May 13, 2024

Helping Students Manage and Reduce Their Anxiety

Thanks to Eductive editor Véronique Drolet for her collaboration in writing this featured report.

You might have noticed that students nowadays experience a higher level of anxiety compared to previous years. They also struggle with anxiety across a broader range of situations, from evaluations to oral presentations to simply asking their teachers questions!

Students might manifest this anxiety in different ways. Sometimes, anxiety is obvious; sometimes, it looks like indifference or poor time management. One sure thing is that student anxiety gets in the way of effective learning and can negatively impact their mental health. Therefore, this raises some important questions:

  • What precisely is anxiety?
  • Why are students so anxious?
  • What can we do as educators to help them?

I will first explain what anxiety is and then present a review of the different factors that contribute to increased anxiety. I will also explore what teachers and educational staff can do to help students manage and reduce their anxiety.


Key concepts

What is anxiety?

Every emotion serves as a signal. In the case of anxiety, it indicates potential risks or threats and motivates us to evaluate and respond accordingly.

We then complement this emotion with our thinking and judgment. Our knowledge allows us to evaluate how serious the threat is; our judgment allows us to figure out whether we need to do anything about it, and if so, what to do. It’s essential to recognize that a certain level of anxiety is normal and beneficial because it signals the importance of the situation at hand. We are usually more anxious about situations that are more important to us, especially where there is uncertainty.

However, excessive anxiety can impede our actions or lead to unnecessary problems. There is a continuum between being far too anxious and not being anxious enough. The key is to find a decent balance, to enable us to deal with challenges effectively.

There is a diagonal arrow going from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. On the first end of the arrow, at the bottom left corner, we can read “Not Anxious Enough”, in the middle, we can read, “Nice Balance”, and at the other end of the arrow, at the top right corner, we can read “Way too Anxious.”

A graphic illustrating the anxiety continuum

Are stress and anxiety the same?

Stress and anxiety are different responses, yet they are interconnected. Stress is the immediate physiological reaction characterized by increased heart rate and respiration, preparing us for action in a specific situation. When strong, it is often referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze reaction.

Anxiety is what we call the emotion we feel when there is a risk or threat.

Both stress and anxiety are normal and natural because they motivate and sharpen our focus, such as when preparing for a test. However, excessive amounts of either can become problematic. Therefore, while related, stress and anxiety represent different aspects of our physiological and psychological responses to challenges.

How to judge your anxiety level?

When experiencing anxiety, it’s important to evaluate the situation and determine if your level of anxiety is proportional to your reaction to the situation. How anxious should I be about this situation? How problematic is the situation?

To make sure that your reaction is proportional to your anxiety, you need to evaluate 3 aspects:

  • the risk
  • the probability
  • your level of control

For instance, fearing a plane crash may seem valid due to the associated high risk of dying, but you also need to measure the actual probability. In this case, the risk is very severe but extremely improbable. Conversely, an elevator getting stuck is quite probable, but the actual risk of getting injured or even stuck for a very long time is nearly non-existent.

Anxious individuals might tend to overvalue the risk without considering the probability or vice versa. Therefore, by measuring risk and probability, you can judge if your reaction is proportional to the actual situation. When it is proportional, seeking to manage the situation, to solve the problem, is the best way to deal with our anxiety. When anxiety is disproportionally high, managing the emotion instead is what is required. There are multiple ways to manage emotion, but that’s a whole other report!

It’s important to make this differentiation, because every time you seek to solve a problem that makes you anxious, you are validating your own anxiety. The next time you face a similar situation, your anxiety will be even higher. This is a good thing when there are tigers living nearby; a pretty high level of anxiety is proportional, and you should take all the steps you can to avoid being eaten!

People also need to evaluate their level of control over the situation. Sometimes, anxiety arises from circumstances beyond our control, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic. If taking action won’t make a difference, or comes with too high a cost or the benefits are too low, it may be more beneficial to focus on managing your anxiety rather than attempting to solve the unsolvable problem.

Should you avoid anxiety-provoking situations?

