Anxiety Disorders in University Students – Part One

This is part one of a two part series looking at Anxiety Disorders in University Students 

Uwindsor Campus (photo by Owen Wolter)
Uwindsor Campus (photo by Owen Wolter)

Her heart pounds madly as her hands fidget. “Susan” checks her pulse without anyone noticing. It’s too fast. She can’t breathe and she feels faint– she grabs the edge of her desk. The writing on her exam is too blurry now and she can’t make it out. She checks the time– she has three pages of multiple-choice left. Her thoughts run ramped, all pointing to one thing: she needs to get out of here. She grabs her pencil and haphazardly fills in the bubbles, not bothering to read the questions. She submits it and quickly leaves the room. Calm down, she tells herself. It was just another panic attack.

Susan, who doesn’t wish to use her real name because her friends don’t know she has an anxiety disorder, is just one of many university students who suffer from this mental illness. Her anxiety started in 2007 from a fear of dying. It decreased when she left Canada for Dubai to try to control her anxiety. When the 19-year-old came back to Canada to study Nursing at the University of Windsor last year, her anxiety issues returned.

“I get so dizzy sometimes and blurred vision and I can’t walk– I feel so weak. I can’t breathe and I just don’t want to talk to anyone,” Susan says. “That’s how my panic attacks are.

“If I’m in class, I have to leave. I don’t care if the president is there – I have to leave.”  Susan also works as a waiter and said that she gets panic attacks while she’s serving.

The number of university students with anxiety disorders is rising due to increased stress and pressure.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in Canada. They affect over 12 per cent of Canadians, about 9 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women during a one-year period, says Statistics Canada.

Among Canadians aged 20-29, 5.8 per cent are affected. A study of about 63,700 college students found that five times as many young adults are dealing with high levels of anxiety compared to the late 1930s, said MSNBC in 2010.

Anxiety disorders are characterized by intense, prolonged periods of distress or fear. They are frequently accompanied by other symptoms such as depression, substance abuse, or physical problems. They are often treated with drug therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy or a combination of the two, says the Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario.

“The amount of pressure on students coming into university is high,” says Mohsan Beg, a clinical psychologist at the University of Windsor’s Student Counseling Centre.

“There’s the pressure to succeed, the competitiveness of people trying to get into competitive programs and onto professional schools,” says Beg. “They have the pressure of finances, as many students are working and some have families that they’re responsible for. There’s more stress in terms of getting jobs, managing jobs, school, relationships, and family. For many of them, this is their first time away from home.

“This is the age that they are developing their own identity: who am I, what do I believe in, what do I want to stand for, what do I want to be when I grow up?” says Beg.

“University in particular, there’s no hand holding now– you don’t go to class, no one’s going to call you up or wonder where you are and take attendance,” says Beg.  “You’re left to managing yourself. There’s definitely a transition period. Some students do well, some have difficulty.

“They also don’t always have the best coping strategies,” says Beg. “They aren’t sleeping enough, they’re not exercising enough, and their eating habits may not be the best. So those issues contribute to even when they are stressed out they don’t optimize some of the best coping strategies so they don’t develop some kind of mental health issue.

“The messages we receive today tell us we should be worrying about many things. For example: you need to worry about your health, weight, the air you breathe, and the water you drink,” says Beg. “For people who are already vulnerable to that, this can amplify their worry and anxiety.”

Zina Chaker, a third-year Psychology student at the University of Windsor, says, “These days, the individual has a lot more control over their life and that opens up a lot of doors to developing anxiety.

“As you go further in your university studies, you feel that there’s no security in whatever you’re doing, regardless of what you’re studying, and it makes you constantly worry,” says Chaker. “It separates you from having a sense of purpose and, for a lot of people, not having a purpose can affect them in a lot of different areas.

“If you’re working for something that your parents expect you to do or a career that you’re just in for the money, then the anxiety that you’ll get is more bitter and may lead to depression,” Chaker says.

“With technology, each person is living their own life and you’re more prone to developing your own thoughts without knowing if that is something that’s healthy or abnormal,” says Chaker.

Published on WindsoriteDOTcom on Thursday, November 29, 2012

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