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managing stress and anxiety


Experiencing some stress is part of everyday life. Small amounts can be healthy and can motivate people to work towards action and accomplishments. However, consistently high levels of stress can be unhealthy. Some students experience unhealthy levels of stress at university or TAFE.

Some of the things that contribute to stress at university or TAFE can include:

  • An assignment might be difficult to write.
  • You do not understand the requirements of an assessment task.
  • You may find the course work uninteresting or too challenging.
  • The course work may be too slow or too fast paced.
  • You may consider assessment feedback to be unfairly critical.
  • You may not be following a study timetable and feel you are falling behind.
  • You are unable to find a quiet place in the library to study.
  • There is a change in venue for the classes.
  • You have issues relating to your fellow students.
  • You feel socially isolated and anxious when around your peers.
  • You are distracted by external stimuli in class.
  • A lecturer’s communication style, for example, they may say ‘umm’ too much.

Stress affects the feelings you have, and can lead to anxiety, anger, fear and a feeling of being overwhelmed. Stress also affects the way your body feels. High levels of stress can cause some people to experience increased muscle tension, quicker heart beat rate, churning in the stomach, headaches or the desire to rock or flap.


Some level of anxiety is helpful as a natural response to heighten awareness to possible threats or dangers. Consistent anxiety is unhealthy. It can become a problem when it does not subside, and it prevents you from performing everyday tasks. For example if you always experience anxiety when you enter a classroom or cafeteria this could indicate that you are not coping well.

panic attacks

Panic attacks are a reaction to stress and anxiety. They can be triggered by stressful situations such as not knowing what to do in a situation, being ridiculed by others, or relationship breakdowns. Panic attacks can be a terrifying experience where the body reacts as if it is in immense danger, but is actually in a situation where most people would not be afraid. Panic attacks are accompanied by unpleasant physical symptoms such as quick heart-rate, difficulty breathing, muscle pain, stomach pain, dizziness and sweating, along with the fear that the attack will lead to death or a total loss of control. These physical symptoms are the body’s response to danger. It is important to know that the symptoms do not mean that you have a life- threatening physical illness.

managing stress, anxiety and panic attacks

  • There are a number of techniques to help manage stress, anxiety and panic attacks. They can be used to prevent your reactions from getting out of control, and can be done to make things better.
  • Choose 2-3 techniques that you will be most confident and able to use.
  • Practise these every day, even when you are experiencing low levels of stress or anxiety.
  • You can then be confident in using these techniques to cope with challenging situations.

muscle relaxation exercise

This will help you identify the difference between tension and relaxation in the muscles. Practise this for 15 minutes twice a day. Focus on 4 main muscle groups:

  1. Hands, forearms and biceps (arms).
  2. Head, face, throat and shoulders.
  3. Chest, stomach and lower back.
  4. Thighs, buttocks, calves and feet (legs).

Tense muscles for 5-7 seconds and relax for 10-15 seconds.


Meditation is an effective way to relax your body and mind. Guided meditations are available on CD, Apps or through internet sites. Aim to practice meditation at least once every day.

slow breathing

  • This can be used to calm you before you go into a stressful situation or while you are in a stressful situation. Slow breathing can also be used to manage a panic attack. The longer and deeper you breathe, the more you will relax. Practice this several times a day.
  • Breathe in slowly and deeply through the nose.
  • Count to five slowly as you breathe in.
  • Hold the breath for a few seconds.
  • Count to five slowly as you breathe out.
  • Do this 6 times and if you still feel anxious, repeat for another 6 times.


Practising mindfulness is an effective way to reduce stress and anxiety. This involves being fully aware of the present moment and approaching each experience with an attitude of curiosity and openness. Mindfulness can help you cope with hurtful thoughts and feelings. A psychologist or counsellor can help you learn mindfulness.

fabic Behaviour Scale

This is a visual chart to help change the unwanted behaviours that are caused by anxiety. The scale uses faces and colours to help show how you may feel as your anxiety levels increase.

It uses a 3-step process to:

1: Learn to read your own or another person’s body signs to identify what the body is doing to show anxiety.

2: Gain an understanding of what might be causing the tension in your life.

3: Learn behaviours that can be used to respond to and manage challenging aspects of your life.

Although the steps are simple, support is often required to effectively apply these 3 steps to your life. A psychologist can assist you with this.

physical exercise

Regular physical exercise can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. It is an essential part of emotional wellbeing. Try to make exercise part of your daily routine. This could include a 30-minute brisk walk, jogging, water sports, bike-riding or working out at the gym.


