As indicated previously, Ben (one of the counsellors) and myself are running a small group program for students who struggle with their studies. The program is called Studyology V2.
Studyology V2 is a 4-session program and today we held session 3 with the current trial group.
We covered some really interesting territory today and I thought I’d share one aspect of what we covered that I thought was really interesting.
It was an explanation of how it can be that we become fearful of study and how procrastination can lead us to becoming more fearful of study over time. For anyone trapped in a bit of a battle with their studies, this explanation can help explain why we get trapped in that battle, as well as provide some ideas on how to escape it.
1. Avoidance trains our brain to be fearful of something
Your typical ‘fear-avoidance’ cycle looks something like this. I’ve used the example of fear of spiders.
It is quite easy to imagine how this starts and gets worse over time.
For example, a child sees a spider and is mildly startled (a natural response). This experience is unpleasant but not necessarily severe. But what if someone with the child (e.g. a parent) reinforces the idea that spiders are dangerous (which in some cases in Australia is true)? The child’s fear would be amplified. They’d be motivated to get away from the spider as soon as possible (safety behaviour). Getting away from the spider would reduce the uncomfortable fear reaction. The child’s brain learns that spiders are dangerous and should be avoided.
The next time the child sees a spider, their fear response is bigger and more unpleasant because the brain remembered from last time. The child responds again by escaping the situation. Again, this escape reduces the fear. Again their brain learns that spiders are dangerous and should be avoided.
Now the child is starting to avoid situations where there might be spiders (anticipatory avoidance).
With only a few repetitions, the child’s fear response to the spider can become become quite large and their avoidance more comprehensive. This can (and often does) remain in place well into adulthood.
Essentially, repeated avoidance quickly trains the brain to fear something. This basic mechanism helped keep our ancestors alive.
2. We can become fearful of internal events
We all generally understand the concept of coming to fear something that is outside of our skin. Most of the common phobias represent objects or situations that have some element of danger in them but which we can become excessively fearful (heights, snakes, spiders, flying).
What you might not realise however is that we can become fearful of experiences inside our skin. We can become fearful and avoidant of things like thoughts, sensations, memories, and feelings.
Take this example that we see commonly in students.
Most students, at some point, will experience the thought ‘i’m not smart enough’ in relation to confronting a difficult assignment, lab, test, etc.
That thought will likely elicit some anxiety and dread. That is perfectly normal. Humans have a need to feel competent so being confronted with something difficult challenges our sense of competence.
In response to that thought, sometimes we (this affects all of us) will start delaying our work or doing it instead at the last minute. We call this procrastination. Delaying our work gives us immediate relief from the anxiety. Doing it at the last minute helps us partially avoid the fear of not being competent enough as we can use it as an excuse for poorer quality work.
Procrastination reduces the anxiety associated with confronting a difficult assignment and thinking you aren’t smart enough. However the more we procrastinate, the more fearful we become of the situation and thought that originally gave rise to the fear: challenging work and the thought that ‘I’m not smart enough’.
Over time, our fear of challenging work can increase quite dramatically. This can become a vicious cycle in itself where fear of work = avoidance of work/procrastination = less competence = more fear of work.
3. exposure and response prevention is the way out of this situation
If avoidance is the problem because it amplifies fears over time, then the solution is what we call exposure and response prevention.
Exposure means repeatedly confronting the situation/thought/object that is feared. Response prevention means blocking attempts to procrastinate.
From a study perspective this means repeatedly sitting down to work on difficult assignments, well ahead of time, and sitting with those feelings of anxiety/dread/worry when they emerge.
Instead of removing yourself from the situation, instead focus on trying to get some actual work done on the assignment. Start with getting 15-20 minutes done and then work up from there until you can get 60 minutes of assignment work done in a single sitting (aim for short breaks every 60 minutes or so).
Initially, if you have built up quite a pattern of avoiding your study, these exposure exercises will feel quite uncomfortable. Your brain has been trained to fear challenging assignments and needs to be retrained to see them as surmountable challenges.
I’d be looking to set yourself the challenge of sitting down with difficult work at least twice a week. It may take you a term/semester to get to the point where you can sit down and work on a challenging assignment for an extended period without feelings of being overwhelmed.
4. don’t be ashamed if you’ve fallen into this trap
Just about everyone falls into this trap in some way. Procrastination is incredibly common and most of us can identify with the idea of putting something off, over and over again until we get so scared of the activity that we can barely start it. Procrastination breeds fear.
We started Studyology because we saw many students struggling with this issue.
I hope this post has gone some of the way towards helping you understand how you might have become quite fearful and overwhelmed by your study.
If you want to learn more, consider joining the waiting list of students for the next Studyology V2 program. Contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to register your interest.
Also, consider having a look at the Put Off Procrastination workbook kindly given to us by the team at CCI.