The automatic “solution” to high anxiety is often avoidance because feeling anxious is unpleasant. When you avoid the source of anxiety, your anxiety goes down immediately. Reducing this unpleasant feeling acts as positive reinforcement. Since the reduced anxiety feels like a reward, you are more likely to avoid again when facing a similar situation. This is very good when you decide to walk the other way to the grocery store, rather than go right past where the tigers roam! Avoidance increases anxiety because your decision to avoid a situation signals that it actually is too risky or threatening to face.

Sometimes we avoid situations that aren’t actually that risky or problematic. We do this because we don’t like how we feel when we think about them or approach them. Our anxiety drops when we avoid those situations. Every time we avoid something, our brain validates the anxiety (yes, this is too risky a situation to face) and notches it up a bit.

Over time, this pattern of avoidance can expand to more situations, even those that were less anxiety-provoking in the past. So the person who felt anxious about standing in front of the class alone to give an oral presentation avoids that. Then, it becomes hard to do a group presentation. Then, that creeps into it being hard to put up a hand to answer a question. Then, it becomes too hard to answer even the simple question the teacher directs to us. Then, it can become too hard to attend a class where a teacher might randomly ask us a question…

Consequently, the more you avoid situations that are actually not dangerous or threatening, the more trapped you become in a cycle of escalating anxiety. This is a good thing when what is making you anxious is the family of tigers living free near you, but not so good when your fear is of speaking up in a meeting!

Why are our students more anxious now?

There is no doubt that students nowadays are more anxious than a few decades ago. But why? The increasing anxiety levels among students stem from not one but several factors.

1. Anxious parents

Anxious parenting is a significant contributor to student anxiety. People have fewer children now and are more invested in their kids’ well-being. Parents worry about their children’s futures, and they don’t want them ever to feel bad. Consequently, they unconsciously foster what’s known as meta-anxiety, which is anxiety about feeling anxious. The parent who sees that their child is anxious reassures them, or allows or encourages them to avoid what makes them anxious. This teaches the child to seek reassurance and to avoid the situation more and more often, and gives the child the impression that feeling anxious is itself something awful that should be avoided at all costs.

Additionally, parents nowadays tend to be overprotective, resulting in children having less independence, with far fewer experiences such as walking to school alone at a certain age or playing in the neighbourhood without supervision. This overprotection sends a message to children that independence is risky, which fuels their anxiety, and reduces their opportunities to build self-confidence by figuring things out on their own.

COVID-19 intensified this lack of independence, limiting the opportunities for children to develop autonomy. Parents are having a hard time finding that “nice balance” of anxiety that can allow them to protect their children from realistic dangers and excessive risk while encouraging them to become autonomous and self-confident. It may feel strange to think this, but it can be a great thing for a 16-year-old to be alone downtown and to forget their phone somewhere, and then, when they go back to try (unsuccessfully) to find it, to get lost for a while! They’ll figure it out; really, they will. And if “figuring it out” includes crying for a few minutes on a street corner, that’s okay too. Their self-confidence will be much greater after an experience like that (as much as they hated it at the time, and as much as you worried when they were an hour late getting home and weren’t answering their phone. Actually, try not to call them before they are an hour late…)

In addition, the prevalence of smartphones among children and teens, while offering a sense of security for parents to feel less anxious, can hinder the child’s self-reliance. Parents are always one phone call away to help their children and teens handle everyday situations. This constant access to parents reduces the child’s experiences of figuring things out, which reduces self-confidence and increases their anxiety.

2. Competitive and narcissistic culture

Our current society is marked by a competitive and narcissistic culture, largely influenced by the popularity of social media. These platforms encourage the notion that individuals must strive for extraordinary achievements to be valued.

Merely being average or “normal” is not enough. Late-stage capitalism is also creating greater economic uncertainty, which can drive parents to worry that a child who gets an “average” education followed by an “average” job may suffer financially. Individuals are scared of being labelled as failures in a competitive environment. The constant pressure to excel in every aspect of life contributes to an increase in the level of anxiety among students striving to meet unrealistic standards.

