Fitness & Health

Illustration: Kim Wiens.

Understanding the effects mental health issues have on student life

Stress can be a challenge to manage and overcome in an academic setting, especially during exam season. But for some, this period can trigger something more serious.

According to Dr. Jacques Bradwejn, the dean of medicine at the University of Ottawa, while the majority of students choose to use this higher level of stress to become more resilient to life’s circumstances, others are not so lucky, “For a minority of people, especially those with severe vulnerabilities to anxiety, depression, psychosis, and other problems, a stressor can be overbearing,” says Dr. Bradwejn.

It’s important to be actively involved in managing stress and being aware of your unique personal response. As such, there are some tell-tale signs that differentiate regular stress and more serious conditions like anxiety and depression.

Stress

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Photo: CC, Pete Linforth.

Stress is a natural reaction to environmental cues that helps you to react appropriately, and motivate specific behaviours like writing an essay or going for a run.

Stress activates your ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which increases heart rate, decreases blood flow to extremities, and slows digestion. These reactions can manifest in many ways, such as sweaty palms, increased alertness, and trouble relaxing.

A prolonged stress response can increase the risk of poor health conditions, and trigger depression and anxiety.

Research shows that university students are under an inordinate amount of stress compared to the general population. Studies have shown that upwards of 54 per cent of the students in the U.S. experience significant levels of stress in the form of anxiety or depression.

These issues are especially hard for students with mental health problems and can seriously affect relationships, involvement in the university experience, and result in lower grades and rates of graduation.

Anxiety

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Photo: CC, Eutah Mizushima.

Anxiety disorders occur when the brain’s natural regulating mechanisms malfunction and everyday situations are no longer manageable. This can appear in the form of panic attacks and chronic anxiousness.

Panic attacks are episodes of extreme anxiety that appear as bouts of rage or irritability, obsessive behaviour, fast-talking, silence, sitting rigidly, hyperventilating, and much more.

Chronic anxiety is a long-term state of increased cortisol release, where your body is constantly in fight-or-flight mode even when there is no logical cause. This can lead to being exhausted, overwhelmed, or in a constant state of dread or even terror.

If someone experiences these types of symptoms, the best course of action is to visit a family doctor as anxiety can be isolating and quickly become severely debilitating.

These kinds of acute episodes can also be managed with calming techniques such as removing yourself from the situation, taking deep breaths, counting backwards, or distracting yourself through exercise or activity.

Depression

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Photo: CC, PDPics.

It’s sometimes hard to recognize when you start developing the symptoms of depression, which in itself can be dangerous.

Although depression can be triggered by stress and is frequently compared to anxiety, the symptoms are very different.

While stress causes increased heart rate and activity, depression can sometimes feel like a weight on your shoulders. Activity levels are usually decreased and sleeping can be difficult.

Symptoms can include not feeling as interested in things as usual and having a hard time concentrating or attending to daily activities due to decreased mood and energy levels. Depression can also lead to suicidal feelings and increased alcohol or drug use.

Anxiety and depression frequently occur together in a vicious cycle. Anxiety causes an abnormal stress response which can lead to avoidance of activities. Avoiding activities can decrease mood and lead to feelings of helplessness and withdrawal which intensifies feelings of stress and anxiety when you’re unable to perform the tasks necessary to decrease the stress.

“People who are vulnerable to depression and anxiety problems are more likely to experience these problems as stress increases,” says Ottawa-based psychologist Roger Covin. “Thus, knowing whether you are susceptible or vulnerable to anxiety or depressive episodes makes it more important to manage stress.” 

The first step to solving these conditions is to contact or obtain a family doctor. Additionally, it’s important for university students to stick together as a community. If, for example, you notice a friend or colleague has sudden changes in behaviour that may be caused by anxiety or depression, try to reach out and share information about the resources available to students suffering from mental illness.

Resources

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Photo: Jennifer Vo.

The first step when looking for help with mental illness should be to discuss your concerns with a family physician. They will be able to refer you to counselling or psychiatric services and suggest treatment options, while keeping a detailed chart of information regarding all medical history. Student Academic Success Services (SASS) also offers a free counselling service for anxiety, stress and depression.

Research has shown that mindfulness-based approaches can significantly decrease depression. These mindfulness strategies can now be conveniently found in phone apps such as “Stop, Breathe & Think”, “Calm”, and “Headspace”.

Visiting the U of O’s Health Promotion Research Centre on the second floor of the University Centre (UCU203) can also be a valuable step in finding support systems, tips for healthy lifestyles, and learning how to be a successful student.

SASS can also help with exam accommodations and classroom assistance including note-taking help, extra time on exams, and a quiet place for exam with a physician’s recommendation. Yoga is also back on campus every Monday from 6-7 p.m. in the 90U lounge.

Take advantage of these on-campus resources, and take control of your mental health.