How to Deal with Anxiety When Learning

by David · 54 comments

Anxiety

Anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome:

Anxiety accurately describes the feeling shared by learners in the early stages of approaching a new challenge;  in some cases the feeling lingers long after the beginning and becomes  a long-term struggle. I’ve observed anxiety present in people learning a language, learning how to drive, when sitting down to write, and when approaching countless different challenges. I have personal experience with anxiety and I want to share how I  deal with this horrible demon.

Conquering anxiety as a learner is important because it can prevent you from achieving your goals and ever crossing the finish line; more severe cases can prevent you from even starting your journey. Fear of making mistakes, fear of failing, fear of not performing, fear of making a fool of yourself and/or fear of not reaching a goal are all reasons to start feeling anxious. You may have noticed that all the fears listed fit comfortably under the the umbrella term perfectionism.

I feel the need to make a statement about perfectionists, because I use to feel proud to call myself one, and most perfectionist I know wear the badge proudly. Being concerned with intricate details is a double edged sword, on one hand it can mean great work is consistently produced, on the other hand it can mean very little or no work is produced.  I’ve suffered from sever writers anxiety. In fact, one of the reasons I started this blog was to conquer my fear of writing.

My Experience with Anxiety

When my anxiety was at its peak I would sit down to write and start to feel hot, my palms would sweat and my heart would beat faster. Describing the overall feeling as a calm panic attack would be more than accurate.

Whenever I did manage to get myself to write – often after days or weeks of putting it off – It would take anything up to four hours to lay a mere five-hundred words on the page. The end  product would be somewhat satisfactory, however writing became associated with pain. I always felt satisfied when a piece of writing was completed; that feeling, and that feeling alone kept me going. Not everyone is able to push through anxiety so I consider myself *extremely* lucky.

It would take me forever to write a few hundred words because I would constantly comb through each sentence in an attempt to align each word as perfectly as possible.

In a frantic search to change this I tried a load of different writing techniques, but nothing worked. Giving up wasn’t an option because that usually makes me feel worse, so I continued writing the only way I knew how – painfully.  You could probably imagine how I felt when having to face university essays with word counts of a few thousand – tortured

It didn’t make sense that I, a person who loves to communicate, loves to build arguments and constantly examines life, could not write without feeling uncomfortable. I dug further and I discovered through questioning that I was afraid. Afraid of what? I was afraid of not getting my message across eloquently In a way that represented me. I was desperate to write like scholar. I wanted to write articles that would impress. I was trying too hard to be something I wasn’t – yet. Unconsciously I  wanted to skip growth and development and become the best writer I could be overnight.  I did this by rewriting each sentence countess times, I really believed I could make them near perfect if I tried hard enough;  of course,  this couldn’t have been further from the truth.

I did write better sentences, but that didn’t matter because it took too much out of me and the fun from writing. Discomfort was the leading emotion and that made it increasingly difficult to sit down to write anything.

Overcoming anxiety

In my attempts to write better I forgot what mattered most to me – emotion. I had somehow forgot that I write best when I let my heart pour on a page so those who read could feel how important  the words I write mean to me.

The day I let go of being perfect is the day I started to enjoy writing again. The best thing I ever did was accept that it would take time to become the writer I want to be.  Learning how to capture the voice in my head on a page full of words takes lots of practice and countless experiments.

This was an important realisation; for me, this was the death of perfectionism.

Looking at Fear Differently

All I needed was a perspective shift; I now look at fear not only as feedback, but also as data.

Fear tells me where I’m weak,  where I’m insecure and it jumps in front of me, stops me in my tracks and shoves in my face an opportunity to grow – something I now accept.

Fear is biological as well as psychological. I don’t believe fear can be eliminated entirely, however we can take control and not allow it to control us. Eliminating fear may seem desirable, but how then would we respond to danger intuitively? Fear reminds us we’re doing something outside of our comfort zone and aids us in developing tunnel vision focus by heightening our senses.

Fear is a biological defence mechanism which can be tweaked for optimal results.

The secret I’ve discovered for dealing with fear is not trying to banish it, but embracing it as another life teacher. A teacher who tells  you what you don’t want to hear, but you know deep inside it’s in your interest to listen and learn.

Perhaps you’re learning a language and you find yourself afraid to speak with people because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself? Fear in this situation tells you that you need to speak more, tells you that you haven’t prepared enough or perhaps you haven’t …???

Understanding fear and tweaking your responses for optimal results will take you over the hills and far away (winner).