3. Social media

Social media can have positive impacts on mental health. However, 2 elements related to the use of social media seem to undermine mental health and increase anxiety:

  • excessive time spent on social media
  • cyberbullying

Spending excessive time on social media, often just scrolling mindlessly without social interaction, can lead to increased anxiety. That scrolling creates a tendency to compare ourselves with others, relating back to the competitive society we live in. Funny how we hardly ever compare our strong points to other people’s weak ones!

In addition, cyberbullying is a prevalent issue on social media platforms, and it contributes significantly to higher levels of anxiety. Online harassment intensifies anxiety and has negative impacts on young people’s mental well-being, even if they are only witnessing it happening to others.

4. Lack of sleep

Another component of anxiety levels is that teens don’t get enough sleep. Sleep is important, particularly during the developmental stage of adolescence. Up to about age 25, young people are still physically growing, and their brains are undergoing significant cognitive development while absorbing vast amounts of information. They need 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night. However, few of them get an adequate amount of sleep time. This is due to:

  • phone addictions
  • extracurricular activities (such as sports)
  • schoolwork
  • part-time jobs
  • social life
  • etc.

All these engagements leave no time for adequate sleep. Yet, research has shown that getting enough sleep can have a positive impact on mental health and reduce people’s depression and anxiety symptoms.

5. Less in-real-life (IRL) time with others

Moreover, teenagers today are spending less time engaging in face-to-face interactions with their peers compared to previous generations.

Statistics regarding the United States have shown that teenagers and young adults spend one full day less per week interacting with other people than they did 15 years ago.

They don’t have enough time in real life (IRL) with others, amplifying their feelings of isolation and contributing to their overall anxiety levels. We are primates, we need to actually be near our friends and family, to “hang out” and connect satisfyingly.

6. A wider variety of students

Nowadays, CEGEP is attended by many students who wouldn’t have been there a generation ago. We can notice an increase in students with a variety of characteristics, including:

  • learning disabilities
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD)
  • autism spectrum disorders
  • chronic physical health issues
  • family responsibilities
  • competitive sport obligations
  • diverse sexual and gender identities
  • visible minorities

While these students have always existed, they were less often in post-secondary education in the past. These students, who face unusual challenges or need to juggle outside responsibilities, were underrepresented before but now have easier access to higher education. As a result, there is a wider variety of students in our CEGEPs.

This population of students may feel marginalized or different from the mainstream populations and may experience a higher level of anxiety due to academic challenges, potential discrimination or a sense of not fitting in.

7. Hyper-pathologizing of anxiety

The hyper-pathologizing of anxiety, or what I refer to as meta-anxiety, is the misconception that feeling anxious is fundamentally bad and should be avoided at all costs, or else we will be unhappy and ill.

While it’s true that excessive anxiety and stress over a long period of time can have negative effects on physical and mental health, it’s important to acknowledge that feeling anxious is a normal, healthy, and necessary human experience. It signals importance, possible risks, and the need for increased attention. Our bodies and minds react with stress and anxiety. This allows us to act, and then we return to “background” levels, which is absolutely normal. That’s what this whole system is for.

The current focus on mental health awareness is commendable, but it often leads to a lack of acceptance for any level of anxiety.

This mindset only intensifies anxiety levels, as individuals not only experience anxiety but also feel additional anxiety about feeling anxious.

Pedagogical practices: What can we do as educators to help?

De-pathologizing normal anxiety and stress

Instead of hyper-pathologizing anxiety, it’s more constructive to de-pathologize it by applying the following strategies in class to help your students manage their anxiety.

1. Framing anxiety as normal and useful

The 1st strategy is to portray anxiety and stress as normal emotions. Sometimes, using different wording helps. For instance, talking about “nervousness” instead of “anxiety” makes it sound less like a clinical condition and hence labels the feeling as normal. Feeling “nervous” about a test or an oral presentation doesn’t indicate a serious health issue; it is simply a natural response to a challenge. We can tell students it’s good to feel somewhat anxious about a test or an important task. That motivates us to prepare well!

2. Discouraging avoidance

As a 2nd strategy, it’s important to discourage avoidance. One effective way is to set expectations for overly-anxious students to participate in the same activities as their normally-anxious peers, despite their discomfort.

