Published on November 15, 2012 | by Jennifer Logan


Overcoming fears and anxieties

A young girl with her face resting on her hand, looking worried.

Anxiety affects many young people while they are studying. [flickr]

Approaching a new year or term at university should be an exciting time.

Many students are filled with confidence, determination and focus.

Leaving home students have to gain independence quickly and get used to meeting new people as well as working well in unfamiliar situations.

Unfortunately, sometimes it is not as easy as this.

For some of us, university can be a very daunting and scary experience with some feeling lost or trapped.

Nearly all of us are used to feeling a little anxious when it comes to attending lectures, seminars or doing a presentation.

Many fear criticism or embarrassment and will display the usual physical symptoms of sweating or blushing.

For some of us, feeling anxious isn’t a bad thing as it increases the levels of adrenaline and other stress related hormones in our bodies- improving our performance.

Some of us will also feel more alert and the adrenaline can help us think much more clearly. For most, the anxiety never becomes problematic and once the nervous and stressful situation is over we will quickly return to to being normal.

However, this can be a lot more intense for some of us and these uncomfortable symptoms we experience may be more than a natural reaction to being nervous and stressed.

At university, we are often expected to speak knowledgeably and clearly in front of groups of unfamiliar people as part of our degree. We are told that we will be assessed on presentations and contributions to discussions in seminars and that future employers will expect good interpersonal skills from us when we leave university.

So why is this so difficult for some of us to do? And why do some of us feel so nervous?

Common Problems

There are many reasons we feel this way. Some of us doubt our ability to impress tutors or colleagues. This may lead to ‘social anxiety’, which is a marked fear of social or performance situations.

Psychologists Phil Topham from UWE Bristol and Graham Russell from the University of Plymouth investigated social anxiety in higher education.

They believe that while normal feelings of anxiety arise in most students, there are a significant number of students for whom these feelings lead to persistent, distressing anxiety and a reduced engagment with learning.

“An estimated 10 percent of university students experience significant social anxiety.” – Phil Topham

Topham and Russell’s research, which was recently published in The Psychologist, asks: “What is the impact of social anxiety on learning?”

“An estimated 10 per cent of university students experience significant social anxiety,” said Topham. “In our survey of over 1500 students at two Universities, self-selecting participants reported frequent anxiety in learning situations that involved interacting with students and staff.

“Among the findings was that these students habitually avoided learning situations like lectures and presentations by being absent or not participating. Some will even opt out of selecting modules that contain an element of presentation.

“The aim of the survey was to find out about the impact of social anxiety. One interpretation of the findings is that socially anxious students could be missing out on learning opportunities by excessively focusing on their anxieties,” he added.

Day-to-day life

Those who experience these feelings are missing out on learning opportunities and are holding back in developing their personality for future challenges.

Furthermore this anxiety can become problematic and severe when these feelings become frequent and start to effect day-to-day life.

Normal things like walking down the street, going to the supermarket or going to the pub can suddenly become terrifying and leave you feeling more anxious.

People suffering from heightened anxiety will then avoid going to these places that make them feel anxious and upset which increases the anxiety further. Holding down a job can also become extremely difficult.

Not being able to find a job or work experience can cause lack of motivation making us feel even more low and useless. Enjoying leisure can also become difficult and keeping relationships can become increasingly problematic.

Anxiety is not a physical illness but health problems can develop if the problem persists for a long time.

“I sought help and started having counseling sessions at my university which helped me put things into perspective.” -Sarah McCabe

Depression can develop and the immune system may become less effective and can lead to panic attacks.

However, it is possible to treat and control anxiety and reduce it to a manageable level or even get rid of the problem completely. Don’t keep this problem to yourself and suffer in silence, there are plenty of ways to get help.

Camberwell College of Arts graduate, Sarah McCabe, 21, experienced feelings of fear and anxiety when completing her Illustration degree.

She said: “I was required to do presentations in front of the whole class and this was an extremely scary experience for me and I would suddenly lose all focus and control over my body as I was feeling extremely anxious and fearful.

“Eventually I sought help and started having counseling sessions at my university which helped me put things into perspective and I gradually became happier and more confident in myself.”


There are many options for coping with fear and anxiety. The important step is believing you can and will overcome your anxiety problem eventually. You can attend counseling sessions at university and talk through what is worrying you.

UAL’s counseling team say: “Counseling is there for everybody so don’t let things spiral out of control, it is there for you. “Going to see a counselor may really help to put things into perspective and help you see a new way forward.”

To access these services you can register online at where you can book  an appointment by completing an online booking request form.

Alternatively you can email at or by phone via 020 7514 6251.

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