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Home U Rising Focus on student mental health, Ep. 2: Anxiety


Ever wonder if what you’re experiencing is more than just college stress? In episode 2 of this five-part series, Amber Whiteley explores how anxiety differs from common stressors faced by students. Learn how to identify and manage anxiety, turning a common college challenge into an opportunity for growth and resilience. The series, Focus on Student Mental Health, is hosted and produced by Scot Singpiel of at University of Utah Health and was created in collaboration with Student Affairs and the University Counseling Center at the University of Utah.

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Chris Nelson: This is Chris Nelson, co-host of the U Rising Podcast. For the next few episodes, we are sharing a five-episode series about student mental health produced by at University of Utah Health.

It will examine the top mental health challenges faced by college students and explore what causes them and suggest basic strategy to manage each one.

You'll also learn about the resources available at the University of Utah. Because in the end, it's not just about understanding the issues, it's about empowering you, our students, with the tools to thrive.

So, as we dive into this series, I invite you to join us in our shared journey toward a healthier future.


Scot Singpiel: Do a Google search about anxiety and you'll learn it's one of the most reported mental health issues facing college students. But what is it? How much anxiety is a normal part of the college experience and when should a person learn some management strategies or get professional help?

Amber Choruby Whiteley is a staff psychologist at the University of Utah Counseling Center and she also teaches future mental health professionals in counseling and counseling psychology programs.

Amber, thanks for talking about anxiety. I mean, this is kind of a big deal, right? Anxiety is one of the more reported mental health issues that face college students, if I'm understanding correctly.

Amber C. Whiteley: Definitely. I think we're seeing anxiety go up more and more over the years. And I think it is really common to face anxiety in college. I know when I was in college, I had a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, so thanks so much for having me so we can talk about this.

Scot Singpiel: Yeah. So, first of all, what is anxiety? Is it an emotion? Is it a biological response? What is this thing that faces us sometimes?

Amber C. Whiteley: Yeah, that's a really good question. I mean, there are a lot of different anxiety disorders in the DSM-V, and they can all look a little bit different. There can be specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, OCD. They all fall under that category of anxiety disorders. But the most well-known disorder is generalized anxiety disorder.

And the common thread under all of those disorders is having excessive fear in response to either a real or a perceived imminent threat. Meaning that something in the moment, you're having a fear of that. And anxiety is technically defined as an anticipation of a future threat.

Fear is a really normal human response. We see fear as a universal emotion that has been experienced across humans of every cultural group across the world. We're hard wired in our brains to have fear in response to a threat, and that really is what biologically has kept us safe over time.

If you see a physical threat in your environment, you'd want to have a physiological response. For example, if you're confronted by a saber-toothed tiger, you want your body to start sweating, your muscles to start twitching, your breath to start getting faster, because all of those physiological symptoms help you prepare to run away and save your life.

But the issue comes today when we start having fear or anxiety that is excessive or persists for a longer amount of time than might be appropriate to the situation you're facing.

And the really cruel part about anxiety is that our brains aren't able to perceive the difference between what is a physical threat to our safety and what isn't. And so, if I'm stressed about opening my emails, my body's going to produce this physiological response the same way it would if there were a physical threat to safety.

But with anxiety disorder, someone experiences essentially anxiety that is larger than the actual situation they're facing or their anxiety and fear about that situation persists for a longer amount of time than is appropriate for that situation they're facing.

Scot Singpiel: It's almost a fight or flight thing, isn't it?

Amber C. Whiteley: Exactly. Yeah. And so, for those who might not know, there's a fight, flight or freeze. In fact, when we're talking about anxiety, I think it's really important to talk about the brain.

In our amygdala, essentially, whenever we have a fight, flight or freeze response . . . and there are some others that I won't get into today, like fawn. When we have that sort of response, it is a safety response to us. But our amygdala takes over the rest of our brain.

Our frontal cortex is where we really have our complex thinking and planning take place. But when our amygdala is taking over, it takes over completely to the point that you're not able to think complex things in your frontal lobe.

And so a lot of times people will freeze in instances like a traumatic event and they'll sort of say, "Why couldn't I have fought something off? Why couldn't I have done something? Why couldn't I have run?" Well, maybe your body went to that freeze response and took over the rest of your brain so that you couldn't think through what to do best in that situation.

