Woman with her hands over face

—Adrian F.*, University of Guelph-Humber, Ontario

First of all, it is important to say that some anxiety is good for us. It stimulates us to take action and go beyond our comfort zone, and that leads to greater achievement.

Anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome,” according to Oxford Dictionaries. We all face events with an “uncertain outcome.” For students, that might mean taking an exam, giving an oral presentation, being interviewed, or simply being in a strange environment.

In these situations you might be fearful or experience nausea, insomnia, a rapid heart rate, muscle tension, headaches, and so on. You have all been anxious at some point or another, so you know what it feels like. These symptoms are usually short-lived and disappear once the event of “uncertain outcome” is over.

When should you be concerned?

Anxiety becomes a concern when it gets in the way of doing what we are supposed to do on a daily basis. For example, this might include the inability to write exams, being afraid to leave your room or apartment, or avoiding social events.

As a rule of thumb, if this occurs on more days than not for at least six months then it is time to seek help. Of course, if what you are feeling is completely debilitating don’t wait six months. Go now.

Anxiety disorders have three symptoms in common, says the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario:

  • Irrational and excessive fear
  • Apprehensive and tense feelings
  • Difficulty managing daily tasks and/or distress related to these tasks

Anxiety can physically manifest as aching muscles (especially in the neck and upper back), poor sleep, headaches, fatigue, and difficulty relaxing.

What about panic attacks?

These are sudden and last a few minutes to about an hour. They manifest as intense fear—a feeling that you are going to die. The symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling that the throat is closing
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Light-headedness or numbness

These symptoms are similar to those that are related to serious medical problems. Therefore, the first time they occur you should seek medical help. Panic attacks may be part of an anxiety syndrome, but are not always.

If these things sound like what you are feeling or experiencing, then you may want to speak to your physician or a mental health care provider.

Questions about emotional health? Check out the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) website.

*Name changed