Student Stress, Anxiety, and Depression 101: Sadly, Attendance Is Growing…
College: It’s sometimes called “the best time in your life.” You have new people, new situations, a huge variety of extracurricular activities to choose from… all while learning about yourself and the world. It is a time full of potential.
But it’s not always all that nostalgic, like the feel-good movies about young adult students portray it. In recent years, the cultural perspective of college has been shifting to begin to open up to the difficult side of young-adult student life, including the increasingly common mental health struggles that go with it.
Untold personal and social pressures can wreak havoc on one’s self-esteem. It’s a time of experimentation, individuation, growth, and risks. It’s also a time of stress and expectations for growing into a self-sufficient adult—for many, complete with learning “adulting” habits like self-care, self-regulation, and self-reliance. For some, it’s a time of loneliness, isolation, or avoidance.
Because of all this, it is a period of increased risk for mental health concerns. Rates of college-student mental-health issues are rising at alarming rates, with the number one and number two issues being depression and anxiety.
The good news is that there are ways to prevent or help improve mood and anxiety struggles as you complete your studies. Below are five of the most common causes of depression in college, with ways to help yourself improve your mental and overall health.
Poor Eating Habits
One of the most common things to happen is that diet habits change. Either out of convenience, unfamiliarity with cooking, stress, or 24/7 access to cafeteria food and take-out, many college students see an initial shift towards a less healthy diet. In pop culture, this is known as putting on the “freshman 15,” a common phenomena of weight gain in freshman year due to unhealthy diet choices.
Unfortunately, this can also increase one’s vulnerability to struggling with depression. High-carb, high-sugar, highly processed meals with low nutrient density and few vitamins increase inflammation in the brain while also depriving the body of the building blocks needed to create “feel-good” neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine. Inflammatory foods, artificial colours, and flavours—along with substances like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine—can contribute to changes in concentration and a rise in anxiety.
Simply choosing healthy meals with anti-inflammatory properties that provide good amounts of protein, healthy fats, and vegetables goes a long way to preventing mood issues and mitigating stress and anxiety.
One of the best diets to follow is called “The Essential Diet: Eating for Mental Health,” created specifically to teach brain-healthy eating habits to those who want to support their mental health. The basics are lots of fresh vegetables; the right amount of protein and good fats; selective whole-grain carbohydrates; and low sugar, caffeine, and alcohol—all prepared with minimal processing and eaten at appropriate times (i.e. not skipping meals or eating on irregular schedules).
Lack of Exercise
Similar to why many college students adopt poor eating habits, exercise can also be neglected. With new demands on time and attention, it can be easy to let exercise habits fall away in favour of class, socializing, or other more exciting events.
The best motivation to continue (or to start) exercising is in the research: Recent studies show that regular aerobic and strength-training exercise are as effective at treating depression as antidepressants—without the negative weight, mood, and sexual side effects (in fact, exercise benefits all three). Exercise also helps to reduce stress hormones and improve sleep, both very important factors in mental wellness.
It’s even more beneficial for your mental health when you exercise with others and when you do it outside. That’s all the more reason to join a recreational sports team or movement group. It doesn’t matter whether it’s zumba dancing or speed walking—getting out there benefits your brain. Even simply walking in the sunshine between classes can lift your mood.
Irregular Sleep Rhythms
This is a very common cause of mood and anxiety issued in college, maybe even the number one cause. Even if you’re eating well and exercising, if your sleep is disrupted or sacrificed regularly enough, it has a huge impact on mental health. Not just the day after—sleep deprivation has been shown to increase stress levels for days after a particularly disrupted sleep.
The body’s rhythm of sleeping and waking hormones is called the circadian rhythm. Major and even minor disruptions in the sleep-wake cycle have been linked to metabolic, hormonal, and mental health issues including depression and anxiety. So, protecting your sleep is in fact one of the best ways to protect your mental health.
It doesn’t always have to mean missing out—just making sure you get 7–8 hours of good quality sleep most nights is a good goal to aim for. Good quality means little waking during the night and waking feeling rested.