And we see this with anxiety, too. That's why a lot of people will say that they're taking a test and then suddenly everything just blanks. Ironically, it's your body's way of trying to protect you in that moment.

And so, in that way, I think it becomes important to sort of honor . . . I mean, it's very cool that our brains are set up to protect us in this way. But of course, it's very frustrating if you're sitting down to take a test and suddenly you forget everything that you studied for the night before. And that's when we have to recognize, "Okay, my amygdala is taking over right now, so it's not going to be possible for me to do complex thinking."

The reason that's so important is that we want to take a look at . . . If we're in a state of flooding, meaning that your amygdala has taken over the rest of your brain, then you really want to engage in some activities that will help you bring your status back down so that the rest of your brain can turn back on again.

Scot Singpiel: And a certain amount of anxiety is okay because it can make us want to do better. It tells us that we care about this thing and we fear that if it doesn't go well. But where we run into problems is when this system kind of isn't working quite properly. You alluded to it a little bit earlier, when the level of anxiety is greater than the actual threat. So talk about that a little bit.

Amber C. Whiteley: Yes. So, one of my favorite things to show clients is something called the bell curve of anxiety. And if anyone's listening to this, I hope that they pause and go Google this so they can get the imagery of it.

But essentially, it looks at, on an X-Y axis, the amount of stress that you're facing and how it improves your performance. Right smack dab in the middle is the right amount of stress where you are the most productive. So you actually do want a little bit of stress.

And I think a lot of people can relate to this. If you've got a task with a little bit of stress that's attached to it, that's where you can feel the most motivated to get something done.

But if you have no motivation, no stress to get it done, then why would you even begin to work on it?

Or on the opposite end, if you have way too much stress, way too much anxiety about it, then you can go into a state of paralyzing anxiety that keeps you from getting anything done.

And so recognizing where your stress level is at on that bell curve can be really helpful for thinking to yourself, "Okay, do I need to . . ."

More often than not, with college students, we see people get into that paralyzing anxiety zone. And that's a time where it's really important to take a look at needing to do something that will bring your physiological response back down, move your anxiety more towards that center where you've got the perfect amount of stress to be able to motivate you to get that thing done without it being so much to the point that you are completely paralyzed by it.

Scot Singpiel: That visual image is incredibly useful. That is just awesome. I just love that.

The examples that we've used so far tend to be taking tests or writing a paper. You mentioned earlier social anxiety. What are some other types of anxiety that you see manifest in college students? And then we're going to talk about steps you can take to maybe prevent those or if you find yourself in that state of anxiety, how you can bring yourself to that center of that bell curve. But what are some things you see students experience?

Amber C. Whiteley: I think social anxiety is a really big one, especially because with social anxiety . . . You think about college and it is a melting pot of people coming from different family backgrounds and different norms.

I like to always talk about how really, for me, going to college was the first time of recognizing, "Oh, my family had these unwritten rules of what was appropriate and what wasn't appropriate." We absolutely recycled and you were a good person if you recycled. But then coming to college with a lot of different people that didn't recycle, didn't grow up with recycling, that's just one example of one of those unspoken rules that sometimes a lot of college students come into conflict with.

And so what we see a lot of times with college students is some social anxiety, especially as college students have experienced the pandemic and maybe have had more experiences of isolation in the past few years than they might've had otherwise. And people can really stress about how they're being perceived by others.

The interesting thing with social anxiety is that that's one of those where . . . Well, with all anxieties, there can be a pattern that people fall into, which is avoiding confronting the thing that makes you feel anxious.

So there's sort of this pain response you get from the thing that you're anxious about. And then people will engage in some sort of avoidance technique, which actually ends up creating more anxiety later.

The treatment in a lot of cases is reducing the avoidance so that you can show yourself that, "Oh, I faced this thing that I was really scared of, and it actually ended up being okay."

And the more that you can prove to yourself that you're facing the thing that you have a lot of anxiety about and it ended up being okay, the more you can sort of unwire in your brain this is a big scary thing that you should be scared of. You're sort of showing to yourself, "I went through this thing, and it ended up being okay. I'm still safe. Everything is okay."

