated with not seeking help if this is something that could work for you.”

Affirm the student’s ability. Here’s what gets anxious students to the counseling center, says Dr. Hanson: “Most often, successful faculty referrals to my office included affirming to the students that you (faculty) can see that their performance is below their content knowledge or skill level (assuming that this is the case) and that you recommend that they better develop test taking and anxiety management skills. This reinforces your belief in their ability while also directing them to additional resources beyond the typical ‘study harder.’”

3    Speak up for the counseling center and academic supports

Be part of a campus-wide conversation about available resources and services. “Emphasize to students that the benefits of seeking help are bigger than the inconvenience and other barriers,” says Dr. Lucas. “It is usually left to the mental health services to get this message out, and we can’t do that ourselves. These suggestions need to come from different areas and entry points.”

Collaborate with your counseling and academic support center colleagues to develop creative resources. For example:

  • Online anxiety management resources (videos, guides, and checklists) that can be embedded into course management software (such as Blackboard and Moodle)
  • Kiosks placed in student unions and residence halls where students can privately self-screen for emotional health issues. “Seeing the kiosks helps students realize this is a common problem on campus, and it helps reduce the stigma,” says Dr. Anderson.

4     Clarify which signs and symptoms merit professional support

Share this checklist with students. Developmentally, this age group has an increasing need for autonomy and a preference for solving their own problems. The key is self-awareness about where to draw the line.

Anxiety checklist 

If you answer yes to even one or two of these questions, it’s worth discussing your symptoms and experiences with a health professional:

  • Do you worry intensely about things that may or may not happen?
  • Do you ruminate, running over things again and again in your mind so that it interferes with sleep?
  • Are you having a hard time concentrating (more so than usual)?
  • Are you isolating yourself?
  • Are you experiencing unusual anger, irritability, sadness?
  • Have you stopped functioning normally in some ways?
  • Are you not eating, sleeping, or socializing normally?
  • Are you having a physical response to stress (such as fast heartbeats or clammy hands?
  • Are you routinely turning to alcohol or other drugs as a stress-relief mechanism?