Anxious because of distance learning? You’re not alone.
According to a survey by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, over 80% of college students report some degree of anxiety due to distance learning.
Another study conducted in 2020 suggests that a third of teenagers reported feelings of unhappiness or depression in recent months.
Meanwhile, 3 out of every 10 parents from around the world report that their child is experiencing mental health setbacks because of school closures.
Although you might be feeling helpless and frustrated, uncertain about the future and unsure about the present, I want to show you how you can help maintain your mental health during distance learning.
Remember, you’re not alone – learners all over the world are experiencing similar challenges to you, and you are doing your best given the circumstances.
Anxiety reduces motivation and makes it difficult to focus and engage in learning.
As a learning expert with 30 years of experience helping individuals overcome learning related anxieties and develop the strategies they need to succeed, I want to share my best tips with you.
Take a look at these 9 tips to manage anxiety during distance learning, based on brain science.
9 Tips to Manage Anxiety During Distance Learning
1. Take Regular Breaks to Maximize Focus
Are you concerned with staying engaged during distance learning?
The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators survey finds that this is the biggest concern among college students.
In fact, students are more concerned about staying engaged during distance learning than they are about the pandemic, according to this survey.
One of the reasons why you might be struggling with staying focused is because you’re currently learning in a way that isn’t aligned to how your brain learns best.
Neuroscience finds that when you’re focusing on learning something, your brain is using its working memory.
It works a bit like your computer’s random-access memory – it’s temporary, storing the things you’re using right now.
These short-term memories form in the hippocampus of your brain, where they waits to connect with your existing knowledge and become long-term memory.
However, your working memory has limited capacity. If you try to learn too much in one go, you overwhelm it, and not only lose some of what you learned already, but also find it difficult to absorb anything new.
Have you ever felt as though the longer you spent learning, the harder it becomes to concentrate?
This is why – your brain is simply not designed to learn new things in a long stretch like this.
What neuroscientists and learning experts, including myself, recommend is to keep your study sessions short, at 20 to 25 minutes, and then taking a 5-minute break.
Doing this helps restore your working memory in between study sessions.
And while you take your break, your brain gets the chance to process the new information it’s learned.
It connects it to what you already know and comes up with ideas or finds solutions to problems because now it’s no longer focused exclusively on learning new things.
This is one way your short-term memory connects with your long-term memory.
Taking brain-friendly breaks, therefore, helps you maintain your focus, and cover more of your learning.
The greater productivity and engagement help you manage your anxiety about distance learning!
2. Use Spaced Repetition to Retain What You Learn
Taking brain-friendly breaks to learn is spaced learning.
Spaced repetition refers to the science-backed practice of reviewing what you learn to retain it better.
When you learn something, your brain creates connections between its brain cells or neurons to store this information in.
The more often you revisit or apply this information, the stronger these connections and therefore that memory becomes.
Think about something you picked up for the first time, and how overtime it’s become second nature.
For example, when you first started driving, you had to be mindful about how much pressure to put on the gas, and when you needed to shift gears.
Over time, and with practice, you’re doing all of this almost without thinking – because the neural connections associated with this knowledge have grown super strong from activating all the time!
Learning is the same. If you lose what you spend hours learning, it’s because the neural connections storing that knowledge were still pretty new.
Your brain, realizing that you didn’t seem to be using these connections much, simply gets rid of it to continue maximizing the connections you are using more often.
On the other hand, when you review what you learned, consciously retrieve it (for example, when answering revision questions or quizzes), and apply it, the neurons fire repeatedly.
The neural connections get stronger, and your memory of what you learned grows more longer lasting.
So, when you come back from your 5-minute break for the next 25-minute study session, make sure you quickly review what you learned earlier before getting into the new stuff.
Revising what you’re learning every day, and then gradually, every other day, to every week, every other week, and so on, helps you build a more sustainable long-term memory.
And this in turn can help you cope with your learning anxiety, since you know you’ll be able to remember everything you’re learning in the long run.
3. Mind What You Eat
Did you know that certain types of food can make feelings of anxiety worse?
Refined sugars, white flour, processed foods etc. are often a huge culprit, and to understand why, you need to know about the motivation molecule, dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical messenger or neurotransmitter that’s responsible for the sense of reward you experience after accomplishing something.
If you’ve ever felt enthusiastic about moving on to the next level of a video game after getting a great score, or to score higher in your exams after you ace one, it’s because of dopamine.
When you accomplish something, the mesolimbic or reward pathway of your brain lights up, and the levels of dopamine surge. Your brain loves this feeling, and as a result, it craves more of it.
This is the secret behind motivation. The high levels of dopamine in your system make your brain anticipate a reward, which is what keeps you pushing to repeat what caused the dopamine spike in the first place.