Some people find that high-caffeine foods such as coffee and chocolate can act as a trigger for panic attacks. If this is the case for you, avoid these products.

think and act positively

Thinking and acting positively can increase your emotional wellbeing and decrease stress and anxiety.

  • Do something you enjoy every day.
  • Remember to think about what you are good at.
  • If you did the character strengths exercise in Chapter 3, think of a way to use your character strengths every day.
  • Each night, write down 3 good things that happened that day (for example, got to the lecture on time, handed in assignment, talked to a classmate).


Using your imagination to visualise pleasant thoughts or memories can help create a relaxed state.

  • Practise this by first getting comfortable, and then choose a favourite peaceful place that is real or imaginary.
  • Focus the imagination: what does it look like, what can you hear, what are the smells associated with the place, and what can you touch?
  • Repeat affirming statements to yourself such as ‘I am letting go of tension’, or ‘I am feeling relaxed’.

Practice using visualisation three times a day for a few minutes or longer. This is usually easiest in the morning and at night in bed. Eventually, with practice you can use visualisation in everyday situations when feeling stressed.

don’t fight panic

(extracted with permission from

When experiencing a panic attack, remember the sensations are unpleasant and frightening, but not life-threatening. It does not matter if you feel frightened or unsteady, as these feelings are just an exaggeration of normal bodily reactions. Don’t add to your panic with scary thoughts about what is happening or where it might lead. Allow time to pass and for the fear to fade away.

Use one or all of the following positive statements:

  • ‘This feeling isn’t comfortable or pleasant, but I can accept it.’
  • ‘I can be anxious and still deal with the situation.’
  • ‘I’ll just let my body do its thing. This will pass.’
  • ‘This anxiety won’t hurt me, even if it doesn’t feel good.’

when to seek additional help

If you are persistently experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety, or you feel depressed, it is important that you talk to someone who can help. Make an appointment with a student counsellor or your GP to discuss these experiences, thoughts and feelings.

brett's story... 

Brett was a first year university student undertaking a degree in Information technology. Brett had been diagnosed early in his school years as being on the Autism Spectrum. At the beginning of the semester, Brett became very stressed and anxious about the new environment, the expectations and study load. There were also concerns raised by the teaching staff about some of Brett’s behaviours when he was under stress, such as talking too much, too fast and not listening to instructions. Brett would also get very excited and start to distract other students in tutorials.

The staff undertook training with an Autism consultant to learn more about Autism and how best to meet Brett’s needs. The consultant also worked with Brett to identify strategies that would help him focus and control his emotions and responses. Some of these included a quiet space where Brett could go to calm down and de-stress. The consultant also worked with Brett on the Fabic Behaviour Scale 3-step process to behaviour change. Brett was able to identify in step one how his body reacted when he was anxious or in uncomfortable situations: his behaviour, his emotional reactions, physiological responses, feelings, and thoughts. Brett was able to code his reactions and behavioural responses with a colour. He then identified strategies for the colour zones that indicated he was experiencing stress and anxiety. For example, when Brett was in the orange zone, Brett needed to go to his identified quiet space, or take a walk away from people. Brett made his lecturers aware of the scale and one lecturer pasted the scale on the back of his phone. When Brett showed signs of anxiety, the lecturer would bring his phone out and ask Brett what zone he was in. Brett would say the colour and the lecturer would then encourage Brett to use his strategies for that colour zone.

question & answer

Question: There are a lot of different stress reduction techniques provided in this booklet and I think that if I practised all of them every day it would take a lot of time. Do I need to do them all?
Answer: No, you don’t need to do them all. Select the ones that you think would work best for you and practise those ones. If you experience high levels of stress or anxiety, use the ones you have practised, and then evaluate them by asking the following questions: Can I use them easily in a stressful situation? Did they help me feel less stressed and anxious? Find and use the techniques that work best for you.

Question: During high school, I was seeing a student counsellor for mental health issues. I found this helpful. Should I continue seeing a counsellor?
Answer: It would be advisable to contact the student support services at your campus and arrange to see a student counsellor. Discuss with them what assistance your high school counsellor was providing. They can help you decide if you should continue seeing a counsellor.

who can help?

  • Student counsellors.
  • GP.
  • Psychologist.

more information