Analyzing Academic Anxiety
By Christian Corey
Students often talk in generalities about the stress they experience in college, but the specific parts of academic life that create anxiety are often not addressed.
Rochester University psychology professors shared what they notice are the top contributors to anxiety in college students.
Teri Butcher, academic adviser and an adjunct psychology instructor, said collegiate deadlines affect freshman and sophomore students more because they were in high school during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they were given leeway concerning deadlines.
Butcher said, “I’ve personally noticed, especially since we’re having graduates that experienced three years of COVID in high school, a lot of students have gotten used to not having deadlines... especially in online classes. Also, in high school these days, they give multiple opportunities for students to turn in assignments to get good grades.”
Dr. Jessica Matyas, chair of the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Science and an associate professor of psychology, said essays in college are the most common contributor to academic anxiety because of an essay’s required length, fear of plagiarism, style of writing, and trying to comply with the specific rules.
“With papers being more of an applied assignment than memorization of exams, I feel the stress comes from being able to put together coherent thoughts. It requires more concentration and more forethought,” she said.
Butcher said both exam preparation and exams themselves induce high levels of anxiety. Collegiate exam preparation creates anxiety because it forces students to apply themselves and think critically.
Also, the type of exams can induce high levels of anxiety. For example, written exams create higher levels of anxiety because it is more difficult for students to articulate what professors expect of them. Also, timed exams force the mind to think at an unnatural pace, she said.
ANXIETY DIFFERS BETWEEN SEXES
Men and women differ in their levels of anxiety, what gets them anxious and how they cope with anxiety.
“Research shows there are higher rates for women than men, by a ratio of two to one. Women have twice the anxiety that men do, sometimes for different reasons. Men tend to manage their anxiety differently than women,” said Dr. Gordon E. MacKinnon, clinical psychologist,
MEN VS. WOMEN STRESSORS
Women are concerned about their short-term appearance regarding their grades and worry if they don’t perform at a high-level, people might think they don’t belong in college, Matyas said.
MacKinnon said men are less concerned about grades and more concerned about finishing their degree, their long-term goals and accomplishments regarding their future. Matyas said these male concerns about the future stem from the American cultural expectation that says men must be the providers.
HOW MEN AND WOMEN COPE
Matyas said, women tend to have a more difficult time compartmentalizing different aspects of their life than men. Women might be more emotionally vulnerable, and they deal with their anxiety through conversations and are more willing to seek therapy.
MacKinnon said, men tend to deal with their anxiety through hobbies. However, men might be prone to resort to unhealthy acts of relieving anxiety, such as hiding it, getting angry, and experimenting with dangerous amounts of drugs and alcohol.
Matyas said the acts that men engage in to relieve stress may be a direct result of toxic masculinity, which says men should not seek therapy for relieving their anxiety.
MacKinnon said white students experience lower levels of anxiety than minorities. Typically, the anxiety white students experience is a direct result of believing they must live up to their parent’s expectations. These thoughts can result in generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety.
MacKinnon said minority students experience higher levels of anxiety, and their anxiety may stem from being first-generation college students or attending a predominantly white university.
Being a first-generation college student can mean they lack academic support on the home front concerning assignments, scholarships or financial aid.
Matyas said minorities might be reluctant to seek help for their anxiety from white authority figures, such as psychology professionals. Fear of seeking professional help can result in continued high levels of anxiety.
ANXIETY SIDE EFFECTS
MacKinnon said anxiety symptoms include:
mental and physical shutdowns
MacKinnon said grounding and mindfulness helps with acute stress. Guided imagery has people think of their own special places to help relax the mind. Biofeedback measures blood pressure and heart rates, which enlightens people on how to regulate anxiety through relaxation training. Sleep hygiene requires a person to follow a regular sleeping pattern and avoid blue light before bed. These are some solutions students can incorporate to cope with anxiety.