To help your circadian rhythm, sleep hygiene is the name of the game. Sleep hygiene is a set of practices to help your body “turn down the energy” at the end of the day to ensure a restful good quality sleep. Its main points are:
- Not looking at screens for one hour before bed;
- Establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine;
- Making sure that the sleep environment is pleasant, dark, and peaceful;
- Limiting daytime naps;
- Avoiding caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime, maybe even after 12 p.m.;
- Exercising during the day;
- Not eating within three hours of bedtime; and
- Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light during the day.
Some stress may be an inevitable part of the college experience, but its negative consequences don’t have to be.
Stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, are released when the body perceives something as being threatening, scary, or too much to handle. The body is essentially mobilizing energy and resources to get us away from the threat. This is a good evolutionary survival technique, but the only problem is that your body can’t tell the difference between being stressed about running away from a tiger and being stressed about a final exam.
Having a large amount of stress or sustained stress for a long period of time can lead to a stress response that mobilizes the “fight-or-flight” response in the body for too long. This lasting response contributes to a decreased immune system, disrupted blood sugar levels, poor digestion, low energy, anxiety, and depression.
Therefore, reducing stress is at the core of preventing or healing many conditions, certainly not least of which are mood and anxiety. One of the most effective ways to reduce daily stress is to build in self-regulation
moments into your routine. Take short breathing breaks to stimulate the vagus nerve to help switch your body from the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) to the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) modes of operation. Other activities like yoga, mindful meditation, and tai chi are very helpful for reducing cortisol. And finally, aerobic and strength-training exercises and proper sleep go a long way to reduce daytime stress hormones.
The key is to find a regular activity you can do for yourself and really only for yourself. So much stress can come from feeling like we always need to be productive. Finding a self-care routine for the sole purpose of maintaining your mental health can make a big difference in your day-to-day stress level.
College is a time of meeting and making new friends. It can be enticing to follow the crowd and fit in, in order to have a sense of belonging. But it’s also a time of immense self-discovery, influenced by the things on which we choose to spend our time and attention. There’s a saying that “you are the combination of the five people you spend the most time with.” Especially in college, it is important to seek out influences that build you up instead of fill you with self-doubt, jealousy, longing, and anxiety.
Here are a few (brutally honest) pointers about how to feed your mental health through healthy relationships at college:
- Don’t hang out with people that don’t make you feel good, alive, or excited;
- Find five people that you feel inspired by (not jealous of);
- Don’t hang out with people who make you feel bad about being yourself;
- Find two people you could call on during any emergency;
- Spend time with people you want to be like, whose habits you would want to adopt;
- Don’t spend time with people who drain your energy; and
- Be courageous enough to be disliked by some people (that’s OK, as long as you’re being your best self. You can’t please everyone).
Of course, the most important relationship you have is the relationship with yourself. You spend 100% of your day with your own thoughts, so taking care of self-talk is one of the most caring things we can do for ourselves. If you know that you speak harshly to yourself or judge yourself, learning to introduce self-compassion and self-acceptance is the first step along the path to self-love.
Working with your thoughts is the bedrock for being able to take action on the other four points in this article. If you can come from a place of wanting to help yourself, you will find endlessly more motivation to exercise, reduce stress, eat right, and sleep well than if you are trying to punish yourself, change your body, or run away from something.
Student mental health is on the radar for a lot of colleges now because so many students are struggling. Seek out a counseling session to talk about stressors and concerns you have. College is an exciting time and there are ways to support yourself in order to experience it with a full, open heart and resilience against mood and anxiety issues.
For more information about working with your mental health in a natural way, read Beyond the Label: 10 Steps to Improve Your Mental Health with Naturopathic Medicine.
- Blake, H. “Physical activity and exercise in the treatment of depression.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Vol. 3 (2012): 106.
- National Sleep Foundation. “Sleep Hygiene.” SleepFoundation.org · https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/sleep-hygiene
- - -
Christina Bjorndal, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor from Edmonton and an established keynote speaker on how to regain your mental health using a naturopathic approach.