The goal is not to reduce anxiety before engaging in normal activities, but to face those normal activities despite the discomfort, and then anxiety levels will drop. Fairly quickly, especially if they have repeated such experiences around similar anxieties, the students will become more comfortable and reduce their overall anxiety level.

However, if it is truly unrealistic, especially with students diagnosed with anxiety disorders, we want to encourage baby steps and not complete avoidance of the situation. For example, if a student struggles with oral presentations, offer for them to present only in front of the teacher or present only a small piece in front of a group. The goal is to progress rather than just sticking to the initial half steps. This can help them gradually build confidence and evolve toward reduced anxiety and better functioning.

A student who is unable to participate in normal class activities due to anxiety should be undergoing treatment. That can be psychotherapy, medication, or some mix thereof. Just allowing students to continue to limit their academic activities in the same ways over time actually increases their anxiety.

3. Limiting reassurance-seeking

Have you ever had students who keep asking you, “Is this part right?” They want you to constantly track and check their work, even on basic and simple tasks, because your reassurance will temporarily relieve their anxiety.

The problem is that this reinforces anxiety, as the student avoids the anxious feeling of submitting an assignment the teacher hasn’t validated.

Reassuring once is providing information, but reassuring repeatedly will, over time, feed and increase the student’s anxiety.

To limit that reassurance-seeking, ask your students:

  • Have you followed the instructions?
  • What do the instructions tell you?
  • Have you done all those things?
  • Do you have any specific questions about the task?

4. Discouraging perfectionism

Perfectionism is fueled by anxiety. Students who wish to produce high-quality work might constantly seek to improve their work even when it already meets the requirements very well. For example, they might use more sources for a paper than requested, explain more extensively than required, check and re-check and re-check their work, or fret over not getting a perfect mark on that 2% assignment.

The problem is that they are validating their anxiety by overworking, which increases their anxiety. It reinforces the belief that only perfection is acceptable. And since perfection isn’t possible, the person is always trying to do just the extra bit better! And then that extra extra bit better!

In addition, perfectionism is highly rewarded. Teachers often praise work that is nearly perfect or goes beyond what was requested, perpetuating this endless loop of anxiety. Perfection is incredibly time-consuming and stressful, and it ultimately traps students in a cycle of anxiety and overwork. After a certain point, it also doesn’t create higher quality work or better grades. It’s a curve of diminishing returns!

Encouraging self-efficacy

Self-confidence in learning is not the belief that you know how to do something, it’s the belief that when you don’t, you are capable of learning how to do it. There are different ways you can encourage your students to develop their self-efficacy in order to reduce their anxiety:

Strategies to encourage self-efficacy How to implement the strategy
1. Normalize not knowing things and let them know it’s okay to be bad at something and get better at it
  • Share examples from your experiences.
  • Share experiences of people they can relate to (such as stories about your former students).
  • Admit when you don’t know something, then get them to help you figure it out, or get the info and bring it to the class later.
2. Express confidence in their ability to learn and to do what is expected of them
  • Use “I believe you can learn to do this” instead of “I believe in you.”
  • Express confidence based on your experience as a teacher with that population of students.
  • Express confidence based on what they already know and have already done.
3. Normalize struggling
  • Emphasize how much it improves their learning.
  • Tell them it might be frustrating to struggle, but it helps memory.
  • Tell them the work of figuring things out helps them understand more deeply.
4. Point out where they have improved already
  • Tell them, “So, at the beginning of the semester, you were struggling with X, but now look at how good you are!”
5. Point out how what you are asking them to learn or do is connected to what they already know/have done
  • Help them see what they’re learning is an extension of what they already know. For example, say “I’m sure you talked about the scientific method in high school, so what we’re going to do is extend that.”
  • Tell them, “You already have a base for this and now you’re adding new elements to it.” “What you did last semester in X course is the foundation for what we will work on this semester.”
6. Focus them on process and on their progress rather than on their results and performance.
  • Ask them, “Are you doing the things that will help you learn and do well?” “Have you moved forward in what you are doing and what you are able to do?”

