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Stress and how to seek help

I often find myself overwhelmed with stress and that I worry excessively about things. I try to manage and plan my time well so that I don’t stress about deadlines however I still find myself feeling overwhelmed often to the point of feeling ill. I want to seek help and talk to someone about this but I’m not sure how to go about starting a conversation about this and I find myself nervous about talking about this.

It sounds like you’re experiencing something that is quite common for anyone who faces deadlines, that being stress and anxiety. Whenever we face something that is considered final, such as a deadline, loss, a breakup, then the human brain can struggle to reconcile this and it results in stress. When we can foresee something like this coming, then we often become anxious about this pending threat or problem. This is actually a biological process and can have a number of effects on the body, including feeling physical ill, poor concentration, or memory issues. In fact, studies have shown how long term stress can be damaging to the brain itself .

You mention that you’re not sure how to go about starting a conversation about this, well, the good news is that you already have! If you want to take the next step then I would suggest either booking an appointment with us here at CAPS, or maybe seeking some online support via services such as eheadspace. You could also see your GP to talk about other referral options. That nervousness you experience when you talk about this, well it tends to subside the more you get use to talking about it. Anxiety is a very common problem, and it is also one of the most treatable problems people face, as long as you can rally yourself to take the necessary steps.

Coping with anxiety about physical health

Last week, I found out that I have big lump on my neck. I went to the GP last week to consult. However, the GP was unable to determine what’s wrong with me and asked me to do some tests.

While waiting for the result of my tests and the next consultation with the GP, I have found that I am unable to concentrate, especially to do the mounting assignments because I’m worried that the lump on my neck is something dangerous. I have a mild anxiety problem, and this anxiety causes me to think about the worst scenario that will happen.

I try not to think about it too much, but I can’t. What should I do?

Thank you for your question. It sounds like a time of uncertainty for you, and the anxiety or concern that you are having about the lump is an understandable and normal reaction. Sometimes when people are already feeling anxious (e.g. about health concerns) additional stress, such as your university assignments, can increase anxiety and also affect concentration. As you have noted, your concentration is affected because you try not to think about the lump, which makes you think about the lump. Often, that is the paradox of trying not to think of something – it makes you think about it. In some ways, thinking about the possible scenarios or worst scenarios can be seen as functional during that time, as it is often seen as preparing oneself for the uncertain future. However, once that starts affecting your ability to do what you need to do on a daily basis, it can become problematic.

Sometimes, practicing mindfulness (try some of our guided exercises here) can help us be aware of where our attention is directed, so we can redirect it back to the task at hand. This could be useful for you when you are completing assignments and you find yourself worrying about the lump. With the practice of mindfulness, you’ll hopefully find it easier to redirect your attention back to your assignment.

It may also be useful to schedule some “worry time”. This involves setting aside 10-15 minutes during the day (preferably not close to bed time) to allow yourself to worry. When you find yourself worrying, remind yourself you will have time to think about it later, write down a short note about this worry (only a couple of words) in a notebook and turn your focus back to the task at hand. Here is a fact sheet and an app to help you practice.

This chapter from Centre for Clinical Interventions offers a good summary of these strategies and provides activity sheets to help containing your preoccupations about health.

While you are waiting for the results and feel anxious, you may also need to adjust your study strategies to your current level of concentration. Don’t hesitate to divide your work in smaller blocks of study, set a time for each task, alternate between tasks demanding different levels of concentration and use active learning strategies to keep you more engaged. Academic Skills have good resources to help you plan essay writing and revision.

Remember that this period of uncertainty and anxiety will not last forever. As you have mentioned, you will be seeing your GP to confirm the results and this could be something to remind yourself when you start to worry about possible outcomes. If you are finding that the anxiety is becoming worse or less manageable, you can also talk to one of our counsellors. I hope you find this information helpful, and I wish you all the best.

Getting over an Abusive Relationship

I was in an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive relationship for 2 months. The guy I was with had been raped when he was younger, and had terrible anxiety and so I thought I could help him. In thinking that, I fused a connection with him and he opened up. He used to “play fight” with me which was never enjoyable and no matter how many times i told him to stop, he wouldn’t listen. He bruised me. If he didn’t get his way, he would not take my calls or anything. Eventually I ended it. Its hard to get over him now that he has removed me from his life even though he hurt me so much. Help!

Thankyou for asking this question, and having the courage to share both your experience and how much it has impacted and hurt. Unfortunately, such an experience is not uncommon, and it raises numerous questions about how to manage and respond to such situations.

Some of the themes that seem to be present in the question include:
1. Where is the line between healthy and unhealthy support of/for a loved one?
2. What do we do if an intimate relationship becomes emotionally and/or physically abusive?
3. If the best thing for us is to separate or break from such a situation, how do we move on?

These are all important questions in any relationship, and unfortunately there are no easy answers for any of them. One response is that the answers are different for every individual, and part of the challenge in that regard is trying to understand and respect/value yourself, your needs, your limits, and your response styles with reference to such situations.

Regarding the first point, it is very normal to feel that we can help someone who has their own challenges, and hope that by showing unconditional love and support that things will improve for them. In reality, sometimes this helps and sometimes it doesn’t (at least in the short term). The person may or may not be ready for change, or may or may not have the skills or insight to do so. Part of the question then becomes “where are my limits”, in terms of how much support/love we can give in relation to the consequences and ability to hope for change/improvement, and in relation to how well our own needs are being met.

This leads into the second point. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, relationships can still become “toxic” in terms of things like manipulation or emotional/physical abuse. Sometimes these things can be improved or managed with open and assertive communication. Unfortunately, despite the direct communication that you note in your post, your partner seemed to be unable or unwilling to respond appropriately. In such cases, seeking help or advice (from friends or counsellors, or police if there is a concerning physical threat), or removing yourself from the abusive situation as you did are all options available.

The latter option, as you note, is often (initially at least) highly distressing, for a number of reasons. Maybe we still have strong positive feelings for the person, maybe we feel guilty for
“letting them down”, and maybe we feel lonely or lost or confused in the aftermath. Sometimes part of this is how about how the relationship impacted our sense of self or identity or even confidence. Sometimes toxic relationships have a way of undermining our self-belief and sense of who we are. So part of the gradual response might be about slowly rebuilding this sense of self/identity, as well as sense of community and self-belief outside of the relationship (see here for example).

In this regard also, such experiences, as distressing as they are, also afford the opportunity for personal growth in terms of understanding our own preferences for future relationships and styles of interaction (see here for some thoughts on break-ups from challenging relationships).

Feel free to book an appointment with one of the counsellors at Counselling and Psychological Services. For concerns related to physical or sexual violence, options also include domestic and family violence services or Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) for assistance and information. Counselling is private and confidential, and can focus on helping you to understand and process what has happened.

Traumatic Gay Sexual Experience

I had a sexual experience a year ago when I was drunk and while it was initially consensual stopped being consensual. I said no, he didn’t stop for a while and then eventually finished. He is not the most intelligent person and wasn’t aware of how violated I felt, I never told anyone, and I left straight away worried that he may had transmitted HIV because he stopped using the condom. What he thought was spicing up our sex life, I found traumatic and I haven’t had sex since and I’m struggling with body image issues, confidence issues etc. How do I move on/understand what happened to me?

Thanks for asking such an important question, as it’s clear this has had a real effect on you and unfortunately you are not alone in having an experience like this. There is no doubt the person in question should have stopped as soon as you said no, and the fact that he doesn’t understand the impact on you doesn’t make your trauma any less valid.

It sounds like you’ve been carrying this on your own for some time now, which can make it harder to process. Often these experiences are kept secret and people can feel ashamed and/or embarrassed to talk about them, or the only ones we hear about can be very different so it’s hard to make sense of what has happened. The issues you’re now experiencing are a normal reaction to a traumatic experience and don’t say anything about you as a person.

When you are ready, it can be helpful to talk to someone you trust in your personal life and who you feel would respond to these issues with respect and validation, while remembering that you are in control about what you share. Similarly, when you are ready a professional counsellor can help you overcome these issues and while this can be a difficult thing to do, the process can be a valuable experience. While we cannot undo the past we can learn to live our lives without the past holding us back.

Feel free to book an appointment with one of the counsellors at Counselling and Psychological Services. You can also contact Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) for assistance and information. Counselling is private and confidential, and can focus on helping you to understand and process what has happened.

When to seek help?

I have had problems with anxiety all through my degree and I managed to live through it, headaches and chest pains and all. But I am often miserable and in a lot of emotional pain. Because I can function normally I feel bad for seeking out professional counselling—even for writing this question. When should I seek help? Or is it better to pursue relaxation techniques at home?

Thanks for your question, it sounds like your anxiety has negatively impacted your emotional wellbeing a great deal, and that you have been battling with a number of unpleasant physical symptoms for some time now. I think your question highlights a very important issue for people considering whether or not they should seek professional help. It is important to remember that people seek professional help for a variety of mental health difficulties of varying severity, all of which are equally valid concerns.

There is no particular criteria you have to meet to access professional support, in fact, sometimes it’s better to seek help before things get too severe. Even if you are still functioning well and meeting the demands of your life, if anxiety is taking a toll on your emotional wellbeing then it is important to seek help. Working with a professional may help you gain another perspective on the anxiety you experience and why it may be occurring. Ultimately you may be able to learn not just how to cope with your anxieties, but how to move beyond them toward living a more enjoyable life.

