Tips to Help You Study When Feeling Depressed or Anxious

Studying Through Depression and Anxiety

Jessica Brokenshire, BSW, MSW Candidate


It’s finally starting to feel like fall! Which means midterms and seasonal depression. This time of the year is increasingly difficult for many students due to the pressure of being in the middle of the semester, workloads being at full intensity, and seasonal factors. When experiencing mental health symptoms, school work can often feel overwhelming and defeating. Studying for tests seems next to impossible when mental health symptoms kick in: depression, anxiety, mood swings, etc. Although it feels impossible, many people make it through college with severe mental health symptoms. Outlined below are a few study tips for when your symptoms are in full effect.

My first and most important tip is to take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself can come in many forms such as self-care, seeking professional help, lessening the amount of classes you are taking, and ultimately sometimes it means taking a leave of absence from school. Understanding your mental illness can take time and a great deal of work, however once you understand your symptoms it becomes easier to understand the type of help that would be most beneficial to you. Some individuals receive counseling and feel empowered that way, others seek psychiatric help through prescribed medication, and others attempt to manage their symptoms on their own. Whatever your avenue, your mental health is the foundation for many aspects of a functional life and that means it should be one of your top priorities.

Statistically speaking, anxiety disorders are the most common diagnosis in the United States, impacting nearly 40 million adults ages 18 and older. Anxiety symptoms can range from mild to severe, affecting each individual differently. Some common side effects of anxiety include feeling on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, impeded memory, irritability, sleep disturbances, and panic attacks. 15-20% of students report having high test anxiety, adding symptoms to already prevalent anxiety disorders. Those of you who suffer from anxiety understand how debilitating it can actually be.

In those circumstances studying can be extremely strenuous. Anxiety is different for each person, so the tips I give will not work for everyone, and there is room to create your own variation among the tips that I present. First and foremost, the ideal study situation would be somewhere clean and quiet. This could be your bed, your desk, the floor, the library, or anywhere you feel comfortable. Next would be to do work in small increments. Studying is difficult when you have no presenting mental health symptoms, it’s even more difficult to concentrate when you’re anxious. Studying in small increments could mean doing the 15/15, where you study for 15 minutes and rest for 15 minutes, or it could be as small as studying for 5 minutes and taking a rest. Allowing yourself time allotments makes you feel productive but also gives your brain the time to adjust to the material.

From experience, I understand than anxiety can make you easily forgetful, especially when the tension surrounding the material is high. This means that studying sometimes has to be more in depth than ever. Finding a routine that works for you can help reduce anxiety. For example, one class that I had to take was extremely intense and it increased my anxiety severely. I found that the only way I could retain the information was to go through an intensive study routine consisting of taking notes in class, taking notes from the book, combining them, and making flashcards. Knowing that I was well prepared helped lessen a bit of the anxiety, which in turn helped me retain the information. Some people learn best through visuals and some auditory, and understanding the way that you learn best can help ease anxiety around test time.

As reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 16 million adults have at least one major depressive episode per year, and Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka seasonal depression) affects nearly 10 million individuals each year. Seasonal depression often has an onset in the fall or winter and the symptoms lessens once it becomes spring. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, misery, hopelessness, loss of self-esteem, increased anxiety, mood changes, over sleeping or not being able to fall asleep, fatigue, weight gain or loss, irritability, and so on. Unfortunately for college students, the effects of seasonal depression usually hit right in the middle of the semester, when tension is highest. This can make it difficult to go to class, study, and complete homework. Because depression comes with self-doubt and low energy, it can be difficult to muster up the motivation to study, which could lead to a cyclical pattern of not studying efficiently, not doing so well on the test, and having that lead to an even larger decrease in motivation to study for the next test for fear of doing bad again.

Everybody is motivated by different things. One person’s motivation could be graduation, another’s could be just finishing the assignment so it’s over and done with, and another person could need motivation in smaller increments. Sometimes it’s difficult to find what works for you, but I encourage a bit of self-exploration in order to find your motivation. One tip for those who need smaller and more frequent pieces of motivation is a reward system, which could help you complete the assignment or finish your reading. One example of this could be setting a pattern for yourself in which you get a piece of candy for every five sentences you read in your text book. It could be extended to taking a three minute break for every ten minutes spend studying, or shortened into any variation that works for you.

Depression is all too frequently accompanied by depression naps, as most of us are aware of. School work can really get in the way of napping and it can be frustrating and make it more difficult to regulate emotions, so mapping out your schedule can be of great help. Plan your day so that you have time to nap in between classes and studying. Sometimes this means scheduling a shorter time to nap, but just having a nap still in the schedule makes the day seem a bit easier to manage. Lists are another item that can be useful. Creating lists allows you to, at a quick glance, get a general sense of what needs to be done and how much time it’ll take to complete it. It also feels like a major accomplishment to cross items off of a checklist and watch the list dwindle until all tasks are completed.

Although I could give countless tips, what is most important is to take care of your mental health and improvement in school will follow. If you need more tangible supports, please feel free to utilize Kutztown’s writing center, counseling services, CASA, or the disability services office if you need it. There is no shame in seeking help! Another thing to note is that it is also ok if you decide that what’s best for you is a break from school. Evaluate the pros and cons of each decision and keep your best interest in mind.