Counseling & Wellness Center

Stress and Anxiety-Related Problems

Stress is a normal part of living that is not necessarily harmful. We tend to believe that outside events cause stress, but it's actually the way in which we interpret and react to events that makes them stressful. Mild stressors can act to motivate and energize us. However, if your stress level is too high, medical and social problems can result. College students experience a wide variety of stressors that may be similar to demands they have met in high school, but also will be exclusive to their new environment.

Both large and small events can cause stress reactions. Major life changes in development, location, intimate relationships, and jobs frequently are accompanied by stressful adjustments. For college students, the first year transition from high school and the senior transition to the work force are both positive but major changes. Transferring schools, failing courses, losing jobs, and being the recipient of a disciplinary action are also quite stressful. While away from home, students may have to cope with their own relationship problems as well as their family’s divorces, illnesses, and deaths. A campus environment brings with it new financial worries, time pressures, social conflicts, increased competition, lack of privacy, and noise, just to name a few.

Stress is the way your body responds to the demands placed on it. Stress we interpret as “good” can help concentration and performance. The adrenaline rush, in addition to the rise in blood pressure, blood sugar, and body temperature, can improve mental and physical alertness, enhance sensory perceptions such as eyesight, and temporarily increase your strength. Ideally, after handling a stressful situation, the body relaxes and returns to a pre-stress state. When we interpret stressors as negative, the body doesn’t return to the pre-stress state. Tension and anxiety remain aroused, draining emotional and physical energy. Should this process continue for too long, longer-lasting anxiety problems may occur.

Many college students are accustomed to functioning well while experiencing stress and can manage their time and commitments to allow necessary down time for relaxation and renewal. However, adjustment to different stressors is an individual process and can be problematic for a variety of reasons. The experience of constant stress may cause “burn out.” Symptoms associated with burn out include:

  • Exhaustion (both mental and physical)
  • Feeling of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Low self-esteem or low spirits
  • Frequent illness

Early warning signs of overwhelming stress and burn out include trouble sleeping, headaches, upset stomach, constant fatigue, irritability, increased heart rate, inability to concentrate, clenched jaw, hunched shoulders, and feelings of depression.

Regularly Scheduled Stressful Times for Students

  • The start of the academic year
  • Midsemester; Finals
  • Exam times and project times, especially those projects that include individual public speaking
  • Holidays
  • Prominent social weekends or events with traditions of alcohol and drug consumption

When feeling stressed out, many people turn to food, drugs or alcohol for relief. Use of these substances has a negative effect that may worsen physiological stress while producing additional problems. Sugar provides a quick burst of energy that fades rapidly and leaves the body more depleted than before. Fat consumption can leave the body sluggish and tired. Junk foods lack the vitamins and minerals that your body requires to regulate moods, and may result in depression. Using food to soothe agitation can create a pattern of disturbed eating and emotional distress. The use of stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine speed up an already overtaxed system; depressants such as alcohol slow central nervous system responses, reducing performance while leaving stressors unresolved. Rather than add to our body’s problems, we can best reduce stress by altering our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.

Strategies for Relieving Stress

  • Know your own reactions to stress. For every reaction, use a coping behavior that won’t hurt you.
  • Name the cause of current stressful thoughts and feelings. Make a plan to address the causes.
  • Use time management to give yourself structure for life’s demands.
  • Slow down. Reevaluate today’s priorities.
  • Accept that there will be some stressors that you can’t control; let them go.
  • Practice self-encouragement to get things done. Avoid negative self-talk or scare tactics.
  • Create a balanced lifestyle of enough sleep, adequate nutrition, and exercise.
  • Share your feelings with trusted friends or supporters.

Anxious feelings related to situational stressors end with the situation. Feelings of stress, worry, and fearfulness that don’t resolve over time may develop into the disturbance of mood, thinking, behavior, and physiology that constitute Anxiety Disorders.

Anxiety Disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. An estimated 19 million adults suffer from one or more types of Anxiety Disorders. Frequently, Anxiety Disorders accompany other mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other Anxiety Disorders.

Anxiety can be described as the pathological counterpart of normal fear. The ability to feel fear is nature’s way to warn us of potential threats to our survival or well-being. At different times in our lives, very strong fear responses to dangers are desirable. However, the way individual bodies and minds cope with fear varies. For example, up to 10% of healthy people have a panic attack at least one time per year.

The prevalence of Anxiety Disorders has increased among the college population over the past five years. Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder have been diagnosed more often as stress overload, sleep-related disorders, and abuse of alcohol and other drugs have risen. Students report experiencing Panic Attacks due to a paradoxical effect of marijuana use. Rather than helping the smoker to relax, marijuana usage has been found to raise anxiety levels and trigger full blown panic attacks.

