Academic anxiety can be caused by many different sources that are specific to each person. Consequently, the symptoms of academic anxiety may include many different types.
There are four facets of academic anxiety: physiological, cognitive, behavioral, and social.
Not every learner will exhibit symptoms from all of these categories. For example, it is possible that someone may experience physiological and cognitive symptoms without ever experiencing any behavioral symptoms. Learning to identify the differences between the symptoms of academic anxiety can help to determine what management techniques work best to manage your individual anxiety.
This article breaks down each facet of anxiety and how to identify them.
Physiological symptoms of anxiety are physical symptoms that are felt in the body. Academic anxiety can often cause parts of the body to have a nervous or fearful reaction. These symptoms can include:
- A fluttering, nervous sensation in the stomach (“butterflies”)
- Elevated heart rate
- Fidgeting, feeling “antsy”
- Headaches, dizziness
- Nervous sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension, difficulty relaxing
One of the most effective ways to reduce these physical manifestations of anxiety is to practice relaxation techniques. If anxiety is causing a fear response in the body that interferes with the ability to focus, then learners can prioritize calming the body to manage these responses. Relaxation techniques can include practicing mindfulness, other meditation techniques, or muscle relaxation exercises.
Cognitive symptoms of academic anxiety involve unhelpful thoughts that interfere with performance.
Symptoms in this facet of anxiety don’t manifest in the body, but in the way a student thinks. A student experiencing this has worries that prevent them from being able to focus on schoolwork. Some examples are as follows:
- Thoughts stray from the content of study toward worry over performance (cognitive distraction)
- Inability to maintain attention/stay on task (attentional control)
- Intrusive thoughts impact ability to remember/process learning (cognitive overload)
- Trouble accessing the right memories or applying appropriate knowledge (retrieval errors/barriers)
- Memories are blocked from retrieval while testing or studying—occurs only in limited conditions (anxiety blockage)
- Negative internal self-talk impacts motivation and performance—ex. “I can’t do this, I’m never going to pass.”
Fortunately, relaxation techniques are also an effective method to manage cognitive symptoms. This is because relaxation techniques help to calm both the body and the mind. Reframing the anxiety, setting proper goals, and fostering skills and abilities vital to self-regulated learning can also be effective in combating academic anxiety. Time-management skills, organization, and study habits help to reduce the stress and worry associated with schoolwork by helping the student feel more competent, motivated, and prepared. Navigate here for detailed preparation strategies.
Mindfulness is another great tool for helping students conquer intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness training is a type of meditation that directs attention from unhelpful cognitions to the present environment. Engaging in these exercises can help to lessen issues in attentional focus and keep students “in the moment” during studying or exams.
Behavioral symptoms of anxiety manifest in a student’s habits and behavior. An academically anxious person may take behavioral measures to avoid situations that evoke those feelings of worry. This can occur in several ways:
- Avoidance or procrastination of anxiety-inducing task
- Intentionally putting low effort into task due to fear of failure (perfectionistic avoidance)
- Working on an unrelated (not anxiety-inducing) task
- Giving up or saying “I don’t know” instead of persevering through anxiety-inducing task
Along with relaxation and reframing techniques, an effective intervention to reduce task avoidance would be to restructure the student’s environment to make it more conducive to learning. Self-regulated learning techniques (preparedness, organization, etc) aid this in addition to setting aside consistent study time, using a planner, and setting up a dedicated space to study.
Note: Social academic anxiety isn’t established as a universally agreed-upon type of anxiety. Some researchers believe instead that it is better described as a cause of academic anxiety. This is also not the same as Social Anxiety Disorder. Social Anxiety Disorder is a type of general anxiety disorder and must be diagnosed by a professional. Social academic anxiety, in contrast, is limited to academic situations and can be experienced in varying degrees by varying students.
Social academic anxiety involves the fear of a negative reaction from other people (peers, parents, teachers, etc.) after poor academic performance. Students who feel social academic anxiety may be motivated by important people in their lives to perform well in school, and fear of not meeting these expectations can cause avoidant behaviors or feelings of dread or worry. These students may be especially sensitive to embarrassment in a school environment.
Improving Social Academic Anxiety
In addition to the aforementioned management techniques, engaging in “positive-self talk” before and during tests and studying is an effective way to manage these symptoms. Students can learn to be aware of automatic negative thought patterns and counteract them with positive ideas, such as “I will be okay, I can do this” and “Yes, this test is important, but it is just one grade in this class.”
Finally, educators and parents might be able to ease some of this social anxiety by reframing the testing mentality and reassuring their students that, while they should take school seriously, their academic performance doesn’t lessen their worth as a person. Relieving some of the threat that comes with exams by encouraging a growth-mindset (“It’s okay to make mistakes as long as we learn from them.”) and creating a calm and secure academic environment can help students to avoid the fear of negative reactions from others. Here is a resource for educators about how to talk to anxious students, and here is advice for parents about how to talk to your children about schoolwork and tests.
In summary, academic anxiety comes in a variety of forms: physiological (physical), cognitive (thoughts), behavioral, and social. In order to effectively manage these symptoms, we have to remember that academic anxiety manifests differently from student to student. Selecting techniques to manage this anxiety should be approached from an equally individualized perspective. Fortunately, many techniques exist to help relieve and prevent this anxiety.
Students can explore a combination of relaxation techniques, self-regulated learning habits, environment restructuring, and positive reframing techniques among many other tools to help find a management system that works for them.