It’s ok to be afraid – It’s your right to be, but stay awake, stay alert and learn. Don’t runaway from fear, it’s trying to teach you something. Listen, respond and learn.

Do you have a similar experience to the one I’ve shared in this article? If so, I want to hear from you in the comments!

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  • Great article David!

    I wrote something similar to this a while back. The name of the post is “When learning something new, just enjoy the journey.” http://bit.ly/pD3rRU

    I talked about acquiring skills quickly and just having fun while doing something new. If you forget about the end goal for a second, you will see that you will improve much faster because things like anxiety and fear go away.

    • Sarah Goodwich

      My problem is that I’ve always been abused by people, and now I feel like have to “beat” them and prove that I’m better; and that only created more anxiety and pressure for myself, since failure would mean that they “won.”.
      However now I realize it doesn’t work that way– that bullies indeed tend to excel because they lack social boundaries and barriers, and roam more freely as a result of it.

      We’re also in a competitive environment, and that’s also nerve-wracking, shifting the focus from learning to “winning.” I had to figure out strategies to do everything faster and “better,” and I’d break down when I thought others had an advantage or did better.
      It’s all very unhealthy, essentially we’re told that our best simply isn’t good enough– but only THE best is acceptable, as in “best in the world.”

  • Valerie Leah

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you are trying to convey.  Fear is the one thing that stops us from doing what we desire to do.  Whether it’s starting a business, leaving a job, or yes, learning a new language.  I believe fear is designed  to push us and make us really go after what we want with maximum effort.  If we really want something, we’ll push through the fear (or get over it) to get what we want.  We often become complacent because (as you’ve said before) that we don’t have that reference point to keep us motivated.  For example, if we could not communicate with others at all, I guarantee in no time we would command the said language.

    Yes, I’ve let my fear and anxiety get the best of me and cause me to give up at times.  However, my desire always seems to resurface and remind me that I need to forge ahead.

  • I suffer from anxiety so I totally understand where you’re coming from. I found that writing short articles on my blog that contain only up to 200 words helps.

  • Brent_christopher

    its what 1st drafts are for homie.  Its is extremley rare for an unexperienced writer to just spit out gold.  Go through the creative process first, then formally revise and edit.  Youll find that the progress motivates you.  Theoretically after repeating this process countless times, u should be able to spit gold the first time or at least get damn near close.  But of course even these may be revised to enhance the read

    • Sarah Goodwich

      It’s also why pencils have erasers on them.

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  • Wojtek

    Hello David!

    I know what you’re feeling or what you felt. I feel the same and have difficulty to fight it. My problem is that I try to be perfect at work. More than a month ago I gave up the job (had been there for a week) because I felt that I’m useless and I though I didn’t cope. It happens a few times in my life and I know the pain.

    I started to think about it and come to similar conclusions like yours. It is fear that is guilty.
    It is good to know that I am not the only one!

    Now I’m working at home, but have to say, that also felt anxiety. At my own home!

    Thank you for this!

    • I’m glad you liked the article. 

      How are you dealing with your anxiety now?

      • Wojtek

        I’m still working on it. Maybe it is a shame but I sometimes help myself with a tranquillizer but I know it is not a solution in the long run.

        • Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that. I do hope you over come it soon! Feel free to send me an e-mail if you’d like to talk more about it! 

  • Jack

    Never respond to blogs, ever lol but this morning at 7am I
    turned to the internet for help with my writing issue. I have been up all night trying to bang out
    a 750-1200 page paper and it is taking way to long as it usually does. I get hung up on sentence structure, over analyze
    everything and spend absolutely a ridiculous amount of time not writing at
    all. It’s feels good to know that you
    have had the same issues before and that you have moved past them. I hope to do the same 😉 thanks for your words!

    Jack

    • I’m glad you found it helpful! We’re never alone with our problems in this world 😉

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  • Idealistic

    I have been up all night trying to complete 200-300 words speech for a toast master meeting project. this was my daily routine for the past one year. I know I can speak eloquently and a am a good communicator, but when it comes to pen down my thoughts I kind of nervous and afraid of messing up with it. U r true! I have been recalling my deadly moments of struggling to write a speech, while reading ur article. As a perfectionist
    , I truly agree with u that too much of perfectionism leads to skipping deadlines and goals.Thanks for the great analysis of how to conquer our inner fears. from today on wards I will also try to write as much as I can. I hope, I would become a good speaker and a writer in future. 🙂

  • Ms. T.

