Whether you’re a new student, or the parent of one, studies show anxiety is getting worse among university students. Here’s how to combat it

With orientation week underway, new research has emerged to show serious anxiety is on the rise among new university students.

Anxiety disorders are estimated to affect about one in ten 18 to 24-year-olds, according to national youth mental health organisation Headspace.

Sally-Anne McCormack, clinical psychologist and founder of parentsonline.com.au says it’s concerning that one in 10 youths are experiencing anxiety, however not all anxiety is abnormal.

“We need to keep in mind that anxiety is a normal response to a stressful or new situation and it’s only a problem when it stops you from coping with a situation,” McCormack says.

She suggests university orientation activities as a great way to help reduce anxiety and nerves.

“It’s scary going into the unknown. Orientation activities are a great idea that are non-threatening and provide opportunities for social interaction,” she says.

McCormack says there is a lot of pressure put on youth to go to university and it can be a big change from the regimented and organised structures of high school, both socially and academically.

She says a lot of youth try to tough it out and often wait a couple of weeks before seeking help, but she suggests seeking help early.

Experiences commonly associated with anxiety, according to McCormack are rapid breaths, ‘jelly legs’, nausea, a racing heart and panic attacks which may have you feeling a sense of impending doom.

Griffith University lecturer and clinical psychologist Dr Caroline Donovan says individuals act differently to starting university, with some being excited by the adventure, while others feel stressed or anxious.

For parents who are unsure whether their child is feeling stressed about their transition to university, Dr Donovan says they may show their anxiety in various ways.

“Some will keep the anxiety to themselves and become very quiet. Others will be more obviously anxious, asking numerous questions and asking for reassurance that everything will be okay. Yet others will demonstrate their anxiety by being easily annoyed and cranky.”

She says it’s important for parents to remain calm and not increase the young person’s anxiety by expressing how difficult university may be or by becoming annoyed at their stress or anxiousness.

“Instead of parents telling their young person what to do or how to deal with the anxiety, it can be useful for parents to gently encourage the child to problem solve their issues for themselves,” Dr Donovan says.

Dr Donovan suggests the young person take some trips to the campus to familiarise themselves with key locations, take a practice run to and from campus and attend orientation activities provided by their university.

The biggest fears held by new university students, according to Dr Donovan are:

  1. Social: some students worry about the social aspect of university, for example will they be able to make new friends and will they fit in?
  2. Academic: some students worry about their ability to cope with academic demands, for example will they be ‘smart’ enough, how will they study and how different will it be from high school?
  3. Practical: some students worry about the practical aspects of being at university, for example getting themselves to university and classes, being on time and avoiding getting lost.

If you need help or advice you can call Kids Helpline 24 hours a day seven days a week on 1800 55 1800, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

Is your child starting university this year? Do you think they have taken the transition well?