I want to re-assure you that professional help is safe-guarded by high standards of privacy and confidentiality. There is nothing wrong with experimenting with relaxation techniques, but it can be helpful to do this in consultation with a health professional. You can choose to see a counsellor one-on-one at Counselling and Psychological Services. We also often run workshops on anxiety, check out our website for information and how to register.

Another option is to go through a GP at the Health Service. A GP would also be able to assess your eligibility for a Mental Health Treatment Plan which allows Medicare rebates for allied mental health services (e.g., psychologists, social workers).

Crying nearly every day

Hi, I don’t feel sad or stressed but I seem to cry out of nowhere nearly everyday, sometimes multiple times and usually at night. Sometimes it is because I am running through sad situations in my head or thinking about getting sick, but often it is out of nowhere. Am I just an overly emotional person?

Thank you for your question, I can hear you are puzzled by this frequent crying and worry about what it could mean for your wellbeing. Tears and emotions are not inherently bad for us, they are part of normal life and can be useful signal for ourselves and people around us. Some emotions may be unpleasant to experience at times but they are also very useful to our healthy functioning. We can cry many different kind of tears for many reasons (sadness, stress, joy) and if you want to understand a bit more about tears, you can watch this short explanatory video, and have a look at this article which presents research conducted to assess if and how crying can be beneficial.

It sounds like in your situation, you sometimes cry when thinking about the future and sad things that could happen. Sadness helps us put in perspective what is important and meaningful in our life. Thinking about your future may be a way to plan and make sure you are living the life you want. However, if the frequency of crying is impacting how you feel or getting in the way of sleep, it can also be a signal to call our attention on checking if something is out of balance or a source of dissatisfaction in your life.

Sometimes there is no obvious trigger to tears and you may need to a bit of detective work to find out where they are coming from. A fleeting thought about something sad could have triggered it, maybe you have some worries in the back of your mind or stress has been gradually accumulating. Many students manage busy lives, juggling work, study, friends, family, personal expectations and dreams and learn to function in highly stressful environment without noticing the amount of stress they cope with.

It may be helpful for you to watch like a curious observer what happens within yourself when you cry, to notice and describe feelings and thoughts. Mindfulness practice can help you connect with what is happening for you in the present moment in a non-judgmental way. You could also talk to a counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services who could support you in this exploration.

Not sure how to raise ‘the talk’

I’ve dated this guy for about 2 months now. We hang out once or twice a week because he works and I’m studying full time. We feel comfortable in our own skin to just be who we are around each other. I want to make it last so I’m taking it slow, but I’ve never had a relationship before, and I have no idea how he is feeling! He is far more confident than I am and yet hasn’t raised anything about where he thinks this relationship is going and I guess it makes me really nervous that maybe I’m not as important to him as he is to me. How do I raise this with him? In person/phone? What do I say?

Thanks for your question, the start of a relationship can be a wonderful time, but it’s natural to find this conversation difficult. Try not to assume that you’re not as important to him because he hasn’t raised the question himself. Sometimes two people in a relationship will take things at a different pace, or see it in a slightly different way, even if it’s equally important to both of you. This is why it’s so important to have an open and honest conversation, so that you’re not making assumptions. If you have questions about his feelings and/or the relationship and a genuine need for an answer, then it’s a good idea to broach it in whatever way you feel comfortable.

There’s no right or wrong way to have this talk, and no script that you can follow. If there were, it would be a lot easier! Here are a few things to consider:
– It can be helpful to think about how you’re feeling and where you want the relationship to go before asking that of him.
– Be clear about what you’re asking him and what it is you want to know. Sometimes when you’re nervous it’s easy to ask a question in such a vague way that the other person doesn’t understand what you’re asking and you then don’t get a proper answer.
– If it does turn out that he doesn’t see the relationship going in the same way that you do, make sure you take some time to think about what this means for you. This can be painful news but important to know.

Finally, there may not be any way to raise this conversation without it being scary, and that’s ok. Acknowledge these emotions as genuine, and recognise that being vulnerable is often a necessary part of developing a relationship.

Can you help with my fear of failing?

I’ve failed 5/6 subjects this year and technically I am 2nd year but its my first year at Uni Melb.I have recently moved to Australia and I undertook 40+ hours of paid work per week but I reduced that when I felt like I was letting go of my studies.I dealt with depression during the first semester and I felt like I had coped with that much better in 2nd semester. I am so scared that I am going to be kicked out or be put on suspension. I really want to remain in my degree and work to get the grades I know I can get but I am really worried what the UPC meeting will result

Thanks for your question. It sounds like you have been going through a difficult time and I praise you for your strength, perseverance and motivation to do well. Things can often mount up at university, especially when we’re away from home. It seems like you have been working incredibly hard to support yourself financially, and through depressed mood; both of which can be incredibly challenging issues, difficult to manage on their own! It is completely reasonable and normal that academic performance drops when we have less family and community support. Don’t forget that you are also adapting to a new/different culture, way of life, and teaching and studying methods, all of this in a foreign language! This is a process that many international students go through, and academic performance dropping can typically add to both depressed and anxious mood, and also not knowing what to do about it. This can be a confusing and frustrating time.

