Ask the Counsellor: Graduation anxiety

UoN Counsellor Belinda Muldoon answers your questions.

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Q. Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety about finishing uni at the end of the year. I feel like there are big expectations for me to do well after uni, but I’m not as confident about my future as the people around me are. I’m worried I won’t get a job in my chosen field and that this will let down the people around me. I’ve performed well throughout my degree and I am feeling this pressure continue to mount. 

Hello Reader,

Thank you so much for your question. It sounds like there is a lot of pressure on you at the moment, and I wonder… is this pressure coming from others or yourself, or perhaps both? The time between finishing a degree and life after university can be confusing and stressful. I remember this time in my life. I was 21: bright eyed, armed with knowledge, keen as mustard… and terribly anxious about what would happen next. Does that sound familiar? The stress in this situation was not knowing what the future would hold; would I get a job after all that effort? What if I got into a job and had no idea what I was doing? Where would I live? The questions were endless and I analysed them all like the curious student that I was trained to be! But looking back on it now, I realise that none of my fears came true. Of course there were unpleasant things that happened, but these were nothing like what my worst nightmares had predicted.

One of the difficulties anxiety presents is that it sponsors lots of thoughts or ‘stories’ about the future – also known as ‘what if’ thinking. For example, “What if I don’t get a job in my chosen field?” Wehrenberg explains that the more we entertain ‘what if’ thoughts, the stronger this anxious brain pathway becomes. She suggests that every time you consciously stop this thought, “you weaken the trace until it is eventually erased” (Wehrenberg 2012, p120).

So how do we stop the anxious thoughts when anxiety works so hard to keep the mind busy? Sometimes it can feel like we are not yet finished responding to the first anxious thought before another one arrives! Here are two strategies that are worthwhile trying: responding to the emotion and retraining the brain.

1. Responding to the emotion

To start with, we have to remember that emotions are crucial for our survival. When we started out life as a little human, our only way to get our needs met was through our emotions (crying, screaming, shaking, smiling, etc). We learned our language skills by using our emotions to attract the attention of someone who would talk to us! This gave us the skill to be able to connect with others, thereby increasing our development. As such, all of our emotions are important to survival and anxiety has the honourable intention to keep us safe. When we fully accept the purpose of anxiety, we may begin to experience gratitude that our body is doing all that it can to keep us safe (even if it feels uncomfortable). Our body also wants to stay connected with others, because survival is more likely in groups. Hence why we may feel distressed if we think we are disappointing someone. We respond to our emotions every time we sink down into the body (out of the busy mind). Try using a ‘body scan’ practice to assist with this: http://tinyurl.com/naca6dg.

2. Retraining the brain

Sometimes the brain gets a bit confused when it comes to safety. The part of our brain that responds to stress does not know the difference between running from a bear and finishing an assignment. We can assist the brain by stopping the anxious thought and replacing it with a relaxing thought – for example, as soon as you catch yourself having a stressful thought, in your own mind, very gently say to yourself ‘stop, this sounds like an anxious thought, but I already possess the skills to deal with whatever happens’. Then give your mind something else to focus on. Some good replacements are paying close attention to your breathing or using your senses to bring you back into the moment – notice what you can see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Then choose an image that is deeply relaxing for you – perhaps it is somewhere you had an enjoyable holiday, or the last place you felt truly relaxed. Try to remember as much detail about this place as possible. You could even get a photo of this place and put it in your diary or as a screensaver on your computer as a reminder to notice when your thoughts have wandered into anxious territory!

Staying present

An important thing to remember is that we cannot control what happens in the future or the past. Our only control exists in this moment right now. So if you find your thoughts are focused on something that might happen, remind yourself that you are not there yet! You can then look at what things you can do in this moment that might contribute to lessening the stress down the track. For example, James is worried about his exam next month. His mind keeps repeating thoughts about how hard it will be to remember all of the course content. Each time he notices this thought he takes five deep breaths. He reminds himself that the best way to manage that worry right now, is to continue to review his work and practise a past exam paper. If he has the thought at 2am, he says to himself, “Hello anxious exam thought! Thanks for visiting, but it is 2am and right now and sleep is my priority”. He then practises a body scan exercise until falling asleep.

“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Hamlet Act II, Scene II.

I hope this information has been useful. I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic or any other questions you have.

References

Wehrenberg, M. (2012) The 10 best-ever anxiety management techniques workbook, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.


Ask Belinda a question!

Belinda Muldoon is a Counsellor with the University’s Counselling Service. Do you have a question for Belinda? You can submit questions to be answered via: