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College anxiety and how it affects us all

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By Mikaela Hoover

Last year at University of Northern Iowa, Anna Rath experienced her first panic attack.

“I started shaking, and couldn’t maintain control. All of a sudden I started gasping, as if I had no oxygen,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. My roommate yelled down the hall for help.” Rath said there was a girl named Kaylee that recognized what was happening. “My roommate almost called 911, but when Kaylee came in, she was able to calm me down within the hour.” Rath says she can feel them coming on now, “like when you know you’re gonna sneeze.” That panic attack happened last August, and now she has educated herself on how to take care of herself when she knows one is coming on.

“I have always been antsy and struggle with reading,” Rath said. “But ADHD on top of anxiety doesn’t help.” From a young age, Rath was diagnosed with ADHD. That was manageable until anxiety set in during high school. “Sometimes I get the shakes. The worst is when I get anxious and I clench my jaw because then it hurts to talk, chew food and open my mouth. Sometimes I will get extremely demanding and more impatient than normal. I might shake my leg violently, not a steady beat but fast. I could also get really excited and antsy or instantly exhausted.” The 20-year-old business management student also struggles with OCD, which makes her anxiety “100 times worse.”

Over half of college students have sought help for their anxiety. Some of these students struggle with the normal everyday stress of being in college, but for others, it can be much more intense, according to researchers at anxiety.org.

Right now, student anxiety levels are at an all time high. Only half of students who need help are asking for it. Less than that are receiving it. On average, one fourth of students have access within two months or less to a psychologist or psychiatrist. At the University of Iowa Hospitals, there are no openings for new patients until October of 2018. Terri Hughes-Pauline has been a psychologist in Davenport, Iowa for more than 20 years.

“I treat a lot of teenage patients. Mostly for anxiety and depression, but there are occasional cases of severe OCD or Schizophrenia in young patients.” Says Pauline. “Over the years, I’ve seen a huge increase in teenagers and young adults with anxiety. I do the best I can, but I can’t stop panic attacks. I can give them breathing exercises, I can suggest medication, but when it comes down to it… sometimes I feel powerless.”

Pauline says that sometimes it helps to just talk to someone about it, but mental illness is powerful, and sometimes it’s hard to get under control.

Eighteen year old journalism student Yasmine Cruz says, “I’m not very organized so I struggle to get all my work organized and done. This really makes me stress out over everything.” Cruz is a student like many others. Students tend to let their organizational skills slack when they are stressed, which in turns causes more anxiety. Having to search through a mess, trying to remember where you put something, can cause anxiety attacks on the spot. At this point, Cruz turns to music.

“Whenever I start to freak out, I calm down by listening to songs by Evanescence. Writing in my journal helps too.” There was one memorable moment when Cruz had to face her fears to do something great.

“I had to read a poem in front of the entire 2017 class at MHS. I was shaking so badly I wanted to run off stage. Despite that feeling, I knew I would feel great after I was done,” Cruz says. Her voice shook, but not because of anxiety. “The excitement of reading the poem covered up my nervous feelings after a few seconds, and I was so glad I was able to get through it.”

Usually people who struggle with anxiety have nervous ticks. Cruz says, “I sometimes talk faster when I’m nervous. I tend to tap my pencil or my foot.” Those are common ticks, and Rath said she had some of the same ones. “I usually bounce my leg really fast, but not with any rhythm. I can get upset easier too and have more outbursts, if it’s bad.”

Instructor Lisa Powell can relate.

Powell has been an educator for 30 years. “I wasn’t aware, as a student, that anxiety was an issue. I thought it was normal,” Powell said. “I was eight hours from home, and before any big test I called my mom, crying hysterically.” Even though anxiety was an issue years ago, researchers at anxiety.org say that the levels of anxiety in students has increased tenfold in the past 25 years. “I studied 150% more than I needed to because of the anxiety I felt.”

“My mom would joke and say, ‘This is the same thing you did last time. I’ve determined that every time you call saying you’re going to fail, you’re going to get an A because you worried about it so much.’”

Powell can relate to her students, and tries to understand where they’re coming from.

“Since I started 30 years ago, yes, I’ve seen students suffer more. I don’t know if you could say that I’ve necessarily helped them, but I try to find different ways to present information in the classroom.” Powell said. There is only so much she can do as an instructor, but as someone who can relate, that gives her an advantage.

Twenty-five years ago, Powell had an intense situation to handle. “The student got frustrated and started to hit himself in the head. The entire class became nervous, Powell said. “I could literally hear bone to bone, like he was going to actually do some damage. I had to calm myself and when I did, I noticed he was full of anxiety and wasn’t thinking clearly. I invited him to take a break outside the classroom, which would take attention off of him and put the rest of the class at ease.” Powell says that is the most intense situation she’s ever encountered in the classroom.

Reactions from students on the autistic spectrum can be both easier and more difficult to handle. “Students on the autism spectrum who tend to get anxious also tend to be blunt,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Get out of my face.’ I really like that, personally, because when they’re blunt, you know what to do.”

“I ask if they need help, even if they’ve asked for space, because that’s what I’m here for,” she says. “That can upset them sometimes.”

Lisa Powell says that outside pressures cause more anxiety than the school work itself. “I think the current political and economic climate is creating more anxiety in people. We also live in a world where there’s not a lot of time to get things done. Some students work two to three jobs, they have kids, family to take care of and they don’t have an outside support system,” she said.

“I see students express more emotional frustration and I see students who check out,” She shakes her head. “Some students think, what’s the point, which is sad, because I think we offer lots of services to help, like free counseling and tutoring.” Powell wants to help, and so do her colleagues. “We love it when students come to meet with us so we can personally work with them. They get upset then they work with us and say, ‘Oh, that’s all I had to do?’ I think it’s because their anxiety makes them psych out and over think the assignment.” Lisa Powell thinks that anxiety has contributed to why so many people think they can’t go to college.

Anxiety levels in students are higher than ever, and while some remain undiagnosed, over half of students in college have sought help and received it, according to researchers at anxiety.org.

Students, remember that there is a free counseling service to help you on campus, and if not, talk to someone you trust that can help you.

All you have to do is call 563-288-6001 to set up an appointment.

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College anxiety and how it affects us all