Our stressors have changed, but the sensation has not
It’s easy to take the steady lull of the 9-5, or whatever the hours may be of your summer job for granted. The tedious monotony of work seems like a special kind of hell on some days, but at the very least once you leave work it stops there. School is different in the sense that even once you have returned from class, you still bring home the extra baggage that is assignments, papers, labs, volunteering, or even extracurricular. Yes, life can still throw a curve ball at you in the summer and you can still experience a low in arguably the best season of the year, but it never seems as harsh as the troughs of life when you have exams knocking at your front door.
School and stress go hand in hand unfortunately. Some people deal with it better than others. Recent research, published by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services on over 43,000 Canadian students yielded some surprising results. Less than half of students who participated where considered to have a status of “flourishing” mental health. That is to say, where in good condition mentally. On the other side of that figure, 18.4% where treated or diagnosed by a professional for anxiety in the past 12 months alone. So here’s the question: do we have a problem with chronic anxiety on campuses such as StFX, and indeed all across Canadian Universities?
The question poses various problems. First and foremost, while anxiety may indeed be more frequently diagnosed than it was, say 20 years ago, that doesn’t actually mean students today are any more stressed. As our very own Ivan Drouin, MA, who is a registered psychologist at the Health Center points out: “one reason [anxiety is seen to be more prevalent] is that with all the talk about mental health issues and mental disorders, people now consult much more than they did, say 20 years ago- which is very positive. People come and talk about it”
This points to the idea that student life is still, but indeed always has been very stressful. It’s a pleasant thought that we aren’t the only ones out there to have felt the terrible pressure of classes and student life on our shoulders. We may be stressed, but hasn’t every student been?
Indeed, almost 90% of students admitted to feeling overwhelmed by their workload in the study done by CACUSS. So it would suggest that most students do feel some sort of stress from university. Which brings us to point number two: maybe some stress isn’t actually a bad thing. Disregarding the obvious negative health consequences of chronic anxiety or GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) let’s assume for a second that at least most of the 90% above didn’t feel that way all the time. Indeed, when stress is used properly it can be a useful motivator, says Drouin, as “some anxiety is normal, and it’s useful. I mean, it’s useful to be a little bit anxious when we’re close to an exam”. Drouin continues, reminding us that only when these feelings of anxiousness persist for months that anxiety may be characterized as a disorder.
One more point that I would like to bring up is that yes, anxiety and especially too much of it, can be crippling at times. The difference between this mental irregularity and some other more savage forms of mental illness is that it is treatable. From chronic to mild, you can manage your stress levels. If you’re a student, you probably should, to be honest. Drouin mentions the importance of adapting to life as a student, which inevitably brings stress with it. Coping techniques are key to being a productive student,
“and there are ways to relax: there’s psychological ways, such as mindfulness. Physical, such as exercise, there’s all kinds of things that people can do that they don’t know about.”
This is where one of the problems presented by anxiety remerges: because people don’t understand that there are ways to relax and cope, they just keeping battling anxiety head on, which doesn’t always work. If we have a problem with anxiety on campuses across Canada, it’s most likely not because we are over worked. In fact, I would argue it’s because there is not enough awareness of the methods students can use to cope. This is why having a Wellness Center, and a Health Center (especially) are so important. These are key resources for students in the fight for a healthier mental state. Drouin stresses the importance of students with anxiety making visits to these facilities, as “sometimes people consult just to make sure that they are doing ok, which is a perfectly good reason to consult. Say you’re going to [the doctor to] see if you have a physical illness: it’s always good to know it’s just a cold. Sometimes it’s not, sometimes it’s more serious, like pneumonia or bronchitis. You would never know if you hadn’t come in.”