The first semester of a brand new university year is a stressful time that can lead to overwhelming emotions and intrusive thoughts cropping up.
They manifest as a voice in your head that you cannot shake — it might tell you that you are going to fail all your classes, or that you will not be able to make any new friends, get into grad school, or get a job with your degree. These intrusive thoughts can add to all of the stresses that you and other students are dealing with, cause anxiety, and affect your learning.
However, you can rest assured knowing that there is nothing wrong with experiencing these kinds of intrusive thoughts. A 2014 study found that about 19 in every 20 people will have these thoughts over three months. But what should you do when they become more frequent and challenging to manage?
Fortunately, many evidence-based strategies are informed by years of psychological research to help you brave these storms. Here are four healthy ways to deal with overwhelming emotions and intrusive thoughts:
#1 Practice opposite actions
When a flurry of intrusive thoughts or emotions hits you in the morning, it can be hard to get out of bed.
These thoughts and voices might tell you that there is no point in wasting your time in class if you are going to fail. You might feel an impending sense of doom, a pit in your stomach, and anxiety over the morning classes, all of which can keep you from getting up. Every time you miss class, you fall further and further behind and become more and more anxious. This becomes a vicious cycle where you keep falling behind in class, further fuelling these overwhelming thoughts and emotions.
One strategy for conquering these thoughts and emotions is called opposite actions. It comes from Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT), which helps you learn to accept feelings and thoughts even if they can be disruptive. Opposite actions allow you to recognize how you respond to these intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions, and suggest that you do the opposite instead.
In this scenario, rather than staying in bed when you are anxious about classes, taking opposite actions could involve getting up and going to class, office hours, and even speaking with your professor or a teaching assistant about your concerns. In other cases where you might experience anxiety over social outings, opposite actions would encourage you to go out and try to enjoy yourself anyway, overcoming fear and social anxiety.
#2 Don’t engage with intrusive thoughts
Many people try to argue back against their intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions. For example, if an intrusive thought revolves around your friends secretly disliking you, you could try to think of all the fun times you have had with these friends as a counter-example.
However, this is just as effective as playing chess with a pigeon. Eventually, the pigeon will just knock down all the pieces and poop on the board. Arguing with intrusive thoughts can deepen the spiral, amplify anxiety, and continue to derail your day. Instead, the next time these overwhelming thoughts or intrusive emotions crop up, try to accept them and let them flow by your stream of consciousness. Do not engage with them.
This may take some practice, but in the end, it involves ensuring that your mind is a no-judgment, no-shame zone. Sometimes, it can help to have a few distractions handy that you can do to distract yourself while you let the thought pass, like knitting, drawing, or doing the dishes.
#3 Practice identifying your emotional states and triggers
Another powerful skill involves learning to recognize what triggers certain emotions. You can start by tracking them on a piece of paper or in a notebook.
Write down the emotion, what triggered it, and what this emotion makes you want to do. Then, when you have a week’s worth of notes, you can see if there are specific patterns you can identify. For example, you might have more anxiety or intrusive thoughts after drinking a few too many beers. Or you might have fewer of these thoughts when you spend time in a park with your friends.
In addition to recognizing triggers, you can also work on modifying your behavioural responses. Now that you can realize your emotions, you can see if you respond in ways consistent with your values. For example, if you get angry with yourself, you might end up playing video games all night and miss class the next day. Instead, you might implement an opposite action and find an alternative activity that aligns more with your goals and values, like drawing or running. That way, you will not miss class the next day.
#4 Ask for help
Sometimes, these intrusive thoughts and overwhelming emotions can get out of control. That is okay, too, and knowing that you can ask for help is essential. Whether this is speaking with a trusted friend, family member, or professor, your support system can help you talk through your feelings and emotions. In addition, they may direct you to resources within the university that can help you address your mental health concerns. In some cases, students are not comfortable going through the services within their university and can benefit from community-based resources.
This article was written by Simon Spichak, Co-Founder Resolvve.
I founded Resolvve to address some of these concerns — we provide students with access to therapists that get your needs, starting at $100 with no waiting list. Many student insurance plans can cover the entirety of a therapy session, meaning that you could try therapy for free to see if it can help. Learn more about Resolvve and how we can help by checking out our website and our Instagram: @resolvvementalhealth
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