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A student studying in the library.

Senior Jerrod Seifert could be the poster boy for how not to avoid stress. Last week, he stayed up for 46 hours finishing final projects and studying. U psychiatrist Gary Christenson recommends good and regular sleep as part of a stress-busting routine.

Extreme stress: not just for grownups anymore

Not just for grownups anymore

By Martha Coventry

Published on December 13, 2004

Stress used to belong to the middle-aged--like the proverbial 48-year-old man who has a wake-up-call heart attack on the golf course, pushing him to change his pressure-cooker life. But those innocent days of age-related stress are long gone. College students have joined the club big time, and being "stressed out" is now one of the most common ways they describe their state of mind.

A recent American College Health Association survey of 47,000 students found that 63 percent felt hopeless at times, 94 percent felt overwhelmed at times, and 45 percent were at times depressed to the point of having trouble functioning. Ten percent have seriously considered suicide.

Gary Christenson, U psychiatrist and director of Boynton's Mental Health Clinic on the Twin Cities campus, believes that stress is growing among students. "Every year, there has been the sense that stress is increasing," he says. "Surveys, reports from counseling centers, and objective observations all show [this increase] is a real phenomenon."

According to Lawson, there's a resurgence of the use of downers among students compared to stimulants. "Because students are so revved all the time, now it's an issue of 'I can't stop, I can't sleep, I can't quiet my brain down,'" she says.

In Christenson's field, stress in college students shows itself most often in depression or in anxiety disorders, the latter becoming more and more prevalent. Those issues manifest in sleep problems--not being able to sleep or oversleeping--low energy or easy fatiguability, changes in appetite, low motivation, and poor concentration, among other things. "A lot of these states are not conducive to studying well," says Christenson. "Then falling behind in your studies adds more stress which adds more symptoms, and students just get in this vicious cycle."

Tips to avoid stress

--Exercise regularly, even if it is no more than walking to and from where you live and between classes.
--Eat healthy food. Fruits, vegetables, grains, lean meats, etc.
--Get 3 meals a day. And don't skip breakfast.
--Sleep enough, and don't study up until you turn out the light at night. Your brain needs to relax before sleep.
--Do some things to completely relax, like reading for fun, watching TV, listening to music. Just chill for a while each day.
--Talk to your instructors if you're feeling completely overloaded. Chances are they can offer some help.

From Gary Christenson, U psychiatrist and director of Boynton's Mental Health Clinic.

Shortness of breath, panic attacks, upset stomachs, and headaches can also be physical signs of stress. So what's led to the increase in stress among college students? Culprits include the pressure of a nationwide culture obsessed with success, and an increased pace of life.

A "C" is the new "F"

Caroline Klohs, a sophomore communications major, sees her peers struggling to keep up in a society that expects too much of them. "The impression is that to succeed in this world, you have to perform well above expectations," says Klohs. "If people see a 'C' on their report card now, they're devastated." Plus, she adds, there is a stigma attached to not graduating in four years.

Added to the push to do well and to do everything--this is the first group of over-scheduled children to come of age--is the common handicap of not being able to manage time.

Lauren Bisanz, a premed sophomore in biology, society, and the environment, uses a planner and keeps up with class work and deadlines. She's a good student with plenty of outside activities; still, "getting everything done" is one of her greatest stressors.

Procrastination, once a benign, even expected, part of college life, can take a heavy toll with the demands today's students face. Christenson sees students in the clinic who work 20 to 30 hours a week on top of a full course load, and although students have always worked and gone to school, the world that surrounded them was different.

Families and relationship issues have always contributed to stress, says Christenson, but now more and more parents are both working full-time, and with the high divorce rate, students often have to divide their time between families. And there is a new sense of "world stress," says Christenson, since September 11 and the Iraq war. "9/11 put a damper on the campus, in general," says Christenson. "A lot of people didn't show up at the clinic right away [after the event], but since then, there has been a sense that students feel an increased vulnerability."

This generation, unlike students a decade ago, grew up with computers as a normal part of their lives. "If you can look up or order something on the Internet right away, you get used to quick access to information and to being able to solve things instantly," says Christenson. "But the world still poses problems that aren't so easily resolved. This way of living [via the computer] may hamper our ability to deal with frustration and delay, or to be able to process things over time."

Learning to cope in bad ways and good

Obviously there are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with stress. Some students stay up night after night to finish papers they put off far too long, then try to relax by partying all weekend. Some don't eat--or overeat--and some self-medicate.

"One of the biggest coping mechanisms you see among college students is the use of drugs or alcohol," says Karen Lawson, a University physician and director of integrative clinical services at the Center for Spirituality and Healing. "Much of that is an effort to sedate yourself because you're just so chronically overstimulated. And we're seeing more and more of that kind of abuse." According to Lawson, there's a resurgence of the use of downers compared to stimulants. "Because students are so revved all the time, now it's an issue of 'I can't stop, I can't sleep, I can't quiet my brain down,'" she says.

Lauren Bisanz has decided that if it takes her five years to finish her undergraduate work, so be it. She takes time to be with her friends and to volunteer, and she does what Lawson and Christenson would recommend--she walks or bikes to classes, noticing the small things about life and nature along the way. Both she and Klohs try to get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water, and stay on top of their assignments, and they both talked about something oddly and wonderfully anachronistic--the relaxation of actually writing a real letter, pen to paper.

Dealing with stress in a good way doesn't have to mean a drastic and uncomfortable change in lifestyle--one more thing you have to do. "While students might not have the power to change what's expected of them at college or how they have to interact with technology, they certainly have the ability to make some choices and learn some skills," says Lawson. "They can help their bodies cope with the stresses in their environment with some kind of meditative, relaxing practices like yoga. They can also, for example, push themselves away from the computer every hour for three minutes of stretching or breathing."

What the University offers

Nationwide, colleges and universities are having to face the fact that stress is near epidemic among their students. The University of Minnesota has been proactive, and is offering an increasingly wide range of services, from exercise classes to acute psychiatric care.

On the Twin Cities campus, each residence hall and Greek house has a health advocate who is trained to make referrals for mental and physical health needs. Boynton Health Service offers free Comfort Zone stress management workshops in techniques like Pilates and tai chi, as well as classes in anxiety reduction and smoking cessation. And University Counseling and Consulting Services and Boynton's Mental Health Clinic offer emergency care and short-term counseling.

Disability Services is not just for physical issues. Students dealing with the ramifications of severe stress can also find help when it comes to working out accommodations with their instructors or U employers.

Through the Center for Spirituality and Healing, students, faculty, and staff can have an hour of meditation instruction each Tuesday and Friday at 12:15 in the 3rd floor Mayo Building meditation room, which remains open throughout the day. The center also offers an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and classes in meditation.

Stress doesn't end when a student graduates. Life after college presents its own brand of challenges and 75 to 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians in America are stress related. According to Lawson, chronic stress raises our normal baseline, making it easier to get stressed and harder to return our mind and bodies to a relaxed state. By learning to handle stress now, with youth still on their side, college students can get a head start on a healthy future.

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