Another important component of self-efficacy is effective effort. Students often seem to feel that staring intently at work they are struggling with or spending a lot of time on such work means they are working hard. Few people ask them, or themselves, what they can actually do when they are feeling stuck or unsure. They should be able to generate multiple options for that:

  • look over the instructions again
  • look over the relevant class notes
  • check previous assignments or exercises
  • find an explanatory video online
  • ask a classmate
  • see a tutor at school
  • etc.

We absolutely should encourage students to ask a tutor or teacher for help, but we should encourage them to try other options first. Defaulting to getting the teacher’s help can end up encouraging a belief that they can’t figure things out on their own at all or ever. The goal is that students develop their own capacities to recognize a learning or academic challenge, figure out what might help them through it, and seek that out, on their own.

And of course, when they do come for help, we can try to give them just enough so that they can then proceed on their own. Then tell them that: “I think you can take it from here!”

Adapting the level of structure

The degree of structure can play a crucial role in helping students manage their anxiety. In the early stages of a program or a course, students often benefit from a higher level of structure from the teacher. It usually involves clear and specific instructions, and breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable steps.

For example, when writing essays in early college-level English courses, teachers usually require students to do intermediate steps. First, they would start by writing only a thesis statement. Then, they follow with an outline and, later, one body paragraph. After that they write the whole essay. This is highly appropriate early on. But continuing it later actually contributes to student anxiety. At some point, they should be able to tolerate being told an assignment has to be as long as it needs to be, to accomplish the goals, and that they need as many sources as it takes to support their point well.

Additionally, offering a limited number of topic choices might help prevent overwhelming the anxious students. As learners progress through the course or the program, the level of structure should gradually decrease. You can give them more choices and less detailed instructions, allowing them to develop independence and confidence in their abilities.

Student anxiety often makes them seek that extremely high structure. Providing overly detailed instructions may give the impression that students cannot succeed without such structure, increasing their anxiety in the long run.

Shockingly, many students who are anxious because they feel they don’t know how to do an assignment haven’t actually looked at the instructions (which is a type of avoidance!). Getting them to explain the instructions to you can greatly increase their confidence. When they have something mixed up, don’t jump in right away to fix it; give them a cue or half a reminder only.

As students advance in their studies, they should be able to do more with less structure. This approach better prepares them for real-world contexts and increases their self-confidence.

Encouraging students to be realistic

Encouraging students to adopt a realistic approach to their schedule can help them manage anxiety. For instance, imagine a full-time student who has 7 courses and works 25 hours per week. Despite their efforts and organization, the student is falling behind, or submitting sub-par work.

In such cases, students might develop anxiety because they are not achieving their tasks. It is not due to a lack of effort or ability, it’s the excessive workload.

By validating their experiences and encouraging them to be realistic about their schedule choices (and to get more sleep!), we can support students.

Being empathetic but firm

The dilemma often is how to be empathetic and caring with students while also being firm. And these are not mutually exclusive! A little extra warmth, sympathy or encouragement may be especially important for students who may not feel they “fit in” in CEGEP.

Here are a few examples of how you can address the subject while being both empathetic and firm, depending on the situation.

I understand you’re very worried about X, and that’s really unpleasant. But I see no justification for your having (an extension, a bonus exercise, an exception …). I believe you can do this task as expected. If you have questions or problems, I’m available to help.

I see you’re feeling really nervous about this, which must feel crummy. We’ve been over this a couple of times, and I think you understand well and will be able to complete the task/review for the test just fine. We can discuss it again if you have specific questions or doubts we haven’t gone over yet.

I see you haven’t handed in the assignment that was due last night yet. Come talk to me at the end of class and we’ll see if you can make some progress on it. No, you won’t get the full 5 points it was worth if you hand it in later today, but you will have learned something important, that will certainly be on the test!

I can see you’re feeling anxious about getting all the details right. I know that must feel yucky. But the goal can’t be perfection, if it means you submit your work late (or spend far more time than it’s worth or deprive yourself of sleep unnecessarily or over-stress). Try to let go of checking for minor things that won’t actually improve your work significantly. The goal should be very very good work, not perfect.

Reducing procrastination

One important point to recognize is that procrastination is not a time management problem, as many people perceive it to be (nor laziness!). Instead, it is often an emotion management problem, particularly related to anxiety.