Now, I think it's important to mention that some people do have actual physical threats to their safety. And a lot of times, I think that's important to acknowledge. People who have marginalized identities, who especially face identity-based violence on a daily basis, do have legitimate reasons to be anxious around their safety.

And certainly putting themselves in unsafe situations isn't going to be an appropriate use of exposure therapy. But being able to go to therapy and being able to look at other strategies for reducing your anxiety can be helpful.

I think a lot of times I see students that are just so fed up with their anxiety controlling them. The irony with anxiety is that a lot of times the strategies that we engage in are a way of trying to help us feel like we're more in control or to avoid that distress of the anxiety thing that we're anxious about. But the more that we engage in those behaviors, the less control we end up feeling like we actually have over our lives.

Scot Singpiel: Are there some preventative measures that somebody can take if they notice . . . well, first of all, you're going to encounter experiences in college that are going to make you anxious, and I think you hit on a couple of them. "Don't avoid if it's not a threat to your safety" is a good one. But what are some other preventative measures or maybe some early intervention things that somebody could do to prevent that needle from moving to that other side of that bell curve?

Amber C. Whiteley: I'm a really big believer in practices of mindfulness. I have found that it's been one of the things that's helped me the most with my own anxiety, but I also find that it has been really helpful for my clients as well because the tenets of mindfulness . . . A lot of people, when they hear mindfulness, they think of meditation. And certainly meditation is one of the activities of mindfulness, but not the only one. The tenets of mindfulness are awareness, presence, and non-judgment.

You think about mindfulness as a practice. A lot of times I'll even do a mindful activity such as going on a walk, where I try to notice how I'm feeling, notice the wind against my skin, notice as many flowers or new plants in my neighborhood as I can, and then also notice what emotions I'm carrying with me in that day, any physiological symptoms that might be going on.

I think that if more people were to take the time to be able to be that connected with themselves throughout the day, they would notice more warning signs of their anxiety creeping up on them.

A lot of times, especially if you're a college student, you get so busy with your classes, so busy with studying, even socializing with other people, that you can become disconnected from your body and disconnected from what stress you're carrying with you throughout the day.

In fact, for me, the first time I had a panic attack in college, I thought that it was just out of nowhere. I couldn't think of what emotions or what thoughts I was having in the moment. But now when I can look back on it, I can think of all of the contextual things that were going on that were really stressful at the time and it makes more sense that I had a panic attack in that moment.

So I think that the preventative work that we can do is more of that mind-body connection, recognizing how we're thinking and feeling.

And I mentioned the three different tenets to mindfulness, that awareness, presence, and non-judgment. The non-judgment part is so essential because we have to not only notice how we're thinking, how we're feeling in a moment, but also be incredibly non-judgmental of how we might be feeling in the moment.

So being able to say, "Wow, I'm noticing that my shoulders are really tense right now. Well, that makes sense because I have been really stressed about the physics exam tomorrow." Or noticing that you're maybe clenching your jaw more and then being able to say, "I think I have been carrying some anger towards my roommate, and that kind of makes sense. I'm still getting used to living with someone."

All of those things that show a lot of compassion to ourselves and doesn't assign any shame or blame to ourselves for how we might be feeling in a moment.

Scot Singpiel: I can't second that thought [enough] about how we are so busy in our lives as students or even if we're not students, and we constantly find ways to keep ourselves occupied with social media and with music and with Netflix and all of it, that taking a moment just to check in with yourself is so critical.

Amber C. Whiteley: Yeah, we do have a society, a culture of distraction right now, and a lot of times I have a lot of clients that will say to me, "I can't stop scrolling on my phone. It's just something that I really want to get under control. I don't want to be scrolling so much." And a lot of times we'll look at, "Well, why might you be scrolling on your phone?" A lot of times it is because of the anxiety and stress.

And instead of maybe consciously looking at, "Okay, I'm really stressed right now," we can go into this sort of subconscious, "Let me avoid how I'm feeling in this moment because it's so overwhelming."

And so I think that's where those practices of mindfulness can be so helpful for checking in with ourselves and recognizing what it is that we're doing and why, and being able to then intervene so that we're making conscious decisions around how we want to manage our stress rather than just going with something subconsciously and not really being aware of why we're doing what we're doing.

