What coping strategies are there for someone with an anxiety disorder when trying to study?

by Dav
(York, UK)

Question:

I used to have selective mutism as a child and well into my teens. This, with much challenge, shifted to social anxiety which is now well under control in my late twenties. I had decided to take on a open uni course, which involves me studying a degree at home. Unfortunately I have underlying GAD also and I can't shift it. I have coping strategies that allow me to deal with it in day to day life and work but I cannot deal with it when it comes to my studies. It's so bad that when I get stuck on something, but then don't let myself get distracted, my body and mind get so exhausted I fall asleep. This is regardless of having slept well. I have been to the doctors and there are no underlying health issues. We organised and maintained a diet and sleep plan so it's definitely nothing else and the pattern shows a clear correlation - I have no doubt. However, when I try to find coping strategies for studies and anxiety, they are very standard and aimed at the average person or with a focus on exams. I need day to day coping strategies for someone with an anxiety disorder - especially since most stress and anxiety can make you procrastinate but for someone like myself, even if I fight it and use all my energy to focus, it becomes seriously crippling, zoning out or falling to sleep regularly, as frequently as every 10mins of studies.

Please can anyone can help at all - I really can't keep doing this anymore. I'm now taking citalopram, prescribed to me to help someone but mainly to hold off the depression this, amongst other things, causes.

Thank you,
Dav



Answer

Hi Dav,

It sounds like it’s been pretty tough for a long time and you have already done a lot of work to deal with the challenges you’ve faced in life. I’m sure that you can find a way around this too.

It seems like this isn’t a straightforward problem with one solution – there are quite a few issues involved and a few details it would be useful to know – such as, what time of day do you try to study. You mention work, so I’m guessing that you are studying at night, or is it on weekends? And you mention procrastination – so I’m also guessing that you experience a lot of pressure to get in late assignments. Also, are you actually enjoying the course? Is it something you really want to do?

Whilst it all seems like one big problem at the moment, because it’s all so connected with your anxiety disorder, I suspect it can be broken down into smaller chunks that may be easier to deal with if you approach them individually.

So perhaps the main issues are:

Underlying chronic anxiety
Procrastination
The way in which you study and maybe the timing of it
The need for a different approach to the problem that reduces rather than increases your stress levels
(… and your choice of study may also be an issue)

I am actually going to be away this weekend so I’m not going to be able to give you a detailed answer just now but I definitely will next week. In the meantime, take a look at Waitbutwhy.com for a fun but insightful article on the subject of procrastination!

OK, I'm back!

So, first of all your anxiety. It sounds like you are managing it well but have never actually been free of it and your nervous system has never really settled down. With this underlying tension always present, it’s easy for an overload to be triggered by any additional stresses, such as the pressure of getting assignments in. Fundamentally, if you can make some further improvements with your anxiety issues everything else will start to become more manageable.

The trick for people who’ve had anxiety issues for a long time is to really take on board some lifestyle diet supplements herbs etc changes and stick with them. Make a commitment to make some changes for at least 6 months. Reassess after that time. If you’re still not where you want to be, just keep going! It is absolutely inevitable that once your brain has got a clear message that it’s safe, it will stop triggering all those chemicals that create feelings of anxiety. At that point, you may be able to do the occasional daring thing like have a coffee or a late night!

You need to monitor your own progress and work out what’s best for you. Don’t underestimate the power of these seemingly simple changes. Just because you may have seen these recommendations many times before doesn’t mean that they aren’t effective and logical ways to settle an overly active and sensitive nervous system. They will work but you do need to give them time.

The absolutely essential change is to practise frequent ‘rag dolling’ through each day and meditation or deep relaxation exercises daily.

Also very important are to:
- establish a routine so that even on weekends you go to bed and are out of bed and have your meals at about the same time;
- eat foods and drinks that settle not stimulate;
- keep away from adrenalin activating entertainment – very active sports, horror movies etc.;
- take herbal supplements, vitamins and minerals to help normalise your system.

Now for tackling your study problems.

As you are finding that you ‘zone out’ or fall asleep after 10 minutes of study, my suggestion is to work with the problem rather than try to fight against it. So, buy yourself a stop watch or kitchen timer. Set it for 9 minutes and give your work 9 solid minutes’ concentration. When the 9 minutes are up, do some stretches and then give yourself a 5 minute break and a small reward of some kind – maybe get up and make a cup of tea, have a small piece of chocolate to suck on, play one of your favourite tunes etc. Then go for another 9 minutes and so on.

It’s important too, to establish a routine around your study – choose the time of day that works best for you and stick to it. The body loves a routine and it makes it easier for you if you know that everyday you are going to be studying between 6-7pm for instance. If you have been trying to study at night, consider going to bed earlier and getting up early in the morning instead, when you are fresh from a night’s sleep.

I’m sure you’ve seen lots of tips about study - but for you the most important thing is to reduce the pressure on yourself as much as possible. Procrastination isn’t an easy thing to deal with and many, many people who aren’t at all anxious have this problem. There are some who need the pressure of a deadline to create enough adrenalin to get past their procrastination, when they have left something till the last moment and can work through the night to get it finished. For you though the pressure of procrastination is even more intense and rather than energising you at the last moment to complete your work, you actually become immobilised by your increased feelings of anxiety about not being able to get the work done.

The key is, from the moment you get your assignments, to break the workload down into really small, achievable, non time-consuming chunks. So, for instance, the first chunk would be to write a list of all the small, specific steps you need to take to complete the task – and then writing ‘the list’ is the first item you can cross off! Be as specific as possible. For instance, instead of just putting ‘do research’ on your list, which is too vague and overwhelming, put ‘check timetable for buses to library’ or ‘make sure car is full of petrol’, then ‘go to library on Monday at 2pm’, ‘get 6 books on the topic’, ‘spend 15 minutes every night reading books’ etc.

This way you get a small but progressive sense of accomplishment every time you cross an item off your list. Each little step on its own is not overwhelming and little step by little step will take you where you need to go.

Hopefully, this is of some help. The last thing is to make sure the course you have chosen is what you really want to do!

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