Anxiety Disorders develop as a complex interaction of risk factors including life events, personality, brain chemistry, and genetics. Many adults report that their first experience of anxiety symptoms occurred when they were children or adolescents, but only about a third of adults with Anxiety Disorders seek treatment. When acknowledge and addressed, Anxiety Disorders are highly treatable.

Types of Anxiety Disorders
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by 6 months or more of excessive, unrealistic worry about most routine activities and events. Constant worry may be accompanied by trembling, fatigue, muscular aches and tension, headaches, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, and irritability. Twice as many women as men suffer from GAD.

Panic Disorder describes repeated episodes of intense fear that strike often and without warning. During a 10-20 minute episode, symptoms are so severe that people may believe they are having a heart attack, or are going crazy. Physical signs include heart palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, sweating, trembling, choking or suffocating feelings, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal distress, and tingling sensations. Feelings associated with panic include intense fears of losing control, fear of dying, and feeling of unreality. Twice as many women as men are diagnosed with Panic Disorder.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder strikes as many men as women. Unwanted, repeated thoughts (obsessions) that reflect exaggerated or unusual fears may cause an individual to perform rituals or routines (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety about their obsessions. Common obsessions include fears of contamination, symptoms involve ritualized behaviors such as hand-washing, counting, ordering and reordering objects, checking on things, and repeating words and phrases.

Phobias are extreme fears and subsequent avoidance of particular objects or experiences. People with Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia) have an overwhelming and disabling fear of scrutiny, embarrassment, or humiliation in social and performance situations. Settings and interactions with other people in which either direct or indirect evaluations may be made are dreaded and avoided. Physical signs of social phobia include heart palpitations, faintness, blushing, and profuse sweating. Similar numbers of men and women are diagnosed with Social Phobia. People with Specific Phobia have intense, irrational fear responses to specific everyday objects or situations. Although the irrationality of their behavior is understood, people with phobias feel helpless to conquer their fears and subsequently may experience severe disruptions in normal daily living. Twice as many women as men develop Specific Phobias.

Helping Students Experiencing Anxiety Problems
Staff with opportunities to interact with students in their social settings may observe signs of shyness, social avoidance, and the physical symptoms of anxiety (trembling, blushing, sweating, dizziness, nausea). Faculty may note that certain students avoid speaking in class, don’t ask questions about assignments, and struggle with group work or presentations. Some students will test poorly while otherwise demonstrating competency with course material. Some students with test anxiety “go blank;” some may make an abrupt exit to avoid a panic attack.

Others will endure the panic attack in the classroom but then avoid subsequent classes (which become panic triggers) and end by failing the course.

While speaking to the student in a private place, state your observations of the student’s discomfort in particular situations (without describing potentially embarrassing physical details). Students may choose to disclose their difficulties, or not. It is helpful to normalize anxiety problems by 1) asserting that symptoms are physiologically real, and 2) suggesting that they could be interfering in a student’s life.

Supportive questioning and a matter-of-fact acknowledgement of students’ experiences may conclude with a referral for a professional evaluation of the problem. Anxious students are often too embarrassed to seek help without consistent encouragement. You may assist socially fearful students by offering to help them make an appointment.

Strategies for Reducing Mild Anxiety

  • Stay focused on the present using diaphragmatic (belly) breathing for several minutes. Breathe through your nose.
  • Use a thought-stopping technique to still racing thoughts (Stop-Breathe-Reflect-Choose).
  • Remember that adrenaline rushes peak and then come down; physical discomfort will subside.
  • Know that anxious FEELINGS are not visible or dangerous. You don’t have to DO anything until you’ve chosen a helpful coping behavior.
  • Acknowledge that it’s OK to have these feelings temporarily, and then ride them out for awhile.
  • Distract your thoughts with positive messages and images as soon as you can.
  • Distract your body by getting more physically comfortable: ground yourself; relax your muscles, get a drink of water.
  • Use your stress reduction techniques to analyze the source of current anxiety; what specifically is bothering you right now? Make a plan, etc.
  • Practice cardiovascular exercise (running, swimming, weight lifting) AND relaxation (mediation, Yoga, prayer). Exercise reduces excessive adrenaline levels in the body; relaxation refreshes and soothes the entire system.
  • Seek help from a qualified professional. Effective treatment is available at the CWC, x2300.

Anxiety Disorders need treatment to remit. If you are concerned about a student whose functioning seems impaired by anxiety symptoms, please contact the CWC and request an outreach.

Anxiety Disorders Association of America
6730 Georgia Ave., Suite 600
Silver Springs, MD 20910

Freedom from Fear

Obsessive Compulsive (OC) Foundation

National Mental Health Association

A college mental health website, designed for students: go to the virtual library and check out the mental health pamphlet collection from counseling centers all over the country.

A website for sufferers to share information and support

Information for students
American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC

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