Scot Singpiel: And for college students, should they be communicating their struggles to friends, family, other professors in order to get understanding and support? Or is that something you should just keep to yourself? That doesn't seem like the right thing, but I don't know what the right thing is, right?

Amber C. Whiteley: I think it depends on the individual. But whenever I'm teaching a course, I always tell my students that there's more that I can do to help provide accommodations ahead of time, if you're able to tell me ahead of time what's going on for you, than I can afterwards.

So what that looks like is maybe you're writing a paper and you realize that your anxiety is getting overwhelming. Sometimes your anxiety might even convince you, "Don't go and talk to your professor, don't ask for an extension, don't ask for help." But if the deadline has passed and you are turning in a paper late, I'm not able to go back and retroactively give an exception as easily as I might be able to if you were to reach out to me ahead of time and explain to me, "Hey, I'm struggling right now and can use some support."

Sometimes people ask me how much information they should say to their professors. I don't think it has to be super personal or detailed, or I don't think you have to disclose anything that you don't feel comfortable disclosing.

But being able to tell a professor, "Hey, I am running into some issues right now with my mental health and could really use an extension on this paper," that sometimes is enough information.

Now, of course, not all professors are able to be that lenient. But I always think that reaching out, especially to peers and family who also have experienced anxiety, can be really helpful even just to validate your own experiences.

Scot Singpiel: You've talked about a lot of great tools and paradigms to have as we think about anxiety. Let's wrap this up with what support options are available to students. So, it sounds like a lot is out there that you could kind of start working on some of these things on your own, but if you run into some questions or you get stuck, you can't figure something out, then you might need some support options. So, what's out there?

Amber C. Whiteley: I mean, I will mention the University Counseling Center. We do exist, and we don't offer just individual counseling. A lot of times we have these workshops that are really wonderful, one in particular called Taming Stress Workshop that is all about . . . It's a four-week workshop anyone on campus can attend and you don't have to sign up for an appointment to attend it. You just go to our website and register for it and, boom, you've got the workshop available to you. And it walks through a number of really great tools.

Also, because it's a workshop, we'll ask people to actively try out the different tools in between. And I find for myself that it's helpful sometimes to sort of have homework so that I'm keeping myself accountable for having to try out the tools that I'm learning about. So, workshops are an option.

There are a number of different mental health apps that are available, some you have to pay for and some you don't, around some of the different mindfulness techniques.

We also have a website here at the University Counseling Center. And so if you go to, that's where you can sign up for both those workshops that I just mentioned, but also all of our mindfulness programs are listed on there as well. We've got recorded guided meditations. We also have drop-in meditation hours that anyone can attend, including staff and faculty.

I think that, in general, when it comes to finding different resources, there are so many that are out there, and in a lot of ways it's just about trying on different ones that might work for you.

Scot Singpiel: Some great information today. Thank you very much for sharing all that information. Do you have a final thought for somebody who's made it through this whole conversation? What would you want them to leave this conversation with?

Amber C. Whiteley: A lot of times generalized anxiety disorder, the onset for it is in college age. And so sometimes there's this pressure chamber of both you're facing a lot of stress in college and it might be the time that you just start kind of coming into your anxieties a little bit more.

And I used to be someone myself where I would have weekly, if not even daily, panic attacks throughout college. And of course, I went on to become a psychologist because I was so interested in this, but it really did get better for me. The more that I learned to become connected to myself, the more that I learned how to process my feelings, my emotions, accept the emotions, not be judgmental about them.

And I see this time and time again with my clients because you can get into such a place where it really can feel so overwhelming. Our anxiety can give us tunnel vision and convince us that we will never be okay or that we will always be this stressed for the rest of our lives.

And I really do believe with everyone that I meet, that there's always hope. It can be a little bit painful as you're trying to find the thing that's going to work for you. But I really do believe and have seen time and time again for multiple clients that I've seen, hundreds of clients at this point, that it always does get better.

And even with time as we start learning, becoming more connected to ourselves, learning our warning signs of stress, it gets so much better with time. And as you become more connected to yourself, you understand yourself more and learn those strategies for being able to manage your own stress.

We all end up finding our things that help us. It's just a matter of doing some experimenting to figure out what works for you.