Students are no strangers to academic anxiety.
Most have experienced pre-exam jitters – but it can go beyond that.
In recent years, the number of children and teens reporting mental health conditions has more than doubled.
According to the Pew Research Center, 70% of teens between ages 13 and 17 reported that anxiety and depression are “a major problem among their peers.”
As many as 61% of students reported that a significant source of pressure they experience is from the need to do well in school.
Over the years, as a Learning Specialist, I’ve consulted with many students who experienced anxiety issues with regard to school performance.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that this kind of anxiety can, in fact, make learning more challenging.
Educators often observe that performance anxiety can interfere with the learning process as these students tend to shut down and not ‘hear’ what is being presented.
Anxiety is a very real experience many young learners struggle with.
As a result, I have put together 5 academic success tips for students with anxiety, to help them overcome these obstacles when learning .
But, before exploring these tips, let’s look at how anxiety hinders learning.
How Does Anxiety Impact Learning?
The more these neural pathways are activated, the stronger your memory of that knowledge becomes when recalling the information presented
Unfortunately, the brain loses the ability to form new neural connections when anxious and stressed as it clouds your ability to process, assimilate and recall information being presented.
If students experience anxiety while studying or preparing for a test, processing and retaining new information becomes difficult, if not impossible.
This feeds into the cycle of becoming anxious, and the experience of feeling overwhelmed, further propels the downward spiral.
As you can see, this creates a vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, which could manifest with a student’s inability to initiate and complete assignments, perform well on quizzes and tests, and/or transition well from one subject to another.
So – what can be done you do to help students with anxiety?
5 Academic Success Tips for Students with Anxiety
1. Prepare in Advance
Students can become overwhelmed by the amount of work or material to cover before an exam.
Preparing in advance lets students feel in control and current on assignments.
By ‘smashing the task’ students are able to keep up with the pace of academic commitments.
Keep a planner – as soon as you’re assigned homework or assignments, write or key them in.
This way, you can tell at a glance how much time you have before submitting an assignment or time to prepare for an exam.
This way students are not blindsided as a deadline approaches and they are able to plan ahead.
Knowing how many days you have in-between assignments and how many assignments you’ll have to juggle to prepare in time for exams, provides an understanding of how to pace yourself.
Preparing ahead of time includes other things too.
Anxiety could come from a sense of uncertainty.
For example, if you are going to have a big quiz coming up soon, ask your teacher for tips on what to study and topics to focus on.
Make sure you pay attention in class to notice which information your teacher keeps emphasizing, and material he or she is mentioning that’s not in your textbooks.
If you don’t understand something, seek clarification right away.
Participate in study groups or group chats that focus on a specific subject – this way, if there’s something you’ve overlooked, your peers can help catch you up to speed.
Sharing the stress of your study-load with friends can also help since you’ll learn that you aren’t the only one who may be feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork.
Planning and preparing may sound like a lot of work, but if you organize your school commitments from day one, you’ll know at every stage of the semester where you stand.
This will help orient you about how much you have done and how much you have left to do and give you a greater sense of control – which in turn reduces performance anxiety.
2. Know How to Manage Your Time
If you overburden yourself with studies, that itself will cause you stress, which in turn would reduce the quality of studying that you’re doing.
Remember to “chunk” your study sessions into sessions of 25-30 minutes.
This has many neuroscience-backed benefits that boost your productivity and motivation to learn.
Firstly, it might be overwhelming to look at all the things you have to complete by a specific date.
On the other hand, if you break up the tasks into shorter sessions, they feel less overwhelming.
In fact, every time you check off something on your to-do list of segmented tasks, your brain releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
The pleasure center of your brain lights up, and because it feels rewarded from having accomplished something, it wants to seek out that feeling again – this gets you motivated to keep learning!
Secondly, chunking your study sessions improves your retention of what you learn.
The Ebbinghaus curve of forgetting illustrates how individuals tend to remember what they learned at the beginning of a study session (primacy) and the end (recency).
You’re more likely to forget what you learned in the middle – so the longer your study sessions, the steeper the rate at which you forget.
Therefore, studying for a 25-30 minute session, taking a short break, and then returning to another 25-30 minute session, helps improve your brain’s ability to process and retain what you’re learning!
Meanwhile, completing these sessions triggers dopamine, which in turn motivates you further.
3. Physical Wellbeing
Anxiety disorders may correlate to low levels of another neurotransmitter, serotonin.