However, dopamine spikes can also occur because of unhealthy reasons and lead to addictive behaviors.
For example, when you polish off a candy bar, or a greasy cheeseburger, you experience a temporary dopamine spike. But this is followed shortly afterwards by a dopamine crash.
Not only is the spike of dopamine short-term and unsustainable, but because your brain enjoys the high it experienced while it lasted it keeps wanting more of it.
And as you know, excessive amounts of refined foods like high amounts of sugar and processed foods are bad for you.
Meanwhile, the dopamine crash you experience after the initial dopamine high wears off can leave you feeling irritable, sluggish, unfocused and yes – anxious.
So, be mindful of what you’re eating.
High-protein foods, for instance milk, cheeses, chicken, avocado, nuts and so on, contain the amino acid l-tyrosine that your body can use to make dopamine in a healthy way.
As a result, you get to stay focused and motivated in a more sustainable way.
4. Choose Green Tea Over Coffee
I’m sure you know that green tea is widely considered a healthier caffeine alternative and a staple in healthy diet plans.
Green tea is also a much better alternative than coffee to ensure you’re in the perfect state for learning.
I love coffee as much as the next avid coffee lover, but the thing about coffee is that it’s one of those unhealthy dopamine boosters you read about in the previous section.
The caffeine in coffee can block your adenosine receptors, which are what make you drowsy, so yes, they make you feel alert and awake.
However, because it causes a dopamine spike in an unhealthy way, you can develop a dopamine addiction where if you don’t drink enough coffee, you can experience withdrawal symptoms like headaches, brain fog, irritability and so on.
Drink too much coffee, and it can make you jittery and your feelings of anxiety worse.
Green tea on the other hand contains another wonderful amino acid, l-theanine, which cancels out the caffeine jitters.
In fact, lots of research shows how l-theanine can boost your dopamine and serotonin levels, keeping your motivation and mood up, and reducing feelings of anxiety.
The relaxing effect is such that switching to green tea can even restore you to a healthy sleep pattern (which is also important for reducing feelings of anxiety, as you’ll soon see!)
Importantly, l-theanine can help you switch into the alpha brain wave state.
Out of the four brain wave states (alpha, beta, gamma, and theta) this wave state is most ideal for learning because you’re both alert and calm – meaning you can focus better while combatting anxiety.
5. Get Enough Quality Sleep
Neuroscience continues to show how not getting enough quality sleep can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If you don’t get enough Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the amygdalae in your brain are impacted negatively.
These almond-sized nuclei play a central role in anxiety. Your amygdalae regulate your mood and memory among other things, and process emotions like stress, fear, embarrassment, and of course anxiety.
When you don’t get enough sleep, your amygdalae create a waste product that leads to brain fog and makes it difficult for you to focus and remember what you’re learning.
Studies find that people who don’t sleep well also tend to be more reactive to negative emotions (like anxiety) the following day than those who get a full night’s rest.
This isn’t the only way sleep can help you manage your learning anxiety and in fact improve your learning success during distance learning.
When you sleep, your hippocampus, which is a critical player in your learning and memory, stays active.
It goes over what you learned during the day, makes sense of it, connects it with what you already know, and consolidates it into long-term memory.
Sleep also helps your brain come up with new ideas and work more creatively along with being better able to remember things.
Without getting enough sleep, you’re going to find it harder to focus and stay engaged in distance learning, which can feed into your anxiety.
And remember the alpha brain wave state that’s perfect for learning? You enter this state naturally when you wake up after a good night’s rest!
Your dopamine receptors are active and at healthy levels to help your concentration and learning, whereas a lack of sleep actually decreases the level of dopamine in your system.
So, make sure you’re getting enough rest at night!
6. Limit How Much Time You Spend on Your Phone
One of the ways you can ensure better sleep is by putting your devices away earlier in the evening.
One reason for this is the blue light that comes off your screen when you’re using your phone or laptop.
This messes with your body clock and signals to your brain that it’s daytime, causing your brain to keep you alert because it thinks you need to be paying attention.
Another reason why excessive use of your devices can worsen anxiety during distance learning is because it could lead to another type of unhealthy dopamine addiction.
If you’ve ever spent hours and hours scrolling through your social media, even though nothing interesting is happening, it’s because of the bad type of dopamine spike.
When a new post appears, or you get likes and replies on your own posts or tweets, or you get a notification, your dopamine spikes up.
And again, because your brain enjoys this spike, it keeps anticipating more, leading you to spend more time online waiting for it.
And where anticipation of a reward leads to a dopamine spike, when you don’t find the sense of reward you were looking for, your dopamine levels can plummet.
