A recent survey has determined that anxiety is the most common mental health problem in college students. Depression and stress rank second and third. Anxiety and depression are really just different sides of the same coin. They are both the result of chronic stress that overwhelms your capacity to cope with them. Both can affect your functioning, especially your studies and your relationships.
Some blame “helicopter parents” for college students’ mental health problems. These parents hovered over their children, not allowing them to feel their emotions and not allowing them to solve their own problems. These parents handled their children’s problems for them. But the children did not learn emotional regulation and coping skills. When they go off to college, they are emotional novices. They are unable to deal with the stress of independent living and studying for their chosen careers.
But blaming helicopter parents is unfair. College students make their own choices. They are responsible for their own mental health. The main problem is that they don’t have the coping skills to effectively deal with the stress of independent adult living. Rather than succumbing to being stressed out, one can choose to be resilient in the face of the difficulties of life.
Preventing and treating anxiety and depression involves learning how to effectively handle stress as it arises. Dealing with stress in nonreactive ways is the way to good mental health. Thinking about and appraising stress determines if it goes any further.
When you anticipate failure or believe something bad will happen, it sets off anxiety. You fear that you will not act effectively, so you avoid the feared stimulus. The avoidance then maintains the negative cycle of anxiety.
On the other hand, when you think all is hopeless and that you are useless, this sets off depression. You believe your actions are ineffective, and you are resigned and become passive and withdrawn. The withdrawal then maintains the negative cycle of depression.
Test-taking is a common college student stressor. This is no longer high school, where you can study the night before and still do well on your test. This is college, and the content is much more difficult, requiring much more study and preparation to do well. But let’s say you develop anxiety symptoms around taking tests, to the point where you have a panic attack during the test and just freeze. You are paralyzed and can’t continue.
It is not the test itself that causes the anxiety but your thoughts about the test. For instance, you are taking a test, and this triggers thoughts such as “I did not study enough and will fail;” or “I will embarrass myself;” or “I will not be able to cope.” These thoughts make you anxious. You may even have a panic attack, where you have heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, poor concentration, and headache.
These anxiety symptoms are so distressing that you want to leave, so you may just walk out of the exam room, failing your test. And then you try to avoid future tests, as doing so risks another panic attack. But the problem with avoiding future tests is that it maintains your beliefs (thoughts) that you are not prepared and will not be able to cope.
On the other hand, if you have an upcoming test and you think “all is hopeless” or “I’m useless,” this makes you depressed. The depressed mood then leads to isolation and withdrawal. But when you withdraw, you don’t study. This translates into performing poorly on the actual test. This withdrawal then maintains your belief that all is hopeless, and that you are useless, as it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The problem is with the way you think about the stressor and the way you behave. Handling stressors adequately requires thinking differently about stress and about not avoiding or withdrawing. Thinking more positive thoughts and facing your stressors is the way to prevent or eradicate anxiety and depression.
Stressed student photo available from Shutterstock