An illustrated journey through student anxiety and how you can beat it
Current university students were asked to describe their experiences with anxiety and their moving responses were turned into riveting illustrations. Source: Babylon Health

Conquering university and emerging unscathed is no easy task. Assignments can feel enormous. Exams are stressful. Parents and society at large are pressuring us more and more to succeed. For international students, the unique challenges of being in a foreign land squeeze them even further.

This could explain how in the past 10 years, the number of students who disclose a mental health condition to their institution has multiplied fivefold in the UK alone. More worryingly, just under half who report experiencing a mental health condition choose not to disclose it to their university. Most students describe their mental health problems as “anxiety,” according to a 2016 YouGov survey.

To shine a light on this pervasive issue, affordable healthcare advocate Babylon Health partnered with mental health charities Student Minds and Nightline. They asked UK university students to share as vividly as possible what anxiety feels like for them. The most powerful answers were then turned into illustrations as a way of bringing these feelings to life.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“Anxiety is having a constant internal voice scrutinising your every move. From if my exam results are good enough to what others think of me, it is a never-ending cycle of questioning myself.”

We usually only think Students Services as the only department where university students can access support relating to mental health and well-being. But alongside this comes a wider range of other support services available to students, such as international student support; careers and employability guidance; financial advice and assistance; academic affairs, timetabling and exams; campus, residential and accommodation support; admissions, induction, transition and retention support.


All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“Anxiety can make you feel alone, stuck with constant repetitive thoughts.”

According to a 2016 Unite Students study, around one-third report feeling ‘isolated or lonely’. When it comes to making connections at university, it’s a case of easier said than done. But a helpful place to start is to know that loneliness afflicts almost everyone. Identifying how it affects you allows you to make proactive changes to your mentality, helping you meet new friends or get involved with in something you care about.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“Anxiety can make you feel small when the rest of the world feels huge.”

Comparing yourself to the sheer range of people around you, especially in large universities, can make you feel more out of place, even for those who have been the most social in high school. That was what happened to Emily Bergmann when she first started at Cornell University.

Emily’s video about her lost and confused early weeks at Cornell went viral, earning her the title of “the girl with no friends”. She received loads of comments thanking her for making them feel less alone, even landing a few video and speaking gigs! Art can do wonders for the lonely self and others – perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from Bergmann’s story.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“It can become a crippling cycle of being anxious about the next time you’ll feel anxious…you can be your own worst enemy.”

Anxiety is an almost permanent feature of contemporary life. Humans have evolved thus far because our ancestors had to constantly deal with fear and danger. Accepting this, we can better understand that there’s no need to feel anxious because we are anxious creatures at the heart. Emotional intelligence group The School of Life explains this best in their vast collection of videos on YouTube, all free, that could be highly useful to struggling university students.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“Anxiety feels like my shoelaces are tied in multiple knots, unable to be untangled.”

Anxiety in college can feel crippling. Those who have experienced this suggest a small step to help, even something seemingly as simple as just getting out of bed.

Purdue University student Rachel Hicks wrote: “Even if you sit at your desk and stare off into space, get out of that bed. It is not the comfort you believe it to be – it is your handicap.”

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“Anxiety is like trying to sleep on a school bench: uncomfortable and slightly worried you might fall right off. And, like trying to sleep on a bench, it leaves you exhausted.”

It can feel, at times, that everything is just too exhausting even before the day has started. Candace Ganger used to feel this regularly until she decided she’d had enough. She acknowledged she had a problem and went to a therapist to learn coping skills. If you’ve come to a similar tipping point, know that there are always counselors and therapists you can access at university or through private healthcare providers.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“It feels like drowning in a cocktail of sugar, caffeine and unrealistic expectations.”

Never self-medicate. Alcohol or drugs may numb your troubles temporarily but they will never make them disappear. Even coffee and caffeinated sugary drinks may help you power through an all-nighter but it’s not a good route to take. Instead, try learning about why we procrastinate and how to overcome it.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“When everything looks normal, but feels really scary. Something doesn’t feel right but I know nothing is wrong.”

In this Instagram era, the pressures to be perfect have never been greater. The perfect internship, perfect makeup, perfect boyfriend/girlfriend, perfect accommodation. Sometimes having it all can still feel like it isn’t enough, which is even more distressing. Overcome this by following more authentic social media accounts, realising these expectations are all imposed by algorithms, or better still, take a digital detox.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“It can feel like a fire burning you from inside out.”

One solution doctors often recommend is using your physical body to your advantage to improve your mental state. Anxiety can feel crippling, burning you up from the inside. Counter this through physical activity. Play sports, run, do yoga – even short bouts of activity can provide an immediate elevation of mood, according to medical researchers.

All illustrations provided by Babylon Health

“For me anxiety is a feeling of inadequacy, second-guessing and comparing yourself constantly to others.”

Writer and poet GK Chesterton said that: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing. And this causes a vicious cycle of procrastination – stress – anxiety.

Olivia Remes, a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, specialising in anxiety and depression, suggested: “Instead, why not just start by “doing it badly” and without worrying about how it’s going to turn out. This will not only make it much easier to begin, but you’ll also find that you’re completing tasks much more quickly than before. More often than not, you’ll also discover that you’re not doing it that badly after all – even if you are, you can always fine tune it later.”

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