This anxiety can manifest itself in various forms, such as:

  • fear of failure
  • fear of being judged on their work
  • fear of succeeding (teachers, parents and students themselves expect them to continue doing that well)
  • apprehension about the task itself (seeing a task as overwhelming, long, boring or annoying, which is often an overestimation)

There are many different approaches you can implement in your classroom to reduce procrastination.

1. Breaking down tasks

Breaking down larger or more intimidating tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces can really help reduce procrastination. In addition, starting a complex task in class and having students continue at home can be helpful.

2. Giving short deadlines

We frequently encounter students procrastinating despite having ample time to complete the assignment. The longer the deadline, the more likely students are to postpone the task.

Giving very short deadlines (1 or 2 days for a medium-complexity task) is not an option, since students have other courses. However, you can make the deadline as realistically short as possible. For instance, it is better to give them 2 weeks (realistically short) to write a paper than 6 weeks. There will be less procrastination!

3. Having consistent penalties

Penalties for late submissions can help prevent procrastination. For instance, as soon as the deadline passes, the student loses 1 point out of 10, and on the 2nd day, the student loses another point. Consequences for late work are important, but we need to keep them mild and consistent.

4. Not giving last-minute extensions

Giving last-minute extensions encourages people to procrastinate (with the exception of actual documented emergencies). Extensions should be allowed if they are requested in advance for predictable logjams. For instance, if the students look at their course outlines, see they have 3 big assignments due on the same day, and request an extension a week before any are due, that is planning, not procrastination.

Maintaining firm yet reasonable expectations and applying a late penalty can reduce the student’s habit of procrastination.

Having realistically high demands

It’s essential to consider the research indicating that realistically high demands lead to better learning outcomes. When tasks are too easy and not demanding, students tend to learn less and develop less self-confidence.

However, some might feel frustrated because it was easier or not as demanding in their previous schooling. They might also feel upset about a low grade or anxious in the moment. As teachers, it’s important to find a balance between respecting their emotions and being demanding of their learning.

One way is to remind students that feelings are signals and temporary, not facts. Encouraging them to recognize their current emotions as such (“Right now, you feel like…”) can help them manage their anxiety.

What about apathetic students?

Many students who seem indifferent or disengaged may actually be hiding anxiety. The majority of students who don’t use the suggested strategies for improving their learning, do so because they fear that even if they do all the things and apply all the strategies that are supposed to help, they will still do poorly and be proven stupid.

Despite this facade, many of these students really care about their academic performance. This seemingly careless behaviour is only a mechanism to hide their anxiety, and it can be misinterpreted by teachers as indifference. Sometimes they don’t know how to study effectively, and are aware of it, for example!

In addition, these students often hesitate to seek help or use resources (teacher office hours, tutoring, etc.) out of fear that it will be perceived as a sign of stupidity. Weirdly, struggling students seem to believe this more often than high-achieving students.

To help these students, teachers can:

  • encourage students to use the materials at hand (their textbooks, class notes, etc.)
  • teach strategies for their academic work and study that are effective for your discipline (read the research on what is effective for the types of tasks and material you assign!)
  • normalize the use of resources (it’s the secret weapon of many high-achieving students!)
  • express their confidence in students’ ability to do well
  • remind them about the proportionality of anxiety and effort
  • remind them that failure is unpleasant, but not the end of the world

Teachers can recognize and help with the increasing levels of anxiety among our students at the college level by understanding its causes and implementing effective strategies.

By addressing student anxiety, we can help them learn better and improve their emotional well-being, ensuring a brighter future for our students.


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Additional resources

Preparing vs Protecting Children from Mistakes, Anxiety and Failure. (n.d.). Foothills Academy.

Rhéaume, C. (2022, March 29). Should evaluations induce anxiety? Eductive.

About the author

Karen White

Karen White did her undergraduate degree at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, then her graduate studies at the University of Manitoba. She has been teaching at Vanier College for over 20 years; and is a practising clinical psychologist as well. She is particularly interested in understanding the counter-intuitive and counter-productive ways in which people behave, and in the power of information and education to improve our society.

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