Let’s Talk (About Anxiety)

By Tay Jing Xuan (20S03C)
Photos courtesy of Ms Chua Kah Hwee (counsellor at RGC) and Raffles Photographic Society

When you step into the school compound, you might find that thoughts about grades, competitions and relationships start to plague you.

Let’s take it a step further. Do they already race through your mind at home, in the middle of lunch, or even out with friends? For some, the answer is most likely a yes. School brings with it tremendous amounts of stress to perform well in all aspects of our lives. Who wants to have a ‘U’ blemish their results slips, or to have a record they held broken by someone else? There is no respite from the multitude of stressors hounding us day by day, and some might find it hard to cope.

However, for some, this becomes more sinister. What seems to be a perfectly normal fear grows uncontrollable—insomnia hits out of nowhere when you were sleeping just fine the night before, or a small cry suddenly turns into a breathless, crushing panic. There can be no trigger because this fear has taken root so deeply that it is ever-present, even without you knowing.

As these worries turn into something more sinister, they change one’s behaviour along the way. Soon, the way one treats the stressors in their lives transforms into something else.

But what is this “something else”?

How does anxiety change a person’s coping mechanisms and behaviour in the face of problems?

You may not notice it, but a person with an anxiety disorder faces problems in a completely different way from a healthy person. Short-term anxiety steers a person away from a harmful situation, but long-term anxiety applies this to every event.

People with anxiety have difficulty discerning truly worrisome situations from mild annoyances, like between a bad grade in a class quiz and a bad grade in the end-of-year results slip. The short-term anxiety will help push them to work harder, but even after the good grade has been obtained in a future quiz, the anxiety sticks. Now everything, including the occasional do-it-yourself question after a lecture, becomes a threat. Even the smallest problem requires an overly-elaborate plan, and if things don’t work out according to the blueprint, everything goes downhill from there.

Anxious behaviour also involves avoidance or overthinking. While most healthy people may tackle problems in a more straightforward manner, people with anxiety tend to avoid and predict worst-case scenarios. Anxious minds look at a friend’s bad day and think, “Is it me? What did I do wrong?” Or if their friend does have a problem, they’ll start predicting: “If I just say I’m sorry, will they think I’m insincere? They’ll continue to think I’m annoying. They’ll start distancing themselves from me.” Because these possible scenarios that accompany the problem seem insurmountable to them, anxious people will then tend to avoid the problem completely.

When everything becomes a threat, life gets so much worse for people with an anxiety disorder. Adrenaline surges and panic are the only responses to even the slightest conveniences. Every day is a dreaded moment, and life can no longer be worth living for some. 

The worst thing is that it has become so prevalent among students that it often goes unnoticed.

There is an alarmingly increasing number of students seeking help for school-related stress—about 2400 new cases every year. Students in Singapore are also much more anxious than in other countries, with 86% of us feeling anxious over doing well compared to 66% in other countries. But how is it that the numbers aren’t going down, even after mental health has become a more popular topic for discussion over the years?

Perhaps a voiced-out worry receives hums of “same” and is quickly forgotten, leaving the poor student to turn that worry over and over in their head by themselves. It is especially evident in RI, where there is unyielding pressure to do especially well. Because of this, when students with an anxiety disorder speak up, they are more likely to be dismissed as being under temporary stress—who else isn’t scared of failing?

Unfortunately, an anxiety disorder isn’t fleeting.

Poster by Peer Helpers Programme TE4M about anxiety: Bai Shun Yao, Hannah Tan, Shirin Mehnaz Ansari, Priyenka Vijay, Valary Lim.

What we can do to cope with anxiety or worrying thoughts?

It appears then that if we are truly suffering from an anxiety disorder, we have to start by finding help for it. 

For those who require help for their anxiety, the Raffles Guidance Centre (RGC) is open to all. Counsellors there are well-trained to understand your struggles and will do their best to help you according to your needs. You can make an appointment by reaching the team at 6354 9105, or emailing them at rgc@ri.edu.sg. If you would like to drop by for a chat without prior appointment instead, walk-ins are welcome (or leave a note at the mailbox outside and the counsellors will get back to you as soon as possible).

A look at the RGC. Photos: Ms Chua Kah Hwee, counsellor at RGC.)

Despite to the current COVID-19 situation, counselling services are still available. RGC is still open and accessible to students on school days from 8.30am to 5.30pm. There are also other things you can do to cope with anxiety:

  • To cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety, try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, take a time-out and drop the work for now, or change your focus to something that makes you happy. Listening to music or doing things that you associate with happier times can relieve symptoms too.
  • To ground yourself, you can use your five senses to focus on things around you. Find and acknowledge 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste around you.
  • Journalling and pouring your feelings out to someone can help you identify the source of your anxiety and take steps to address it. There is no need to follow a structure or format—just writing down or talking about your feelings can relieve some of the anxiety you’re experiencing. For optimum results, try doing it regularly for a few minutes each day.
  • For those feeling helpless: Accept that the anxiety is happening, and take action to make yourself feel a bit better, like playing a soothing game or talking to someone about it. Sometimes, regaining a bit of control in the situation may help with handling your feelings.

What if you don’t have an anxiety disorder, but still wish to handle your stress and occasional worries a bit better? There are some things anyone can try out to tackle fears and worries, such as fear-setting and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Fear-setting involves listing out all your fears and worst-case scenarios on paper or on a note on your device, then looking at the ways you can avoid or solve these problems should they really happen. It allows you to gain control of the situation, because most of the time, we get anxious and worried because we are uncertain about the future. Knowing that there are concrete steps we can take to solve future problems can relieve most, if not all of the worry we are feeling at the moment.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is less intimidating than it sounds. It is appropriate for people of all ages, and can be done without a therapist; there are many worksheets and resources available online for you to try. CBT is mainly about the interconnectedness of thought, emotion and behaviour, and teaches you to change your perspective and balance your thoughts.

For example, if you got a bad grade, a possible thought would be: “I’m stupid and will never improve.” However, reframing the thought by questioning its rationality would bring you to: “I didn’t study enough, or I had misconceptions I didn’t know were there at first, or I needed more practice.” Changing how you respond to your emotions and thoughts helps you to ground yourself and be better equipped to tackle the root of the problem.

The entrance of the RGC.

How do we help those who have an anxiety disorder?

It may be difficult to dispel the worries of those with an anxiety disorder, but being a supportive friend is more than enough for them. Don’t dismiss their worries; understand that the worries they are having are very real to them, and offer them a listening ear when they turn to you for help. Even if we do not have the advice they require, being there for them and understanding their concerns can make a world of difference. If you can, direct them to a trusted adult to help them work through their anxiety.

Another thing you can do is to be understanding when they need to take a rain check because they’re prioritising their mental health. Some days can get particularly bad, and it would mean a great deal to them that you are willing to move dates around, too.

Ultimately, normalising speaking up about worries and building strong support systems can go a long way in coping with stress and anxiety. For those struggling with an anxiety disorder, understand that you are not alone in this, no matter how small you may feel in such a big pond, and that every problem has a solution.

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