How to overcome fear of studying

26 August 2021

A woman in class

If you’ve decided that you’d like to embark upon a new career, it’s likely that you will have to study for professional qualifications. For example, becoming a Mortgage Adviser requires you to pass an FCA-approved course such as CeMAP.

This often makes people feel a little apprehensive, but for some people it can lead to feelings of stress or anxiety. You might feel worried about what people will think if you don’t pass, or anxious about spending money on your course. This stress can even lead to a fear of studying.

Most of us experience stress or anxiety at some point in our lives and it usually eases when the pressure is lifted. But if the feelings don’t pass, they could stop you from achieving your goals.

In this post, we’ll look at how fear affects learning and whether it’s always a negative thing. There will also be some tips that may help you to overcome your fear of learning.

How fear affects learning

Whether it’s stress over exams, worries about tight deadlines or nerves about speaking up in class, many of us feel fear of learning at some point. This can lead to a range of symptoms including:

  • Physical symptoms like sweating, shaking and blushing
  • Shortness of breath and rapid heart rate leading to feelings of dizziness
  • Difficulty in concentrating or decision-making

Research over the last 20 years has shown that the hormones and neurotransmitters released during and after a stressful event can have an impact on memory formation. 

Stress can cause a shift from a ‘cognitive’ form of learning to more rigid rote learning, where the facts are simply parroted rather than being truly understood. It can also make memory retrieval more difficult, leading to underperformance at exam time. 

If the environmental stressors persist, they may even lead to avoidance of the situation that is causing the fear. The student who wants to become a financial adviser but is struggling with fear of learning may feel they have no choice but to drop out of their DipFA course.

But can stress ever have a positive effect on learning?

How effective is learning through fear?

Fear causes the release of cortisol into our bloodstream. Low and medium levels of this stress hormone have actually been shown to improve the formation of memories and enhance learning. However, once cortisol levels become too high, the effects become more negative. 

 

In practice, this means that minor stresses such as changing the study environment can help your learning. That’s why it’s a good idea to take breaks and switch things up when you’re revising for your exams

 

But an environment that is filled with stress is not going to be beneficial for learning. Your brain can’t focus on learning when your bloodstream is being flooded with stress hormones. The optimal learning environment is generally calm with just enough variety to keep the brain sharp.

How to overcome fear of learning new things

If you have a genuine sophophobia (fear of studying) then you may need to seek professional advice on how to overcome your fears.

But there are also a few self-help steps that can help you become more open to learning new things:

Identify the cause of your fear of learning

Are you worried that the course will be too difficult, or stressed about what your friends and family will say if you’re unsuccessful? Perhaps previous bad experiences have left you lacking motivation to study.

You need to identify what’s causing your fear of learning before you can take steps to ease it. 

Take control

It’s important to accept that the fear will not go away by itself. In fact, it’s more likely to keep growing so you need to take action if you are going to reach your goals.

Actions that you can take could include analysing your past mistakes to identify things you need to avoid this time, or breaking down your study into smaller, less stressful steps.

You may also decide that you need to seek expert advice to help you manage your fears.

Start off small

If the thought of studying for a full qualification like CeMAP or DipFA is making your palms sweat, consider starting with a short course in something unrelated. 

This will require less willpower and effort, and could be enough to give you the confidence you need to tackle a bigger course. 

Positive Mental Attitude

Instead of thinking about what people might say if you fail, try to focus on the task in hand and what you could achieve if you pass.

You can use visualisation to remind yourself of your goal and picture what your life will look like once you have passed your qualification. 

Fear of studying is a very common reaction to the stress that many of us feel in a learning context. But it’s important to work out how to overcome study fear before it becomes more serious, so that it won’t hold you back from achieving your goals. 

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