Serotonin is a mood-boosting chemical messenger – and the good news is, with the right diet and lifestyle, you can maintain a healthy level of both serotonin and dopamine.
Foods like cheese, eggs, nuts, fatty fish, blueberries, etc. are all brain-friendly superfoods which can enhance your cognitive functioning, through benefits like improved focus and high serotonin.
On the flip side, cut down on caffeine (which can enhance or trigger anxiety), refined sugar (which leads to long-term crashes of dopamine), and greasy fast foods.
All of these might make you feel good temporarily but unmotivated, sluggish, moody, and irritable in the long run – all not conducive when you’re trying to learn and manage your anxiety.
Serotonin and dopamine also get a boost when you exercise.
More oxygen reaches your brain, allowing it to grow and process more efficiently, while the endorphins and dopamine and serotonin circulating your body leave you feeling happy and motivated.
This also sharpens your focus – since your brain is so alert and active – and can make your learning session even more productive!
Why not try to go for a run, or even a walk, during one of those breaks between your study sessions?
A third aspect of your health that kids might end up neglecting is getting good sleep.
Sleep is the period where your brain starts consolidating what you learned over the day into your long-term memories.
If you pulled an all-nighter and realized you either remember things foggily or don’t remember them at all – this is why.
Getting a good night’s sleep, or even taking a nap during your study breaks, can make a massive difference for your learning.
Your body needs serotonin to maintain its circadian rhythm – so put those bright screens away, and head to bed at a decent time.
4. Mindful Breathing
When you are anxious or stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is active – your breathing grows shallow, your heart rate escalates, your body is tense.
Essentially, you’re in fight or flight mode, and your body to primed to protect itself if there’s any danger.
Unfortunately, when you are learning, this also means it hinders you from being able to focus, process, or retain any information.
When you do mindful breathing, you activate your vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and affects the same parts of your body reacting to stress.
Breathing is something you can consciously control.
So, when you deliberately take slow, deep breaths, and focus on counting them as you inhale, hold them in and exhale, your vagus nerve lets the rest of your body know that it can calm down.
It helps slow your heart and calm your mind and get your brain into an alpha brain state – which I’ll discuss in more detail below!
The act of counting the beats as you breathe and hold your breath also helps remove your mind from any panicked thoughts – this helps reset you to a calmer mindset.
If you feel your anxiety starting to bubble up – try this:
Inhale, slowly and deeply, as you count to 6.
Then hold in that breath for three counts.
Then exhale, again slowly, for six counts.
Repeat this process about ten times – you are activating your vagus nerve and parasympathetic nervous system and shifting focus away from your anxiety.
5. Listen to Music
When your brain is in alpha wave state, it makes you feel calm, but alert.
This is how you feel waking up after you get a good night’s rest (another reason why it’s essential to get enough sleep!)
You can also achieve this brain state by listening to music!
Multiple studies have discovered how listening to music triggers serotonin and dopamine production – which, as you know, helps get you feeling great and motivated.
Studies also find a correlation between better academic performance in students who listened to or play musical instruments than those who do not.
In fact, there is so much evidence of music improving productivity and motivation that many major companies, like Shell and Dupont, play a specific type of music for their employees.
So, if you want to put your brain in the best, relaxed but active state to combat learning anxiety, go for music without words, and calmer melodies than really upbeat tracks!
With these 5 academic success tips for students with anxiety, I hope you will overcome the challenges which might be slowing down your learning.
Did you find these tips helpful? I would love to know!
Dana Stahl is a renowned Educational Consultant and Learning Specialist that major news outlets such as CNN and parenting journals have on speed dial in order to share the very best information possible for parents who have children with learning challenges.
Having experienced a learning disability herself as a child, she brings expert knowledge, compassion and empathy to her work with you and your child.
Parents taking her course, The ABC’s of Academic Success, A Must Have Parent Guide to Help Your Child With Learning, Attention, or Anxiety Issues Thrive, get the added benefit of a FREE 15 minute private consultation with Dana.
This course leads parents through a step-by-step simple process to help their child who has learning, attention, and anxiety issues, by answering questions and giving them the best path to follow while helping their child thrive.
Within her field, Dana is referred to as the Dr. Spock of Learning Issue solutions.
Her private practice, Educational Alternatives, LLC, focuses on advice, advocacy, and individualized school placements. She is also the author of The ABCs of Learning Issues in both English and Spanish.