By: Conan Deady, Social Work Intern
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue among college students. The term “anxiety” refers to feelings of fear, nervousness, or apprehension that may apply to general life activities or that may be specific to certain activities. In many cases, anxiety is perfectly normal. Most people feel some amount of anxiety in connection with activities like public speaking, test taking, or entering rooms full of strangers. In fact, evolutionary psychologists believe that anxiety is not only a normal part of being human, but has been encoded in our genes as a way to keep us safe from harm.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors encountered a range of threats to their survival that required a high degree of vigilance. Those who were best able to detect and avoid environmental threats survived long enough to reproduce and in this way the ability to perceive threats became a feature, rather than a problem, of human behavior. Today, for people who grow up in or live in violent or hostile environments, anxiety can still serve its original purpose, which was to keep people safe from harm.
While most of us no longer fear for our survival when we leave the house in the morning, we now encounter a far greater number of situations and stimuli that can potentially create stress and anxiety, even if they do not threaten physical harm. Some experts suggest that technology and social media in particular have contributed to an increase in anxiety by bombarding individuals with information and causing them to be constantly observing, reacting to, and comparing themselves with other people. In our new distracting, constantly connected, and frequently over-scheduled environments, there are many more opportunities to feel unsafe, inadequate, or unable to cope with the demands and challenges of our daily lives.
Clinical anxiety exists when symptoms move beyond normal nervousness around typical stress inducing situations and begin to have a significant negative impact on daily life. Symptoms to watch for include difficulty concentrating, poor sleep, missing classes, withdrawal from social activities, excessive use of alcohol or drugs and thoughts of self-harm. Certain times of year are more likely to be associated with anxious feelings. For example, the beginning of the school year involves new classes, expectations, relationships and living situations, any of which can be a source of anxiety, particularly for students who are new to the school. Exams are another period that is anxiety producing for many students. However, anxiety can occur at any time and sometimes without any obvious reasons.
If you think that you may be suffering from anxiety, there are many things you can do on your own that can help you feel better. Exercise is a proven way to reduce the symptoms of anxiety as well as other mental health conditions such as depression. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation are also effective practices even when done for only a few minutes a day. There are many apps that are helpful for learning and practicing these techniques, including Calm, Headspace, 10% Happier and Self-help for Anxiety Management (SAM). In addition, Health and Counseling Services is always available to help.
If you begin to feel anxious, remember that you are simply being human, that you are far from alone and that there are many steps you can take to help yourself feel better relatively quickly.