Science of anxiety

In January many senior freshman students will sit the annual Foundation Scholarship examinations. Una Harty talks about the science of anxiety and ways of reducing it to help all those sitting exams do the best they can.


Trinity College Dublin offers its senior freshman students a once in a lifetime opportunity; the chance to have all of your tuition paid for five years regardless of your economic background. Other perks of the scholarship include residential rooms free of charge and four three-course evening meals and one lunch served to you throughout the week. Parents of Trinity students revel in the idea that one day their son or daughter will become a Trinity scholar. For every incoming fresher it’s a no-brainer that you will sit schols and you will study hard for it. For every incoming fresher however, it also goes without question that you’ll never miss a lecture and all your assignments will be done to the best of your ability.

To sit or not to sit schols

The decision as to whether to sit schols is like the decision whether to buy an iPhone or not. It is clear that an iPhone is a popular choice. Its users are seem satisfied with the product. Therefore, why shouldn’t you buy an iPhone? But do I need a new phone? Can I afford an iPhone? Do I just want to own an iPhone because everyone else does? Like an iPhone, schols is a temptation for all Trinity students. However, not all Trinity students have €600 to spend, nor do all Trinity students have the mental and physical capacity to undergo what is expected of them when they sits schols.

The preparation is a long and strenuous one, as is saving up for an iPhone. Indeed, the Foundation Scholarship examination is a damaging prospect. I send my congratulations to those who succeed in it, but for the vast majority of the student population it will be the cause of at least one bout of anxiety in your College career. And so this leads me to ask the question; is the scholarship a necessary wagon of worries, trundle of terror, and world of woes? Are the potential fruits of your labour worth the pain and stress that students go through to be within a small percentage of a chance of achieving such a prestigious acclamation? Should we not put tradition on hold to ensure a better wellbeing for our students?

Types of anxiety

Anxiety exists on a spectrum from mild to debilitating. It manifests itself in various forms depending on the person which suffers from it. It’s fair to say that some people will experience anxiety intermittently but unfortunately for others it can affect their lives as a whole when they are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders also exist on a large spectrum of severity and type. Some may be commonly heard while others are not so mentioned in public eye. GAD or Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry of everyday things. It is oftentimes those who are shook by the thought of having to get through a day.

Panic Disorder and panic attacks occur seemingly spontaneously. Six million Americans experience panic attacks in a year. It can be associated with agoraphobia, which is defined as a fear of public places. People who suffer from panic attacks tend to suffer also from agoraphobia whereby they fear the places where they had experienced a panic attack before.

Social Anxiety Disorder is the most common of anxiety disorders and is highly prevalent among teenagers. It is an extreme fear of being judged by others in social or performance situations. The rates are higher for girls than boys. A recent study done in conjunction with the Femfest conference held this month in Dublin showed that 65% of young females in Ireland avoid social situations or performances as they feel uncomfortable with their personal appearance.

Anxiety and the brain

Anxiety manifests itself in the brain in the form of neurotransmitters. Those associated with anxiety include serotonin, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and norepinephrine. Dopamine can also have an effect, usually as a calming chemical but generally too much or too little of any neurotransmitter can enhance anxiety. Studies have shown that those diagnosed with GAD have a weaker connection between the white matter area of the brain and pre-frontal and anterior cortex.

Hormones imbalances have a significant effect on anxiety also; a definite correlation between why teenagers become so worried and stressed. The most common hormone to affect anxiety is adrenaline. Adrenaline leads to muscle tension and the speeding up of heart rate, which are also associated with anxiety symptoms. Consequently the body can lead from a rush of adrenaline into a bout of anxiety. Those who experience panic attacks on a regular basis are found to possess an overactive amygdala, the part of the brain which serves as the ‘fearful memory bank’.

When one experiences anxiety for long periods of time it can severely damage the health of the brain. Researchers have discovered that when you leave your anxiety disorder untreated, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, hippocampus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex all appear to decrease in size. The longer the anxiety goes untreated, the smaller and weaker they become. This is what contributes to negative thinking which furthers you into a nervous and worried state.

Combating anxiety

If you are studying for schols and are experiencing a lot of anxiety there are many steps you can take to reduce this. Start by clearing your desk, as a messy desk is a messy mind. Keep active even if you’re not actively inclined; a brisk walk as study break will clear your mind. Structure your week and follow the routine as close as you possibly can. Give yourself free time and me time. It’s important to differentiate between the two of these. As social beings, humans shouldn’t just cut ourselves off from friends and family for the sake of a scholarship. Include social activities as well as personal time in your structured timetable.

It is important to note that the Student Counselling Service and the Student Learning Development Service are provided by the College to assist with all of the aforementioned. They are based on Nassau Street and can help you deal with anxiety you may be suffering in relation to studying or personal issues, as well as designing personal solutions to these problems. To return to my iPhone analogy; just because all the cool kids are doing it, you don’t have to too!

Illustration by Sarah Morel.

Una Harty

Úna is a third year Nanoscience student and Trinity Life editor for Trinity News.