Marie Bunner and Courtney A. Lloyd, West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Academic advisors work with students on a range of issues where students often identify anxiety as the cause of poor academic performance. Advisors can employ pragmatic approaches to address student anxiety and assist students in managing anxiety while adjusting to college life and academic pressure.
“The propensity for mental health issues to hinder the success of college students” has reached far beyond test anxiety (Beiter et al., 2015, p. 90). Anxiety is one of the most common psychological disorders noted on university campuses (Huenergarde, 2018). A recent survey conducted by the American College Health Association (2020) found that 23% of undergraduate participants indicated they had been diagnosed by a healthcare or mental health professional with anxiety; 26% of students reported that anxiety negatively impacted their academic performance in the last twelve months. While professionals are aware of the statistics, students often still feel isolated and believe they are the only ones negatively affected by anxiety. Academic advisors can help students navigate these challenges.
Advising and Counseling
Kuhn et al. (2006) describe “a continuum of responsibilities shared by faculty and nonfaculty academic advisors” and personal counselors (p. 24). They address the various definitions of advising and counseling and note that these terms are often used conversely causing confusion among students. For example, a student may have an academic counselor at a community college but is assigned to an academic advisor upon transferring to a four-year institution.
Traditionally, academic advising is a collaborative teaching and learning process that assists students in developing a plan of study. Academic advisors are typically faculty and/or professional staff members whose primary responsibility is to provide information regarding university policies and procedures, while assisting students in exploring, developing, and achieving their academic, professional, and personal goals (Kuhn et al., 2006).
In contrast, the role of a counselor or psychologist is to “help students overcome personal problems from the past and present that interfere with their academic success” and to help students find resources to resolve the problem (Kuhn et al., 2006, p. 24). For example, licensed psychologists typically provide individual counseling for personal problem solving, group counseling for special interests groups, such as stress and anxiety, relationship issues, loss and grief, and crisis intervention for students in urgent need of mental health assistance (West Chester University of Pennsylvania, 2020).
What Can Advisors Do?
During an advising session, “an advisor’s ability to communicate and develop a relationship with a student provides a foundation for meaningful dialog and interactions” (Hughey, 2011, p. 22). When students are comfortable with their advisor, they become more relaxed to discuss issues of concern.
McClellan (2005) observed “the best way to engage the trust of students is to demonstrate sincere willingness to help” (p. 57). When students are struggling, advisors need to question students to find out what they think is going on. Students often identify anxiety as the reason for their poor performance. However, students may use this term when they are stressed and overwhelmed, but it does not necessarily mean they have been clinically diagnosed with anxiety.
By asking probing and follow-up questions, advisors can learn to interpret what students are really saying to provide helpful strategies for academic improvement or to make referrals to campus resources. The trick is not to fall into the role of a counselor or psychologist. By validating and normalizing student feedback, advisors can help students understand it is normal to have some anxiety. Awareness of specific signs or “red flags” can help advisors determine if a student needs to be referred to resources beyond the purview of academic advising. Finally, advisors can help students identify coping strategies to help manage anxiety and cope with perceived demands and expectations.
Validating & Normalizing
Advisors can help students understand it is normal to experience anxiety and validate their feelings. A classic example is the student who feels that they are the only one in the class who is anxious about giving a speech. As advisors, we can assure students that it is common to feel this way—“Of course you’re anxious; public speaking can be nerve wracking”—and they are not alone; many students face the same anxiety they do—“Remember that nearly everyone else is also as nervous as you are.”
Validating students’ feelings is how advisors can communicate that they accept what students are thinking or feeling without agreeing or approving, without passing judgement or taking responsibility (Rogers, 1964). As an advisor, it can be challenging to stay quiet and listen without jumping in with solutions/recommendations. Simply listening can be a powerful start to a conversation an advisor can ultimately steer toward coping strategies to help improve academic performance.
It is not an advisor’s job to help students understand the root cause of their anxiety; that falls into the bailiwick of counselors. Acknowledging and accepting what students feel, helping them understand that what they are feeling is normal, and assisting them in figuring out how to navigate the demands of their coursework while coping with their anxiety strengthens the student/advisor relationship.
A study by Brownson et al. (2016) asked students to identify contributors to stress. Of the 73% who reported academic stress, only 20% of them listed academics and nothing else. The remaining 80% listed other contributing stressors, including financial problems, life transitions, and relationship and family problems. It is important for advisors to understand what other aspects of life, in addition to academics, may contribute to anxiety and academic difficulty. These are often the underlying issues that necessitate referrals to other services.
In an advising situation, there are not always clear-cut answers in identifying red flags that necessitate a referral to counseling. Advisors need to try to get a feel for what is going on. They should think in terms of function and note changes in behavior and/or appearance. Is the student’s ability to function compromised? Are they eating? Sleeping? Going to class? Isolating themselves from others? Instincts and experience will serve advisors well in these situations. Temporary feelings of anxiety are normal, but if they persist and effect a student’s ability to function, additional support beyond advising is likely necessary (Mokrue, n.d.).
Anxiety can prevent students from performing to their potential. Advisors can employ the following coping strategies to help students manage feelings and behavior that are negatively influenced by anxiety so they can meet the demands of their coursework.
Share your own experiences. Using personal stories to engage students in conversation can be an effective way to address an advising issue and reduce anxiety around that topic. Sharing your stories will help students connect with you and realize they are not alone. It also helps students understand that others have been where they are and survived. In this conversation, there are no right or wrong answers; students talk about their own experiences and interests which may lead to new ideas or solutions to problems.
Encourage students to practice self-care. Mahrer (2019) defines self-care as engaging in practices that improve your health and well-being. Talk with students about how they are taking care of themselves. Find out if they are eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and enough sleep. Help students find time in their daily schedules for quiet time or time to decompress. This conversation often provides clues about circumstances beyond the classroom that may be impacting student performance and anxiety.
Encourage students to learn how to calm down. Ask students to take a deep breath. Breathing exercises can help decrease heart rate, which can cause the body to physically relax; this can help students feel less nervous (Sneddon, 2007).
Help students set realistic expectations and goals. Encourage students to set goals they are willing and able to work toward, then help them figure out the specific steps for how to achieve that goal and a timeframe for which to accomplish it. A goal is more likely achieved if it is important to the student.
Balance anxiety and responsibility. Help students understand that even though they have feelings of anxiety, there are consequences for not doing the things they are avoiding. Advisors can help students determine if the consequences are worth it. Sometimes students need to figure out how to be anxious but still perform. It is also valuable to note that anxiety should not always be perceived as a negative; it can be a good thing in certain situations as it can have a positive impact on motivation (Robotham, 2008).
A growing number of college students report anxiety negatively impacts their academic performance. Advisors are often students’ first point of contact when they have academic concerns or other issues. Advisors’ primary responsibility is to help students navigate university policies and procedures and assist students in achieving their academic, professional, and personal goals. Unlike advisors, counselors help students identify and cope with personal problems that interfere with their academic success. Therefore, it is critical for advisors to know when to refer students to counseling services and what strategies they can effectively employ within the purview of advising to help students cope.
Associate Director, Academic Success Program
Assistant Professor, University College
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
Courtney A. Lloyd
Academic Advisor, Exploratory Studies Academic Advising
Assistant Professor, University College
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
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Cite this article using APA style as: Bunner, M., & Lloyd, C.A. (2020, September). Addressing student anxiety in academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). [insert url here]