Standard student stress or anxiety disorder?

Sweating. Heart palpitations. Dry mouth. Butterflies. Worrying. Difficulty concentrating. The midterm period is already over, but final exams are only a few weeks away, and such symptoms are common among students. “Some anxiety before and during exams is natural,” says Dr. Kate Wolitzky-Taylor, research psychologist at UCLA Anxiety Disorders Research Center, and owner of a Westwood private practice specializing in anxiety disorders.  “Some research indicates that a little bit of anxiety or stress is not only normal, but possibly useful in these situations.”

The line between stress and anxiety is very thin, according to Dr. Sandra Rowe, licensed psychologist and coordinator of the Santa Monica College Psychological Services Center.

“When we talk about stress, it’s usually because we feel anxious,” says Rowe. “We can be stressed and anxious at the same time and it would be OK; it would be about good things. But we can also be stressed and anxious because we are not handling our life situations as well.”

Symptoms vary among individuals and depend on the grade of anxiety, according to Rowe. Some people have physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations and sweating, while others have more psychological responses, such as difficulty concentrating and a flood of confusion.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder, and it is one of the most common mental health problems for college students.

Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is a common anxiety disorder, according to the ADAA. Typical symptoms are excessive and uncontrollable worry, muscle tension, fatigue, and irritability. The exact triggers of GAD are unknown, but a family history of anxiety disorders or difficult life experiences might play a role. Other anxiety disorders are related to panic, obsessions and posttraumatic stress.

Wolitzy-Taylor points out that a feeling of anxiety does not necessarily indicate a disorder. However, if the anxiety causes distress and interferes with daily life, a disorder might be a possibility, she says.

“The two main features that most anxiety disorders share are fear and avoidance,” says Wolitzky-Taylor. “Students who have excessive fear of a situation, object, thought, or image, and who might go out of their way to avoid it in order to reduce their fear and anxiety, may have an anxiety disorder.”

She stresses that a diagnosis should only be made by a mental health professional.

“Most of us know how to handle our anxiety enough to be able to do the things that we need to do in our lives,” says Rowe. “But some people can’t manage it. They are so anxious that they can’t, for example, understand what they are reading on a test.”

According to Rowe, more SMC students come to the Psychological Services Center to talk to a professional during exam periods.

“The frustrating thing, I think, for a lot of students, is they come in, they are already stressed, and they want to be fixed,” she says. “We can teach some techniques, but these things take time.”

The center helps students with stress management training, and offers tips on how to reduce stress level. Students can learn breathing and relaxation techniques, such as listening to calming music, going to yoga classes, and learning how to meditate, that might alleviate anxiety.

“That’s really the best approach,” says Rowe. “You learn how to manage your stress now, so that when you become stressed, you are prepared for it, and it becomes a part of your normal activities.”

According to Rowe, people should discover what kind of relaxation techniques work best individually. She also claims that regular exercise, healthy food, and adequate sleep can all help to reduce anxiety. If natural remedies do not work and anxiety prevails, Rowe recommends talking to a professional in order to identify effective treatments.

Wolitzky-Taylor states that a common treatment for an anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy. The therapy involves identifying anxiety-provoking stimuli, and then confronting them.

“This is a life lesson,” says Rowe. “There are always going to be experiences that are stressful—in school, at work, when you have a family—so you have to learn how to manage yourself.”

For more information on different kinds of anxiety disorders and tips on how to cope with them, visit