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Got a lot on your plate? Feeling overwhelmed? Some worry is normal, but if your anxiety is persistent, overwhelming, and includes a dread of everyday situations, it’s time to take action. If anxiety interferes with your daily routine, you may have an anxiety disorder.

The anxious campus:
Colleges are reporting increases in the rate and severity of emotional health problems, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). The most common issue on campuses is anxiety. That’s partly about demographics: Of the forty million adults in the US who have an anxiety disorder, three out of four experienced their first episode by age 22, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

What anxiety can mean for students:
Emotional health issues are linked to lower GPAs and a higher risk of dropping out, according to Active Minds, a non-profit organization that encourages students to speak out about mental health.

In 2011, 62 percent of students who withdrew from college with emotional health problems did so because of anxiety, reports NAMI.

Concerns about stigma are the primary reason for not seeking help, says NAMI.

What’s the difference?

Stress:

Your challenges exceed your resources
Situation: Your exam is in two hours
Fear: “I need another day to study”

Anxiety:

Your thinking becomes catastrophic and less rational
Situation: Your significant other is losing interest
Fear: “I’ll be alone for the rest of my life.”

Anxiety disorder:

Your life becomes impacted by this ‘brain noise’
Situation: Your academic and social life take a serious hit
Fear: “I can’t function—I feel like I’m dying.”
Examples from Dr. Eric Goodman, clinical psychologist

A student’s story: overwhelmed by demands

Jordan, 26, University of California, Irvine

How it started
“A lot of my family suffer from mental health disorders, so I feel like I was predisposed. My junior year was a turning point in recognizing it. I had a lot on my plate and had never handled stress well. I was in positions of leadership, combined with classes, the pressure of being a first-generation college student, and a scholarship contingent on me doing well.”

How it manifested
“My heart would race, my body temperature would change, and I couldn’t think clearly. I couldn’t go through the process of finding help. A lot of times I’d just not do assignments. If I was feeling anxious, I’d cancel on friends and stop going to class.”

What helped
Jordan started working with a school psychologist who regularly attended meetings of the Black Student Union (which Jordan chaired). “Without him I probably would’ve been dead. He gave me the language to understand myself and what I was experiencing. Meeting with him once a week kept me in it, helped me fight it.”

The psychologist linked Jordan to health services. “Having someone there who I was already in with helped. Sometimes he even scheduled the appointment. When I wasn’t in those moments of anxiety I wasn’t really trying to find help. I didn’t feel I needed to.” Jordan was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder, and was prescribed medication.

Where he’s at
Today Jordan still struggles, albeit with a greater knowledge of his anxiety and strategies to manage it. He takes dancing classes five days a week. He took time off from school, and hopes to finish his degree soon. “Today I went to work, danced, and now I’m talking about anxiety. These are all positive things.”

A student’s story: phobia strikes

Frances, 27, University of New Haven, Connecticut

How it started
“The weekend before I went to Cape Verde with a friend, I got a stomach bug and had to be hospitalized. Later, on the plane, I couldn’t keep anything down and began to freak out.”

How it manifested
“I’m 30,000 feet in the air, my heart is racing, I couldn’t stop shaking. Back in the US, I still couldn’t shake the feeling. I was passing on some great travel opportunities.”

What helped
“I tried medication, which helped, but I hated that I had to take a drug to do something I’ve always enjoyed.” Eventually, Frances visited a therapist. “I was very reluctant and wouldn’t even tell people. I grew up with immigrants who  had it so hard; We don’t complain or have time to talk to each other about our issues. People are just trying to survive.”

Where she’s at
“I love my therapist and tell everyone about him now. He taught me relaxation exercises and helped me accept that the anxiety may never go away, but that I need to deal with it. I can now travel like before, still with anxiety, but with the tools to help me deal with it.”

How to tell if you or a friend might need help

What you can do about anxiety

  1. Maintain a healthy lifestyleA nutritious diet, enough sleep, and exercise are central to preventing and handling anxiety. “Due to the discomfort that anxiety brings, it’s important to address it with actions that focus on breathing, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and yoga,” says Patricia Spurling, sexual assault victim advocate for Morongo Basin Sexual Assault Services in Twentynine Palms, California.
  2. Identify the nature of your anxiety, its triggers, and appropriate strategies for alleviating itFor example: Establish realistic goals, monitor and challenge your thinking patterns, and minimize some of the activities that feel overwhelming. For info.
  3. Seek support from personal or professional contacts Seek out help on and off campus.

What’s happening in your mind & body when you’re anxious?

  • A danger or threat generates physical sensations: faster heartbeat and breathing, tense muscles, sweaty palms, queasy stomach, and/or trembling hands or legs. These are signs of the fight or flight response.
  • A rush of adrenaline and other chemicals prepare you for a quick getaway. This can be mild or extreme.
  • It takes a little longer for the evaluative brain, the cortex, to process the situation: Is the threat real?
  • If the threat is not real, the fight or flight response is deactivated.
  • If the threat is real, the anxiety sensations will linger, keeping the person alert and on edge.
  • These lingering feelings can bring a sense of doom and foreboding.

What type of anxiety are you dealing with?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Difficulty tolerating uncertainty, worrying about everyday issues, and fearing the worst. More.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Ritualistic behaviors to avoid unwelcome thoughts or feelings. More.

Panic disorder
Panic attacks triggered by stress and certain behaviors (e.g., skipping meals, inadequate sleep, and consuming alcohol and caffeine). More.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Attempts to push away or numb thoughts and feelings associated with trauma, and long-term severe depression and anxiety. More.

Social anxiety disorder
Extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations. More.

Specific phobias
Strong, irrational reactions to fear that can arise unexpectedly in situations that didn’t used to bother you. More.

How to manage your anxiety

Treating anxiety involves facing the triggers and resisting the urge to retreat. “Anxiety disorders are treatable,” says Dr. Goodman, clinical psychologist at the Coastal Center for Anxiety Treatment in San Luis Obispo, California.

“Often, avoiding the problem feels better in the short-term. However, in the long-term you get more stuck, miss out on valued activities, and inevitably suffer more over time. Facing the problem head on is much scarier and uncomfortable, but you get to reclaim your life and well-being. You become free.”

How common is anxiety among college students?

Here’s what college students say about their anxiety and stress within the last 12 months:
  • Just over half have felt overwhelming anxiety.
  • The vast majority have felt overwhelmed by responsibilities.
  • Almost half have found academics traumatic or very difficult to handle.
In a recent Student Health 101 survey:
  • 1 in 5 students said they had been diagnosed or treated for anxiety or trauma by a health care provider.
  • 1 in 4 said they had experienced anxiety or trauma, but it had not been diagnosed or treated.

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