    Thank you so much for this article. It is very important to remind ourselves every once in a while of things that really matter.
    I am definitely a perfectionist, but over the years I learnt to tune it down in many aspects of my life. However, it is a hard trait to change. And for me it became a major source of frustration.
    I’ve always loved learning languages and have studied many. I even dare to say I am pretty good at it. A year ago I moved to a different country and even though I was working an intense job that didn’t require me to learn the language of the country which is difficult and my job wasn’t supposed to be long-term, I felt I really should learn it.
    To cut the long story short, I fell in love with a local here and now the pressure of learning the language has become unbearable. Most of his friends and family don’t speak any of the languages I know and it is expected of me to master it in short amount of time.
    Now, even though I study a lot and I’m making a lot of progress, whenever I’m around my boyfriend I can’t speak his language. Not even small things I definitely know how to say right. It’s really frustrating and I hope as I improve my knowledge this anxiety will go away

  • Paul Smith

    Helped:-) me a lot

  • tamara

    I know exactly how you feel.to make things worse, in my country you have to give oral presentations in every subject in order to get a grade. It so stressful

    • Where do you live?

      • tamara

        Hi David, I live in Serbia. We also have colloquiums before every exam. I must say your blog is great and I love your writting style.

  • Rice

    Thanks for writing this. I had taken the idea of eliminating fear to heart during my childhood, as a way to deal with trauma, and only now ten years later am I making that major shift to realizing that fear isn’t bad or good intrinsically. Fear suppression on the other hand, if taken to an extreme, where all anxieties become suppressed, and not voiced, is very bad. We should really listen to our fears, and voice our anxieties, on a moment to moment basis. Also we should seek to understand that our anxiety is some ways separate from our conscious mind. Ask yourself why you might be afraid when you feel the anxiety pop up, bristling underneath, but keep asking after you get one answer. And then find ways to address these fears, and what’s underneath them.

  • i have felt fear on many levels, fear that i will not get “it” right whatever it maybe. i am pushing myself to learn espanol because it is part of my soul work. everyday i make myself learn something new about the culture, the language. i feel so connected to this particular language. i know that there is a shift within my life and diversity is budding like figs on a tree:)

    • I think that’s great! Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll definitely reach your goals! I’m glad you’ve caught the language learning bug. Language opens doors to infinity and beyond 🙂

  • Eric

    Very nice article. I’m currently learning Java programming and the anxiety of not understanding it right away makes it even more difficult to learn. You’re spot on when you say that perfectionism is a double-edged sword: I want to learn and be perfect at it, but I beat myself up every time I make a mistake. I’ll keep your article in mind next time I’m feeling anxious about learning!

    • Jess

      How did you fare in learning Java, Eric?
      I have been trying to learn to code since 2 years now, but instead of trying to face it, I keep escaping because I’m scared.

  • Nori

    Awesome, thanks!

  • Mia

    This was a really great article, thank you. You have articulated what I haven’t been able to put into words. I struggle with anxiety every time I have to sit down to write an assignment, It takes me about 4hrs to write 300 words, and I can’t remember the last time I reached the word limit. Most of the time I feel so incapable of writing, that I decide not to put any effort in, that way if my writing sucks at least I wont look like a fool for having tried so hard. That might be my perfectionist side coming out. Anyways, do you have any tips or tricks that might possibly help me deal with this?

    • I think the tips in this article would be a good place to start.

  • Maryna

    Hi! I really love your ideas!

  • albert

    I had an event that occurred the other day that woke me up to something that was right under my nose for over 35 yrs that I didn’t think I was important but now realise that its very important and is part of me !
    For example, I was with a group of people and we were given printed instructions to carry out a chemistry experiment. When all of a sudden, a helpless panic would mentally come over me. I could see the words and understand their individual meaning but I’d end up re-reading the sentences to try to make some sense of what I was reading.
    Then after a short time the group would gather equipment to perform the experiment while I was still reading the instructions. How embarrassing. So in frustration I’d put the handout down and follow the group, helping where I could. Then 15 minutes later, I’d re-read the instructions but now they didn’t appear so confusing. What a difference a little time makes.
    Unfortunately this situation would play itself out in many scenarios throughout my life without me knowing what to do or caring much. But what constantly surprised me was how other people around me were able to flawlessly understand new things at ease. I just thought they were smarter. But perhaps my anxiety & mental plumbing are a little off. when I’m alone I don’t have this problem.
    So I think the solution is to represent whatever I read as positive, bright, interesting. I also find it hard to concentrate if theirs noise in the background.

