Going to School with PTSD: Online Education and Anxiety

By James Hinton

I was an older student with an anxiety issue. After spending time in the Army, including several combat tours, I had been diagnosed with PTSD. Being around large numbers of strangers worried me. Noisy settings where I was not completely in control gave me the need to run for it. I would even feel a touch agoraphobic if I was not close to something I could bunker up within.

When I made the decision to obtain a college degree after getting out, these all presented me with significant problems. While some of the university classes I participated in had relatively small class sizes that enabled me to learn faces fairly quickly and find a certain degree of comfort with, large classes were a daily struggle. I would have to position myself close to doors so I could bolt outside for relief if needed. More boisterous classes could result in frequent, embarrassing episodes where I just plain had to get out.

Eventually I made it through and obtained my Bachelors, but it was not a particularly easy or enjoyable process. My struggles had frequently led to my considering quitting, which had only caused the depression that comes with PTSD to get worse. Preparing for class had been an anxiety inducing process that involved my wondering whether I’d make it through to the end, or have to make a dash for the door yet again.

I still wonder sometimes how I made it to graduation.

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Tips for Reducing Academic Anxiety

By Anne Davies

Study and exam-related stress is a problem for many students, whether or not they’re focused on achieving academic excellence, and it’s something that can affect students of any age. Nobody is immune to academic stress, but there are plenty of things you can do to reduce anxiety that centers on studying and exams.

Meditation can help you do better on exams. (Photo courtesy of Grand Velas Puerto Vallarta via Flickr.)

Meditation can help you do better on exams. (Photo courtesy of Grand Velas Puerto Vallarta via Flickr.)

Preparation and Organization

There are several key skills that go a long way towards reducing anxiety, just because they form a solid base of preparation and organization that help you stay focused and stay on top of your workload. Having a comprehensive study system is crucial, and it’s also important that whatever system you develop is one that works for you.

For example, having a good note-taking system is essential for college lectures, but the same system won’t necessarily work for everyone. Some people prefer to write notes by hand, others prefer to use a laptop, and some like to take audio recordings of lectures and write up notes at their leisure. It’s just a matter of trying different methods to find out what works best for you. It’s also useful to determine what your learning style is; some people learn best by listening, some by doing, some by reading or writing, and if you’re trying to force yourself into a style that isn’t optimal, studying instantly becomes less effective and more stressful.

One of the most important skills to have is that of time management: being able to organize your time and use it effectively, prioritizing tasks based on how urgent they are, and sticking to whatever schedule you create for yourself. Without good time management, you’re likely to end up completing assignments at the last minute, losing sleep studying the night before exams, putting yourself through a considerable amount of unnecessary stress, and impairing your academic performance. Study and exam anxiety is often related to lack of preparation, so the key way to reduce that anxiety is simply to create a study schedule and stick with it.

And finally, take advantage of the wealth of apps and programs that have been created for time management and study organization. There are some incredibly useful tools available—many of which are free—that can help you improve your study habits and manage your time more effectively.

Of course, for some people, no amount of preparation can help reduce academic anxiety to a manageable level, so it’s also useful to consider other methods of coping with study-related stress.

Relaxation Techniques

The second aspect is learning how to relax and control your anxiety; and while to some this might seem like the easy part, it’s very difficult for many people. It’s especially difficult when study anxiety isn’t rooted in tangible problems like lack of organization, because when anxiety develops for no apparent reason, it’s harder to manage because there are no concrete ways to solve the root cause. Regardless of the cause of the anxiety, however, there are some techniques that can definitely help reduce anxiety and stress, and all of the problems and symptoms they cause. One of these is meditation—a technique that has become widely used all over the world by all kinds of people, is easy to start, and when practiced regularly, is very effective. There’s more than one kind of meditation, however; for example, there’s mindfulness meditation, guided meditation, Taoist Qi gong, and transcendental meditation. While none are specifically aimed at managing stress, the general consensus is that mindfulness meditation, or Vipassana, is the most effective in this regard. Recent studies show that this kind of meditation can improve cognitive function as well as reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, so it’s perfect for students.

Meditation isn’t going to be possible during a test situation, of course, but there are some related techniques that are perfect for reducing anxiety when it hits. Simply spending thirty seconds or a minute engaging in deep breathing—long, slow breaths in and out—can be very calming. Another useful technique is “mindfulness moments,” in which you take a few seconds to engage with your surroundings by taking note of what you can see, hear, smell, and feel. Engaging your senses helps you feel more grounded, and helps you link back to the calming sensations you feel during mindfulness meditation exercises.


For more tips on relaxation and other study skills, order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!

How to get rid of test anxiety

Do you do great on homework and essays, but freeze up on exams?  Do you have nightmares about the SAT?  Two recent articles in The New York Times and Time magazine address this common malady, and they have some interesting advice on how to bring your nerves under control.

Thinking about test anxiety.

Thinking about test anxiety.

Advice from the Time magazine article “Relax, It’s Only A Test,” by Annie Murphy Paul (Feb. 11, 2013)

1.  Engage in “expressive writing.”  Spend ten minutes before the exam writing about your thoughts and feelings.  This helps you cast off your anxiety and focus on the task at hand.

2.  Do a “values-affirmation exercise.”  Choose something that’s important to you – for example, music, family, religion, anything – and write about why it matters to you.  Research has found that minority and female students who did this improved their test-day performance.

3.  Write down positive statements, self-affirmations or mantras and keep them in a handy place.  The article describes how girls at the Laurel School in Ohio were given “special test-day pencil[s],” which were wrapped in pieces of paper that contained encouraging (and true) statements such as, “Girls get higher grades than boys.”

4.  Make sure you’ve prepared for the test the right way!  It may not be enough to read and re-read your notes and books – you should also take practice tests, ask yourself questions about the material, and try to predict what’s going to be on the exam.

5.  Do relaxation exercises, such as yoga.  The article describes how third-graders who were taught breathing and relaxation exercises showed a significant reduction in test anxiety.

Advice from The New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (Feb. 6, 2013)

This article’s a bit more scientific and complex.  Its basic premise is:

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

The article talks about the COMT gene, which has two variants: one that slowly removes dopamine from the brain, and another that clears it quickly.  People carry one variant or the other, or a combination of the two.  Studies have found that under normal conditions, those with the slow-acting variant have a cognitive advantage.  However, in stressful situations – e.g., test time – the people with the slower enzyme can’t remove dopamine fast enough, and those with the speedier kind take the lead.  They’re often the ones who do better on tests.

Some researchers have labeled those with the fast-acting enzyme “Warriors” and those with the slower variant “Worriers.”  One isn’t necessarily better than the other, it’s just that the Warriors may have an advantage in situations such as tests.  About half of us are a mix between Warrior and Worrier, while a quarter carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter are Worrier-only.

So are we all predestined to be good or bad test takers, based on our genes?  Researchers say it’s not that simple.  People who are Worriers can significantly improve their performance if they are exposed to stress the right way and allowed to acclimate to it.  Based on their research, here are some more ways you can become a grade-A test-taker:

1.  Tell yourself that stress is beneficial.  It may sound weird, but it works!  Here’s an interesting tidbit from the article:

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.

The study found that the students were still stressed, but that “it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.”  The researcher also found that “the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.”  Amazingly, hearing that stress is beneficial can improve your cognitive function!

2.  “Inoculate” yourself to stress by engaging in competitive activities you might actually enjoy, such as math competitions, trivia contests, spelling bees, science fairs, chess teams, etc.  Although these things can be stressful, they can also be fun and rewarding.  And getting used to competition will make it easier to take tests.

Good luck!


 

For more tips on studying and much more, order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!