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Careers Café

Helping anxious students


I’ve had a few reminders lately that university students represent a particular subset of the population. Like most of their professors, a lot of our students are type-A, hard-working, driven and perhaps tend towards overachievement. Traits that most of us can sympathize with. While these personality traits may well have brought them to their current level of success, they can also lead to levels of anxiety and stress that less passionate students never have to face. The vast majority of professors care not just about the academic performance of students, but also about their personal well-being, and indeed the two can influence each other. Below, with the caveat that I am not a professional counsellor, are a few suggestions that might help these students get past their stresses and make use of their intellectual gifts.

  1. Consider whether problematic behaviours, such as missing classes or exams, or handing assignments in late, might actually be symptoms of overachievement, not underachievement. You can only understand these actions by getting to know students as individuals.
  2. Make sure you’re familiar with student counselling services and can direct students to the resources they can benefit from. It is critically important that vulnerable students be directed to professional help. But perhaps the more important role of a professor or adviser is to make students feel comfortable and confident in reaching for those resources. Many students feel stupid or weak if they ask for help or therapy, and if you are their first contact point, perhaps the most important thing you ever do with that student will be to make them comfortable with seeking and following through with further help.
  3. Once you’ve ensured that they will seek consistent professional help outside your office, remind students that their anxiety is another side of the personality traits that have led to their successes. Many students recognize that they are suffering a higher level of stress than their peers, and feel stupid that they can’t handle their responsibilities as easily as other students around them. They might need a reminder that there are good consequences of anxiety as well as bad ones, and that they need to work on managing, rather than eliminating, their drive to succeed.
  4. Listen. As academics, we spend an unusual amount of time telling other people what we think. Sometimes, however, we might just need to know what our students think.
  5. Treat each student as an individual. Actions and resources that help some students might not help others. They might need a little help and guidance in finding the right solutions for themselves.
  6. Ask them what advice they’d give friends in a similar position to themselves, and ask them if that advice would help them, too. This helps students step back from their situation and realize that their difficulties are faced by other people, too, and don’t necessarily represent failures.

Our universities are filled with amazing students – people who will one day change the world. Some of them need little help from us in achieving their goals. But some students need not just the academic tools, but emotional tools, as well, to ensure that they can live up to their potential. All Canadian universities have resources that can help them in learning these skills. Sometimes students just need to be guided to where those resources are, and given a little encouragement to reach for them.

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  1. Camilo / June 19, 2013 at 13:55

    Good post. A good start to get the conversation going about anxiety issues. However, one of the issues that is untouched here, and one of the main sources of anxiety for many students, are particular disabilities/impediments that affect students, which may comprise a variety of issues including learning disabilities, mental health, and physical issues, none of which speaks to or influences their intellectual capacities. As universities become more inclusive and more sensitive towards students from a broad range of backgrounds, the issue of anxiety is becoming more apparent, not less because more and more students with disabilities/impairments are getting into the higher educational system because they now have the opportunities to do so. In my experience as an University instructor, I’ve encountered students dealing with a variety of issues. It is true that most students that worry about their grade or performance and experience anxiety may be experiencing what we can call, for the lack of a better word, anxiety in the “normal range” level. However, there are more and more students experiencing anxiety issues due to a variety of personal and intimate problems that do require professional help. So, just to keep that in mind. In addition, I’d like to throw an idea out there. I believe that much emotional support is given when the professor/instructor can speak with a voice of his/her own about such issues and let know students that their disability/impairment, and in turn the anxiety that they experience, are not obstacles to their intellectual performance. Many of us have experienced anxiety. Some of this may be what I have referred to in an earlier sentence as “normal range” anxiety, but some of this may be because of personal issues that, hopefully, we’re very comfortable with now. So, sharing is a big step but one that sometimes is needed with students. I’d suggest to all of you dealing with students to share your experiences. It lets them know that they’re not alone.

  2. Jill / June 19, 2013 at 20:35


    Working through grief is different for all people. It would be good to have a post on grief and the student.

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