Managing Anxiety Two Minutes at a Time

Author: Janesse Leung

When older people talk about how this is the best time of your life, do you nod along even though your search history includes entries like, how to deal with panic attacks and, dealing with anxiety symptoms? Then, there’s, how to deal with social anxiety because parties and study groups happening around you seem more an obstacle course of shame than the funfest you’ve seen in movies about high school and college. Sure, other people say they’re nervous and stressed, but you’re pretty sure you’re the only one with a churning stomach, shaky hands and a brain that writes an entire worst-case scenario handbook before you finish breakfast–if you can even afford and/or face food in the morning.

As a student, you’re most likely on a tight budget with money and time, so let’s get right down to talking about how students can deal stress and anxiety.

A few practical, cheap ways to manage anxiety as a student

Let’s pause for a quick second first, though, because one of the symptoms of anxiety is a strong stress reaction at the prospect of change. So, yeah, the idea of doing something to deal with your anxiety may itself make you anxious.

Dealing with anxiety

Your anxiety isn’t steering you wrong. Let’s face it, trying something new or different takes attention and effort. As a student, you’re probably short on both! So as you read each of these tips for managing your anxiety, you may find yourself immediately listing off great reasons not to try it. You may imagine problems or obstacles that could come up if you do. An anxious mind is fast and creative at coming up with bad stuff that can happen–it gets tons of practice. You may even feel certain as you read them, that none of these suggestions will work for you, anyway.

These feelings are normal. Your anxiety is flaring at the idea of adding stress and that makes sense. Making changes in your routine will take energy. But, you can make a decision about whether you want to act on those anxious reactions or instead, maybe choose a small, manageable change and see whether introducing it for a week or two might actually reduce your levels of daily anxiety.

So let’s start with one that you can do right now, or when you finish reading this article, or just about any time. It only takes about two minutes to try, and here’s the secret.

Make friends with your anxiety

Anxiety is protective instinct—picture a big, not-too-bright bodyguard darting around trying to save you even when you’re not in danger. Anxiety prods us to pay attention to scary things, just in case focusing intensely on them is a good way to keep them from happening. In modern life this approach doesn’t usually work: no matter how hard you focus on how scary an exam is going to be, you’re still going to have to take it to complete the course. But we need anxiety, with its intensity of focus and talent for spotting problems in advance, in situations like, say, getting chased through the woods by a bear. So we’re not trying to banish anxiety. We want it to step back and take a seat until we need it.

Tell yourself you’re going to take two minutes for yourself (set a timer if you want)

Now here’s how to pat your anxiety on the head for a second and tell it you’ll be right back:

Take a look at the present. Check in with your senses. What do you see, hear and taste? What are you thinking? (Even if it’s that this exercise is stupid and boring, that’s fine!) Notice your breathing and the sensations in different parts of your body, without trying to change anything. When anxious thoughts show up, and they will (you’ll at least wonder if this is stupid and you’re wasting time!) let them pass then and turn your thoughts back to what’s going on right now — your breathing. 

Repeat until your timer goes off

You might find this exercise difficult! That makes sense because it’s actually work. You’re stretching your brain, asking it to practice the unfamiliar skill of focusing on the present. Directly engaging with your anxiety this way is harder to do than just forgetting about it for a few minutes by playing a game on your phone or watching a funny video to forget about it.

You don’t have to be good at this exercise or do it for long. The value is in trying it. If you make this kind of break part of your daily routine, you will get better at asking your anxiety to take a back seat. That’s why so many people “practice” meditation.  As you become accustomed to turning your attention to the present, you can use this skill to nudge your anxiety to the background when it’s not needed.

Listen to your inner voice

If you are beyond daily anxiety and nearing a crisis point, or feel that you are not able to function in your daily life, speak to a counsellor, therapist or doctor. A professional can help you deal with intense anxiety or manage the pain of difficult life events and losses. Look up the nearest resources and make the phone call or appointment. Life is difficult, but you don’t have to face it alone.

Facing anxiety is tough but worthwhile. Even when things seem darkest, with help and practice, light will find its way around the edges. Making peace with your anxiety can be a life-changing gift to give to your future self, two minutes at a time.

Edited by: Mayte Parada, PhD