In decades past, college was both rigorous and fulfilling. Students took their classes, studied, played (sometimes a lot), explored the newness of being on their own, and then graduated and went on to careers or further study.
Today, these elements still exist, but they also include a new component, one that is becoming increasingly unhealthy and dangerous: overwhelming anxiety. At campuses across the country, one in five college students suffer from anxiety or depression.
A 2017 survey of 63,000 college students from 92 different schools found that 61 percent of those surveyed said they had felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year; 40 percent reported feeling so depressed it was difficult for them to function.
Students and professors at Stanford University have even invented a name for the tremendous anxiety college students experience. It’s called Duck Syndrome. That’s because students force themselves to appear to be doing fine, expertly moving from class to class much like a duck appears to be effortlessly gliding across a pond.
What we don’t see with the duck is that as it journeys through the water, its feet are hidden just under the surface paddling furiously and continuously. Like the duck, many college students feel frantic and completely overwhelmed on the inside despite appearing calm and collected on the outside. Inside, they are pressure cookers perilously close to exploding.
Why? Because a college environment often creates the perfect storm for anxiety and depression to develop. It is the first time most students have been on their own in a world where parents often smoothed the road for them in academics, sports, and other activities.
Thoughts of a somewhat-recent recession rest in the backs of many students’ minds, as do fears of finding a job and paying off debts accumulated from eight—or more—semesters of schooling.
Additionally, the years between ages eighteen and twenty-four are not only the most common time to enroll in college but are also the most common years for anxiety and depression to first manifest themselves.
Fourteen years ago, college students were introduced to an exciting new platform meant to encourage connections and networking between one another.
Today, that platform has grown exponentially and birthed others like it. And while social media can still encourage friendships, it has also spurred isolation and tension between what is real and what is for show. For many young people, there now exists competition between their real lives and their virtual lives. And this keeping-up-of-appearances can be stressful and time consuming.
Students often spend hours a day with their faces buried in their smart phones. And the phenomenon doesn’t end when the day does.
One study recently found that nearly 50 percent of college students wake up at night to answer text messages or check notifications from social media. The study also found that the more people use technology during hours typically reserved for sleeping, the poorer their quality of sleep. Lack of sleep tends to exacerbate anxiety and depression, which are then fueled by the stress of classes, papers, finals, and job searches.
And while a little bit of healthy competition can be a good thing that motivates individuals to work harder and more diligently toward their goals, recent, intense competition to get into the best colleges or grad schools has increased so significantly that many students—and even their parents who want only the best for them—are turning to drugs.
David Rosenberg, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at Wayne State University writes that “In the past five years, the number of requests I receive from high school and college students and their parents for stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall has skyrocketed. A decade ago, I rarely, if ever, got such a request.
Now, I get several per month. These requests are often made prior to taking major exams, such as finals, the MCAT or the LSAT.” Rosenberg never grants these requests but laments that other physicians do—and on a regular basis. “While these medicines can be very effective and safely prescribed in patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” he says, “there is considerable risk when they are used for other reasons. It is well-known that side effects from Ritalin and Adderall include anxiety and depression.
This risk is even higher in people taking the medicine for an unapproved reason or who do not take the medicine as prescribed.”
So what can college students—and those who love and teach them—do to avoid this trap?
1. Colleges can implement more counseling programs with easier access.
2. Students can regularly attend group or individual counseling sessions.
3. Parents can encourage counseling for their students and talk openly about anxiety and depression to reduce the stigma.
4. Students can take regular breaks from social media, their smartphones, and technology in general. Many people report that simply cutting out social media in the hours just before bed and replacing it with a structured routine helps them function better the following morning, increases the next day’s productivity, and invites a sense of calm despite pressures.
5. Students can exercise more, and colleges can implement more campaigns for students to be active in a variety of ways on campus.
6. Students can avoid unnatural energy boosters, like caffeine pills or prescription meds, which may help them make it through a long night of study but will inevitably lead to a crash that can put them down and out for days afterwards.
7. Parents can resist the urge to “rescue” their college students. Instead of seeking out prescription drugs for their children, they can provide things like regular deliveries of groceries that include fresh vegetables and healthy proteins, gym memberships, or a semester’s worth of yoga classes.
8. Students can practice healthy self-care, such as taking time to meditate or breathe deeply, going to the gym, getting a massage, and not giving up the hobbies they love.
Essential Oil Tip
Self-care is essential for college students to feel well-rested, confident, and less stressed. One of the best forms of self-care out there is getting a massage. A 2014 study found that even a simple hand massage with a blend of fragrant essential oils reduced both anxiety and pain in cancer patients. Think of what it could do for college students!
Roommates and friends can easily give each other hand massages. The blend used in the study was an equal mix bergamot, frankincense, and lavender diluted with coconut oil.
The same blend can be used for aroma touch therapy, diffused during study sessions, carried in a purse and inhaled whenever a break is needed, or applied to the wrists and the back of the neck before yoga or meditation.
PS Check out our course on how to overcome anxiety and manage stress! Click below!