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Anxiety rampant among college students

Published: February 18, 2014, 12:02 am ET
Collegian Reporter

Many students in the United States, including the University of Richmond, go at a pace that rarely allows them time to relax.

With high hopes to achieve every goal, a significant number of Richmond students are affected by anxiety, and that number is growing. The number of Richmond students who visited Counseling and Psychological Services went from 128 in the 2002-03 school year to 409 in 2011-12, according to CAPS. This increase has caused CAPS to hire more staff to meet demands.

“Students are pushing themselves harder and harder, especially to get into selective schools,” said Peter LeViness, director of CAPS. Even at the high school levels, students take AP courses, join clubs or volunteer for community service, he said.

Anxiety effects about 40 million American adults ages 18 years and older (about 18 percent) in a given year, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Nationally, anxiety is a common mental-health problem, but studies have shown that 80 percent of college students frequently suffer daily stress, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

The U.S. is, by a wide margin, the most anxious country in the world, with nearly a third of Americans likely to suffer from an anxiety problem in their lifetime, according to The New York Times.

Researchers have found that anxiety is caused by a complex set of risk factors, including medical, genetics, brain chemistry, personality and stressful-life events and substance use and abuse. “There is an increased feeling of needing to do well and being competitive with one another,” said Steve Bisese, vice president for student development.

LeViness said that the pressure to succeed, delayed coping skills, technology and high expectations for one’s life have increasingly caused anxiety to become both a national and local problem. Students are faced with these challenges and must learn skills on their own that will be beneficial for life, he said.

A Westhampton College senior described how stress affects her: “It feels like someone is hugging you from behind and not letting you move. Your whole body feels like a rubber band and if someone plucked you, you would break.”

It’s those times when she can’t control her emotions or she has a ton of work that she gets overly anxious, she said. “My body starts to clench up, and I get really hot. Blood starts rushing to my ears, and I can’t hear anything.”

The pressure that parents put on their children is another factor of anxiety. Well-meaning parents want their children to be successful, but at times they put more pressure on them than they realize, Richmond College Dean Joseph Boehman said.

Although not all parents place pressure on their children, some parents say their children must get good grades, Boehman said. “When students aren’t on deans’ lists and parents complain that they aren’t going to pay about $50,000 a year for them to be a B student, it puts pressure on the student,” he said.

The degree at which anxiety is an issue for students primarily has been related to the type of school that students decide to attend, Bisese said. When and if they are accepted into these competitive and selective schools, students then focus on what they will do after college, he said, instead of really using the four years of college as a time to become fully educated.

High anxiety is an excessive worry that is out of proportion to the thing that concerns some students, said Dr. Lynne P. Deane, Student Health Center director. Because of this constant worrying or fear, this generation doesn’t unplug or turn out the threat, allowing anxiety to rapidly increase, she said.

LeViness described how the body physically deals with stress and anxiety, which prepare the body to take physical action. “It’s like the fight-or flight response,” he said.

This response mobilizes any serious stress and puts fuels in the blood stream, such as hormones like adrenaline and cortisone, he said. “It shifts blood toward your muscle groups and away from your digestive organs, preparing you to do something physical, which produces wear and tear on your body,” he said.

Whereas women are more likely to talk about their feelings and what’s going on throughout their mind, men channel their anxiety in a different direction, LeViness said. Still, both genders suffer similar symptoms, such as an inability to concentrate, lack of physical activity, higher blood pressure, sleep deprivation, constant worrying or twitching, he said.

The psychological therapy was meant to help those with a biochemical imbalance, LeViness said. CAPS offers short-term psychotherapy, psychiatric services, group counseling, crisis intervention, workshops, assessment, consultation and referral. But, today, people are going right to a prescriber to get a prescription for medication before talking through their problems, LeViness said.

“Two-thirds of psychiatric medication are prescribed by family doctors,” he said, “and I would like to see that shift.” If someone doesn’t have severe anxiety, he or she shouldn’t use medication because the risks out weigh the benefits, he said. The body adjusts to medication and makes it harder to stop taking the pills.

“My concern is I want a healthy student body,” Bisese said, “especially if students feel they can’t do academics with a clear head.”

CAPS offers a wide range of counseling and psychological services to full-time students at Richmond. Several faculty members in the psychology department established CAPS in 1955 and the psychological therapy helps mobilize positive expectations, LeViness said.

From antidepressant medicines to benzodiazepines, there are multiple types of medications that one can take to alleviate anxiety, according to “Up to Date,” which is evidence-based, physician-authored clinical decision support resource. People respond in different ways to the medicine, so it is common for someone to try a few approaches before finding the medication that helps him or her most, according to “Up To Date.”

At the health center, about half of the student problems that doctors treat and witness are mental-health related, Deane said. “Students are normally driven to us because of physical complaints that are related to what’s going on from the neck up,” she said. “And anxiety is one of them.”

The severity of anxiety is how it affects you physically, she said, but more students at the university are facing problems. The health center sees more students than it did 10 years ago, Deane said.

“There is an imbalance because the academic load is greater than it ought to be,” Deane said, “and the expectations are unrealistic. It serves no one any good to be up at 4 a.m. in the library.”

Boatwright Memorial Library should not be open 24/7, Deane said.

People tend to equate grades with how smart someone is or how much knowledge someone obtained, said Bruce Matthews, assistant athletic director, who oversees academics for all student-athletes. “With anxiety we can’t enjoy the simple things or the moment,” he said.

Trying to relax and calm down becomes a life-long practice of finding your center, Boehman said. Whether that is Zen, meditation or yoga, it is possible to slow down and find that calming moment, he said.

People need to listen to their anxiety and see the bigger picture, Boehman said. But the message about things to do to reduce anxiety are generally not going to be things you’ll listen to until you are dealing with it, he said.

Students are anxious all for different reasons and student-athletes aren’t necessarily any more anxious than other students on this campus, Matthews said. The difference is the way student-athletes deal with it.

Student-athletes have less time and don’t have two or three days to devote all their attention to academics, Matthews said, and that stresses them out. They must learn how to balance academics and athletics, he said.

“It is difficult to be a student-athlete because it requires a lot of time management,” said Allie Ware, a senior captain for the women lacrosse team. “You don’t have a lot of free time and you are always on the go.”

Student-athletes are competing with other students and have the pressure of not only pleasing themselves, but also their team and coaches, Matthews said.

“I think students-athletes tend to be kids that thrive off doing well because they love to win,” Ware said. “Whether it is on the field or off the field, they like to be successful. It’s natural.”

Contact reporter Catherine McTiernan at

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  • Pat Moon

    Eating a healthy diet and supplementing with whole food supplements will also help college students handle stress and anxiety.