You aren’t alone in this journey, and there are numerous ways forward. First of all however, it is imperative that you attend your CSU hearing and be as honest and dedicated as you appear to be. Expressing your willingness to work hard and improve your academic performance is important. Before, during and indeed after the meeting, it is important to remain as calm as possible. Some ways to do this are basic circular breathing to calm the body and mind, and further relaxation exercises, which can be accessed from the Counselling and Psychological services website or this link.

Further to the above, there are more official options for you to investigate in order to aid with enrolment, special consideration and advocacy. As you experienced depressed mood earlier this year, this would have physically affected your ability to concentrate,motivate and daily functioning, all of which are incredibly necessary to study. Getting into STOP 1 is a priority to possibly apply for special consideration if this occurs in the future, and contacting Student Advocacy through the University of Melbourne Students Union. To help ongoing management of mood issues and anxiety, you may also want to book in with us here at the Counselling and Psychological Services.

Stressed about failing!

I am an international student studying architecture. Ever since I failed one prerequisite subject, I can’t focus on studying as I fear I will fail again. I delay doing my assignments, but still think and worry about them. Sometimes I stress to a point where I find it difficult to breath and I get a headache. I tell myself that I will get better. Now I have failed all my subjects. What should I do, in order to continue my course?

Thanks for writing in to Ask Counselling. This sounds like a stressful situation.

Stress is natural, and in the right amount it can be helpful in increasing motivation and focus.  When it reaches a certain level however, it can lead to loss of concentration, sleep disturbance and agitation, which can then affect your marks.

It sounds like it’s important for you to learn how to manage your stress so it doesn’t have such an impact on your performance and wellbeing in the future.  This is a skill that can be improved over time, and is useful for everyone.  I recommend making an appointment at Counselling and Psychological Services, so you can get some one-on-one help in understanding your personal stress and how to deal with it.

In the meantime, here are some tips you may find helpful:

  • Reduce your demands – do you need to reduce work hours or study load, or perhaps say no to other demands on your time?
  • Schedule your time effectively – knowing how much time you need to study helps you be more efficient, and enjoy your free time with less guilt.
  • Maintain your health – get enough sleep, eat well and exercise regularly.
  • Spend your free time well – laugh, see friends, have fun, or just relax on your own.
  • Watch your self-talk – expecting yourself to be perfect, focusing on worst case scenarios or putting yourself down will increase stress.
  • Ask for help when you need it!

Try here for some more tips on stress management and relaxation.

Regarding your question about continuing your course, staff at Stop 1 can provide you with advice on your course structure. Also, if you receive a letter requesting that you attend a Course Unsatisfactory Progress Committee (CUPC) meeting, it is important that you do not ignore it and make every effort to attend. You can seek further advice here or by contacting Advocacy at the Student Union.

Help! Is the world over?

I’m having difficulty managing my anxiety about the state of the world at the moment. I’m feeling really frustrated and anxious about global warming, world terrorism, and the refugee crisis. I don’t know where to start with my thoughts about Trump! I’m starting to feel like there’s no point. What can I do?

Wow, that’s a lot to manage on your own! I can’t argue with you as there are challenging issues in the world at the moment.  With the readily available information on mass, and social, media it can become overwhelming.  When we give repeated attention to negative and worrying matters, we tend to forget other positive, yet equally important, things are happening all around us. A biased focus on upsetting issues can eventually affect our perception of the world, self and others.  It can also affect our mood.  It is important to become aware when this happens and deliberately turn your attention to more positive information. Have a look at this website of positive news to help you gain a more balanced perspective.

It would be hard to change the whole world, however there are certainly things you can do to help make it a better place. Why not have a look at Avaaz?  Avaaz is a campaigning community that helps bring a voice to people that work on addressing many global issues. You might be interested in becoming a member, talking to others with a similar interest/passion as yours, or simply find comforting this information about how people contribute or help advance such causes. You might not control the way others behave, but you can create some change by being a positive role model. For example, you could attend rallies or volunteer with organisations such Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre or GetUp!. This way, you would be with people who share similar interests, making a difference in the lives of those around you, and gaining a sense of purpose doing something you believe in.

If you are stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, try mindfulness exercises to give yourself a break from these thoughts. There are plenty of resources on our website or you can book an appointment with a counsellor if you wish.

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