For some of us, the start of a new school year invokes feelings of nostalgia, new beginnings, and an energizing renewal at the conclusion of a relaxing summer. The smell of newly sharpened pencils might even bring about a certain giddiness, but for others, the start of a fall semester, or even an entirely new academic program induces dreaded feelings of anxiety. While anxiety can be uncomfortable, it does serve a purpose. We are meant to experience our full array of emotions including the difficult ones. Anxiety is often preparing us for something, heightening our senses and with the right amount, motivating us in a purposeful direction. The hiccup can be when our anxiety becomes disproportionate to the situation at hand.
One step to countering this anxiety is to remind ourselves of our strength and past successes. Working with graduate students, most are on their 17th and counting “first day of school”, by some means we made it through first days 1-16 and it is worth reflecting on how. Anticipation is often worse than actual events and taking note of our success making it through past first days, along with recognizing the passing of anxious feelings like a wave can help us work through present feelings.
Another helpful tool is breathing. Behavioral Health Department Chair, Dr. Marlowe makes a point to distinguish simple from easy concepts, breathing is simple but not always easy when under duress. A useful coping strategy no matter the type of anxiety can be box breathing. Box breathing allows us to distract our attention from the anxious matter at hand in order to focus on the exercise, while simultaneously practicing structured, patterned breathing. Simply picture a four-sided box, all sides being equal, take a breath in for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 4, and again hold for a count of 4, then repeat. Box breathing can assist with reducing the production of cortisol, which is to blame for increasing our distress and bring us back to the wonderful feeling that is homeostasis.
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