  • sani

    you really right. perfeksinonism just makes me stuck in my little world without going anywhere. i have a bad habit that if i can’t make it like what i expect, then i choose to leave it without ever finished it. that’s why i often start a new thing but never finished them coz on the way, there’s alot of things that i couldn’t agree and feel that the result would not be good enough so i choose to quit. that’s why i often to feel down, dispointed with myself, and feeling like a loser coz i always look above to people that already have a great achievement like i want to be there now. you really explain alot precisely how i feel. thank for your great writing. 🙂

    • I’m glad you found the article encouraging, and thanks for taking the time to comment!
      I wish you the best of luck !

      All the best,

      David

  • AnxietyKillsMe

    Feeling the same, too. Anxiety kills me. I’m already planning to seek a professional to help me deal with Perfectionism. I can’t do it by myself.

  • JaneF.

    Wow so much thought to digest in but I completely agree with everything 🙂 This is really very inspiring and perfect to me as I really need a new inspiration to do all my pending tasks. Thanks again.

    BTW, I also blog about enlightenment, you can check my site if you have time: http://www.enlightenmentgateway.com/

  • Sarah Goodwich

    This reminds me of a saying: “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

  • Lanae

    Thank you. I have been experiencing moderate to severe anxiety ever since I started reading for my Master’s degree. Even as I write my heart is beating faster as I am supposed to be writing an assignment which I haven’t been able to give my entire focus. I decided to google what I’m going through and came across your article. My area of study is almost entirely new for me and I feel fearful that I won’t perform well – or to a high standard. This has led to me avoiding it almost entirely for the past few weeks. I think your advice can help me to focus less on perfection and more on developing myself as I move forward.

    Thanks again.

    • infrayoftrying

      Might I ask if you get ‘worrisome’ thoughts while reading ?

  • MissRay

    OMG Yes I Do! And its been driving me crazy. I’m fine when I’m writing in my journal and know no one will read it, but when it comes to a school paper or a writing for my blog I’ve been starting and stopping for years now, I experience exactly what you’ve expressed here–and for the same reasons. I want it to be perfect. And goodly gracious it bothers the hell out of me that I can’t be. And I especially hate the thought that my content will read like a big pile of mess to my readers. And the other this is, when I’m thinking about what I want to write about or even speaking out loud about it, its perfectly clear to me, but once I start writing my story or essay, something in me seems to shut off and I get stuck on rewording or restructuring a sentence, sometimes for hours on end. Yes, hours!

    I’ve also noticed that my anxiety grows as I reach the peak or climax of the story. My heart starts beating faster and faster, and then suddenly I get writers block. Even now as I write this, I’m starting to feel insecure and am considering deleting my response. But I’m tired of my fears about not being a scholarly writer robbing me of doing what I love and am actually pretty good at. The sensation I get from writing when I am really flowing and without fears makes me feel like I’m close to enlightenment. And I’m so serious about that. But when I’m all beat down with anxiety I feel the total opposite.

    Thanks a ton David for writing this blog. I love your honestly and the candid straight forward way you write. You’ve inspired me greatly. Maybe I will return to my on-again off-again blog to finish what I started.

    Ok I’m going to go now while I still stomach myself.

  • AA1

    Thanks for the article, David! It got me thinking maybe I can conquer my anxiety as well.
    I was wondering though, whether there is any specific technique to accepting that iw ould take time to become a good writer? My anxiety is pretty deep rooted and I’m not sure how to go about changing my view of myself and my activities.

  • Peter Shields

    Yes I relate David, thanks. I wondered if I needed pills to cope with crippling anxiety. I don’t always get it but have whilst studying. I am trying to study nursing and having a hard time. Being patient though is good advice as otherwise you are stretched too thin. I am not a very disciplined person so find self disciplined study very hard and also having a long enough attention span. Then it’s just a cycle of self doubt.

  • Peter Shields

    That picture up the top there though – that’s me!

  • Wellington Moreira

    Impressive article, great job, David! Thank you

  • greenghost2008

    I’ve been trying to learn programming for awhile. I started to take notes in my note book but even my hands shake when taking notes because of anxiety.

