College students are facing an increasingly wide variety of mental health challenges, and there aren’t always many outlets for them to seek help, guidance, and answers to the issues they may be dealt with.
Serious clinical conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, and even panic attacks are relatively common experiences for college students due to the many new stressors and pressures that come with the fast-paced environment, difficult schedules and course work, societal obligations, and financial management tasks. High school does a poor job of preparing most young adults for college life, and as such, it can become overwhelming.
Lighter levels of stress and anxiety can still cause students distress and difficulties in sleep, time management, performance, social life, and general decision-making. What’s more, the new freedom that the college experience brings for many students also comes with some tough learning experiences that they are ordinarily protected from in the bubble of high school or normal family life.
What Causes College Stress?
Not getting enough sleep is more common than you might think, especially for college students. It is also the perfect breeding ground for stress and mental health issues. Lack of sleep inhibits the body from recovering and managing stress, and it also impair cognitive function.
Meeting new people and the drive to hang out with them, schoolwork and deadlines, extracurricular activities like sports, and many other possible distractions and a lack of time management skills can mean that sleep gets pushed aside so often that it begins to affect the student’s ability to feel restored and refreshed. This plays a huge role in mental health and what’s called mental elasticity, or the ability for us to “bounce back” when under mental duress.
Lack of sleep can lead to decreased competency in many of these areas, which can in turn result in heightened stress and anxiety and start a feedback loop of overall sluggish performance and increased stress. Add in financial difficulties, poor diet, and lack of healthy (healing) food like fruits, vegetables, and staying hydrated when there is abundant junk food everywhere, and you have the perfect environment for mental disorders to develop.
For most living the college life, the endless opportunities for socializing and entertainment creates enormous possibilities that puts them further and further behind in the coursework and other responsibilities. Like people in financial debt, being in “time management” debt may create additional avoidance (feeling too overwhelmed by the feeling of being behind to engage in doing something about it) which makes the problem all the more serious.
A lack of understanding how to take care of one’s responsibilities is a stressor in and of itself. This is where the “feedback loop” of stress sets in, and is hard to overcome if you don’t engage in meditation or other self-care practices.
The magnitude of what college students face also lends itself to an atmosphere of stress. They may feel pressured into choosing a specific major, life track, or path; that they aren’t finding the right person to date or befriend, get caught up in drama; or that making a certain athletic, academic, or other achievements is required of them in order to get the most out of their college experience.
What’s more daunting when dealing with the issue of mental health issues in college is the likelihood that a student may experiment with alcohol and drugs. While brief run ins with these substances obviously don’t do much harm, regular substance abuse can become a huge element of stress in a student’s life, whether they know it or not. Many hard drugs, and alcohol, directly impair cognitive function and disable the body’s natural ability to handle stress.
Couple this with the fact that doing drugs often goes hand in hand with lack of sleep, partying, and shirking responsibilities, and things can quickly spiral out of control for a student who is lacking awareness. With the increasing prevalence of harder drugs and abusing prescription medications, some students may find themselves with substance-abuse related difficulties that cause them significant shame and social anxiety, as well as primary (direct effect of the substance) and secondary (related to feelings of embarrassment and distress) anxiety and depression.
Individuals with genetic predispositions to some psychiatric conditions — particularly schizophrenic disorders — may find these conditions are acutely “triggered” for the first time by the use of substances as well, which only adds to the stress levels. Some students even use drugs to cope with stress itself, which is the complete opposite of true stress management and only weakens the body and mind further.
Mental Health Resources for College Students
The good news is, there are several resources available for students who want to manage their stress and mental health.
College campuses, for example, have an excellent array of resources for mental health support, including counseling experts, clubs, mental health professionals on site, substance use treatment support, and pathways to other helpful tools. It’s important for students to know these resources are available to them on campus. Your tuition pays for a lot more than just books and teacher salaries.
If you are a professor and have concerns about your student’s mental health, talk to them about it in a supportive, non-confrontational way that lets them know it’s okay to need and get help on this new journey, and then stay involved until they have access to the right support.
Another huge aspect of managing stress and mental health is simply taking the time to eat right. This doesn’t mean you have to suddenly become a health guru and eat only green smoothies, but it does mean planning meals the night before, not relying on your school’s cafeteria pizza every day, and an effort to get more fruits and vegetables in your diet.
Diet is directly related to mental health. It’s popular these days for people to identify with their mental illnesses and believe that they are out of their control. This is not an accurate, or healthy, portrait of mental health, and it can burden you with unnecessary stress. If you find yourself anxious or depressed, you should remove dairy in your diet, cut down on processed grain, and make sure you are getting plenty of water.
Your body is a system that needs proper holistic treatment to function properly, and this holds true for mental health as well as physical.
Another extremely important part of mental self-care is exercise. You might think, isn’t that more of a physical thing? From a naturalistic perspective, exercise is a necessary part of being healthy. Lethargy, apathy, and degenerated muscles are all related to depression and other poor mental states. Working out your muscles is what they are there for, and what our bodies expect. This helps regulates our hormones and body chemistry, stimulates our mood, helps us get proper sleep, and also raises your metabolism, which is another big factor in mood and mental health.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to face yourself by engaging in mental self-care. Meditation has been shown to dramatically reduce the symptoms of mental health issues. In fact, proper meditation can outright cure depression because it helps the body correct chemical imbalances.
There are always answers and resources available if you are looking for ways to manage stress and heal mental health ailments. Don’t think that you are alone or have a special, incurable problem. It might sound overdone, or even trite, but a proper diet, exercise, and meditation can go a long way in balancing your mind and getting back on track, no matter the size of your mountain of coursework or tight schedule.
Stress doesn’t have to be something you live with. Take the time to educate yourself, analyze what you need, and tackle the problem head on.
The founder of Digital Sages, Matt has an extensive background in self-mastery and has authored several books on the subject. His goal is to demystify important esoteric subjects and help people transform their lives through self-awareness and personal empowerment.