So, if you’re constantly expecting a new message or notification on your device, you may find it difficult to put your device away during distance learning or when it’s time to go to bed.
This is harmful for your learning, not just because it can disrupt your sleep, but also because it harms your focus.
When your focus is disrupted, it can take your brain almost 30 minutes to get back in the zone.
This means even glancing through your Twitter mentions can set you back the entire duration of a brain-friendly study session.
To avoid setting yourself back and the resultant anxiety of both struggling to stay engaged as well as the vicious cycle of social media addiction, reduce how much you use your devices.
You can turn off notifications or switch your phone off when you’re learning, and block distracting websites on your desktop during study sessions.
Dopamine surges from accomplishing your study sessions are much healthier and more sustainable than constantly being on social media!
Which brings me to my next point –
7. Chunk Your Learning
Rather than relying on short-term dopamine spikes followed by long-term dopamine crashes, chunking your learning can help you maintain dopamine levels to stay motivated throughout your learning.
Think about it this way.
When you start playing a video game, you pick the normal difficulty. As you start playing, you get rewards pretty quickly for completing simple tasks.
As you progress through the game, although the tasks get more difficult, the dopamine rush you experienced every time the game rewarded you (in points, items, ranking up etc.) keeps you motivated to keep going.
Now instead imagine you started playing a game for the first time on the highest difficulty. Would you be motivated if you were struggling to complete objectives right from the beginning?
Or, alternately, imagine a ten-hour long video game without any reward system at all. Would you feel satisfied playing something like that?
Chunking your learning works on the same sort of principle as a really satisfying video game.
Instead of trying to get through all your learning, or through entire learning tasks, in one go, you break your tasks down into smaller tasks.
When you complete one of the smaller tasks, your reward pathway activates and dopamine levels rise, getting you motivated to go through the rest of your to-do list to experience that sense of reward again.
And when you’re motivated, just as you do with a well-paced video game, you feel more positive, productive and focused to get through more of your learning.
On the other hand, if you try to tackle large tasks in one go, like “Learn all subject topics” or “Finish entire project”, you’re more likely to cause a dopamine deficit.
Because these tasks are more challenging to complete, if you can’t check them off, your brain doesn’t get the reward it expects, and dopamine plummets.
This can demotivate you and make you more anxious about your learning.
So, when you plan out your to-do lists, remember to make sure you break each item down into a series of smaller items.
This makes all the things you need to do feel a lot more manageable, rather than making your brain shut down from overwhelm when you have to face a huge task that’s a source of anxiety.
Chunking down your learning is a brain-based life-hack to keep you consistently motivated!
8. Take a Breather
If you find yourself getting anxious or feeling stressed, do this.
Take a deep, slow breath, inhaling for four counts. Hold this in, for four counts.
And then, slowly, breathe it out for four counts.
What you’re doing is focused breathing, and it is a science-proven way to help combat anxiety and switch you into the alpha brain wave state.
Think about all the things that happen when you’re feeling anxious.
Your breathing feels shallow, your heart is beating quick and heavy, pulse speeding up, thoughts a mess, muscles all tense, palms sweating – sound about right?
All of these parts of your body reacting in this fight or flight response are part of your sympathetic nervous system.
These parts of your body are also part of your parasympathetic nervous system, and with the only part of the system you can control voluntarily, breathing, you can flip these physiological reactions over.
When you breathe slowly and deeply, the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in your body, is stimulated and begins to send signals to the parasympathetic nervous system.
As you slow your breathing, other parts of this system slow down too – your heart rate eases, muscles relax, body cools down, blood pressure stabilizes, and your mind clears up as you enter the alpha brain wave state.
Not only does this help you handle any feelings of anxiety, it also puts you in the perfect headspace for learning success.
9. Go for a Run
Did you know that just 5 minutes of cardio can reduce anxiety symptoms?
Exercise has numerous brain and learning benefits.
As your heart rate speeds up and more oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood reaches your brain, it’s able to work faster, creating new brain cells and stronger connections between existing ones.
Working out also increases the circulation of dopamine, and other proteins that give your mood a boost, like serotonin and endorphins.
Exercising also activates the parts of your brain involved in learning and memory in the frontal regions of your brain, which in turn regulate the activity of the amygdalae.
As you’ve read, the amygdalae process strong negative emotions, and exercising can help you keep these emotions, including feelings of stress and anxiety, in check.
With these 9 science-backed tips, I hope you are better equipped to manage your anxiety about distance learning.
Which of these tips helped you out the most? Write in and let me know!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, such as Total Recall Learning™. Use coupon code LEARNMUCHFASTER to make the course $27 today! Save $70!
Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!