  • Rachel

    I feel a little bit better already after reading this article. I’ve had issues with anxiety for a long time, but recently I’ve noticed that this anxiety seems to root itself in my fear of studying. Any thought of starting to study anything at all makes me sick to my stomach for fear of not being able to understand concepts or fear of failure. This fear always makes me put it off and feel terrible about myself and often time leads to panic attacks. This article speaks to me on so many levels, and I hope I’m soon able to view the gripping fear that I have in a positive light as well. I used to also be proud of my perfectionist nature, but I suppose that it’s okay to just take a step back and breathe and even accept that sometimes it will take me a long time to grasp concepts, because after all I’m only human. The only thing that I’m capable of is just starting and to accept that it’s just a learning process, which is an opportunity. Thank you so much!

  • Pedram

    Great sharing, I notice this feeling with myself a couples month ago, what I usually do is leaving that spot, like going for a tea, or some snacks or watching TV, and it is not helpful at all, it just makes you feel running away like a coward, and at the end not leaning anything new or doing anything requires some challenge.

  • McmasterGirl

    Oh My God
    Never have I seen a story so similar to mine
    I suffer from exactly the same problem- like to the T
    I nearly failed my first year of university because of it. Despite getting in to the program of my choice with a partial scholarship, I couldn’t get myself to do my work. I knew I was smart enough. I wanted to succeed as much as I wanted to breathe. And yet, I couldn’t get myself to do my work. I would procrastinate for days and week on end. When I finally sat down, my brain would cramp up; everything inside my body would tell me to run.
    My parents said I was lazy. My friends said I was crazy.
    It took me an entire year to realize what was really going on. My realization came during the summer when my father asked me to reflect on my failure of a first year. In my period of reflection, I came to notice a trend in my work patterns. The only time that I was able to do my work was after it was long overdue. When my only option was to do the work or get a zero. When my test was the next day and a 50 was starting to look good. When i was convinced that I had nothing to lose.
    It took me an enormous amount of time but this summer, I figured it out. I was afraid. I came into university expecting myself to get straight As, to workout, to eat healthy, to make friends, to hold onto my morals.To be perfect.
    Anything less than perfect was too painful and so my brain didn’t let me do the work. Avoidance became my defense mechanism. My life changed when I decided that my accomplishments were not linked to my value as a human being. I started to succeed when I decided that failure was just fine.

    Of course I still have to remind myself of this before starting any new assignment. But it’s getting easier. Day by day, it’s getting easier.

    • angela

      It sound exactly like myself. I am so nervous, and scare to fail, instead of work hard I am procrastinating =( . But I feel is time to take the bull from the horns =)

  • Becky Roehm

    Thank you for your article,
    I am experiencing severe anxiety as I search for a new job and feel as though I am competing with younger applicants. I’ve found some part time work but have been having a hard time feeling like I’ll measure up to the speed and accuracy of people younger than I am. I never used to feel quite this nervous about learning. I refer to myself as an “ugly learner” and wish I could get over this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment. I’ll re-read your article and comments and see if your ideas could make me relax about the whole process.

  • Yoselys

    Hi. I am a medical student from Dominican Republic. Recently i searched professional help for my severe anxiety disorder. I can totally relate to your experience. I am stuck on my path because of this. The fear do not let me progress, it is like i want to fly without even knowing how to walk properly, desperation and anguish paralyzes me. Your post helped me to understand better my situation, i cant wait to talk about this with my therapist and together search for strategies to helped deal with my anxiety and panic attacks. Thanks for the lightning: “Enjoy the journey not just the destination”.

  • zainab mubbashir

    Amazing article!
    i was searching for an essay of persona issue for my english paper tomorrow and i came across this firstly i want to congratulate you cause you concured your fear and you writing skill are amazing i can say that because while reading this i could really relate to you i understood your emotions you are a tremendous writer i wish you all the succes in life God bless.
    i am dealing with a quite simiar issue which i will adress later because right now i have to go study for my exam but i really had to write this comment as you inspired me alot,now after seeing what i wrote in this comment you will get to know i am in deep water for my exam tomorrow because my writing skills are not nearly god as your. 🙂

  • Camp

    Thank you for this article. I have been trying to studying for the CPA exam for 3 or 4 years now and still have not gotten the nerve to pick up my book again after failing miserably. I have noticed when I start studying it is EXTREMELY hard to focus, my mind wanders terribly and I start to lose sleep. I just figured this out this year that these are my reactions. That was a relief. Now, I am trying to figure out how to overcome this. It’s also comforting to know that I am not the only one that suffers from anxiety.

  • disqus_u1h8URlpUx

    Here’s a small spelling error in countless:
    did this by rewriting each sentence countess times

    Thank for your the help 🙂 I’m learning something right now and for years I got anxious because I worried I was screwing up too often.

    I just realized that everyone has to overcome challenges while learning!

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