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'We must act on anxiety experienced by students'

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As a student at university I have never been a stranger to stress, but it was not until recently that I discovered first-hand the negative effects of the more serious aspects of anxiety.

Most students encounter stress over exams, relationships, and work; so when that stress develops into an anxiety disorder, it is easy for a student to assume it is normal. Anxiety is not uncommon and is often left untreated due to stigma and a lack of education on what truly constitutes an anxiety disorder.

I was shocked to learn recently that anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illness affecting adults and children alike, and the average onset age for anxiety is between 18 and 24 - the age of most students.

Anxiety can appear in various forms. It can be social, panic, obsessive-compulsive, or relevant to a specific phobia. It can also develop in the form of a general and heightened anxiety. Regardless of the form, an anxiety disorder can impact on your daily life and make what were once simple tasks difficult to complete.

So how can you tell if what you believe was only stress has developed into something more severe?

Stress is normal – it can motivate us or protect us in certain situations – but anxiety will affect your cognitive, behavioural, emotional, and physical reactions to daily situations.

Consistent worrying and short-term memory problems can indicate the cognitive effects of anxiety, and emotionally you may begin to feel a sense of impending loneliness or experience an onset of depression.

Physically, it is common to have various aches or pains, digestive issues or frequently feel ill when under stress.

If you’re worried about a friend, behavioural changes that could suggest they are experiencing abnormal stress include the development of a nervous habit, such as picking at hair or biting nails, a change in eating or sleeping pattern and purposefully isolating themselves from others.

I’ve experienced moments where I wanted to be around others but found these situations so anxiety provoking that I felt being alone was my only option.

If you begin to notice these habits in yourself or a friend, it can be an indicator of an anxiety disorder that may benefit from treatment.

The stigma surrounding abnormal anxiety often prevents those affected from seeking help. Admitting to an anxiety disorder is not an easy thing to do – it can leave you feeling vulnerable. I struggled with feelings of weakness and was ashamed to admit what was really going on – but over time I have learned that the strongest thing you can do for yourself is to treat the illness.

I came across a great analogy when researching anxiety disorders – if you had a broken leg would you leave it untreated? Without casting the leg it will only begin to affect you more. The same issue can apply to a mental illness; if left untreated, it will not heal.

For some it isn’t stigma that prevents them from seeking help, but rather a lack of education on the matter. Many students do not realise they should seek help; I myself was not aware I would benefit from CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) until I reached 20 years old, while I had suffered from anxiety for much longer.

If the anxiety becomes unmanageable and begins to affect your daily life, seeking help is the most beneficial measure you can take.

But if help isn’t immediately available, there are many preventative measures you can take. Simply letting someone you trust know of your anxiety is often helpful. Finding a creative outlet or developing a distraction technique can help you manage day-to-day; it can be writing, developing a breathing pattern or going for a walk – whatever works for you when anxious feelings begin to set in.

By recognising the common nature of these disorders we can help to combat an illness that impedes daily life and often stifles students from reaching their full potential. As students we have incredible power to change stigma – and I believe we should use it.

Emma Bleznak is a current student and recent Nursing Times intern

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