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Mental Health

Fear, Anxiety and Getting an Education

Common Obstacles

Sarah Newth, PhD

Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 10

Getting an education can be difficult for people who are prone to excessive fear and anxiety. The purpose of this article is to briefly review how symptoms of anxiety disorders can create problems for students of all ages including children, youth and adults. It is important that affected individuals and families are able to recognize how anxiety is interfering with meeting educational goals so they can take appropriate action. Otherwise, unmanaged symptoms of excessive anxiety can limit a student’s ability to reach their full potential.

Going to school or being in the classroom can be a problem for some students. Both children and adults can refuse to go to school or enter the classroom for a variety of reasons. Some fear being apart from loved ones or doing something on their own. Individuals suffering from panic attack symptoms may have difficulty due to fear of something terrible happening if they were to have a panic attack while in class (e.g., losing control, embarrassing themselves, or not being able to escape). Some individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) may have difficulty being in the classroom due to obsessional concerns (e.g., fear of being contaminated; fear of accidentally harming others; fear of certain people, colours, or objects). Other individuals with excessive worry or social anxiety may find it difficult due to fear of being watched or judged negatively by other students or the teacher.

Giving presentations or speaking out in class is another very common trigger for those suffering from anxiety; for some, it is fear of experiencing symptoms of anxiety or panic while speaking in front of others (e.g., trembling or shaking, difficulty breathing); for others, it is fear of saying the wrong thing, looking stupid or doing something else embarrassing. Some individuals will have trouble completing their education or obtaining good marks because they do everything they can to avoid giving presentations or speaking out in class.

Taking tests or exams is unavoidable when getting an education and some degree of test-taking anxiety is normal and expected for most of us. However, for some people, excessive anxiety interferes with successfully completing oral or written exams. Often this anxiety begins during the weeks and days leading up to the exam (anticipatory anxiety). Individuals with panic attack symptoms may fear having these symptoms during the exam. Individuals prone to excessive worry or social anxiety may fear failure or not meeting personal standards. Individuals who have perfectionistic standards may be especially vulnerable to excessive performance anxiety during tests or other educational activities (e.g., extreme fear of not getting an A or making a mistake).

Studying material for a class can also be disrupted by symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Many individuals with anxiety symptoms experience difficulty concentrating, which can make it difficult to learn and memorize material (e.g., trying to read a page and then realizing you don’t remember most of what you just read). The need to reread or rewrite that occurs in OCD can significantly lengthen study times. Other compulsions or rituals can also interfere (e.g., needing tissue to turn pages, turning a page on a positive thought, etc.). It can also be difficult to make decisions when suffering from anxiety and this indecision can interfere with successfully completing educational assignments.

Other obstacles associated with excessive anxiety in the educational setting include difficulties with effective time management, transportation to school (e.g., fear of driving or taking the bus), using public resources such as the washroom or library, and speaking with teachers or professors. Approximately 50% of individuals with an anxiety disorder also experience symptoms of depression including problems with appetite, sleep, fatigue or motivation, which can make getting an education even more difficult.

It can be very tempting to avoid or quit school when coping with poorly-managed anxiety symptoms, but this typically increases anxiety symptoms and lowers self-esteem. If you or a loved one has a diagnosed anxiety disorder, it is always worth exploring the available options. Many schools, colleges and universities are able to provide special arrangements via the student resource centre or disability office such as extra time for tests, or taking tests in a private room. These arrangements are typically done in a sensitive and confidential manner that protects the privacy of the student while maximizing their ability to learn and complete their coursework. Ideally, such arrangements are one part of an evidence-based treatment plan — such as medications or cognitive-behavioural treatment — that gradually assists the person in overcoming their anxiety problems.

It is important to note that some degree of anxiety and stress about getting an education is normal and experienced by many students. However if the symptoms of anxiety are excessive, become chronic, and interfere with one’s life, then they may reflect symptoms of an anxiety disorder. For more detailed information about symptoms of anxiety, anxiety disorders, evidence-based treatments, a self-test and further reading materials please see the Anxiety Disorder Association of BC (ADABC) web site at www.anxietybc.com.

In summary, in the face of excessive anxiety, getting an education can be challenging. However with an effective management plan in place, most individuals are capable of overcoming excessive anxiety in order to meet their educational goals.

 
About the author
Sarah is the Provincial Liaison for the Anxiety Disorders Association of BC (ADABC). She is a cognitive-behavioural therapist, provides consultation to other mental health professionals and has published articles in the area of anxiety, stress and coping

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