Lack of sleep is a problem among many people, especially post-secondary students. While most people know the physical and emotional effects of sleep deprivation, many don’t realize its effects on mental health.
“Sleep has a huge affect on our mental health,” says Judi Wilson, the University of Windsor Health Promotion nurse in Student Health Services. “Students are prone to [lack of sleep] because their schedules can be off and they not only aren’t sleeping, they aren’t eating right, and there’s a lot of stress at school.”
According to the American National College Health Assessment survey in spring 2012, out of 90,000 students, less than 12% are getting enough sleep to feel rested in the morning. Over 50% of students feel tired, dragged out, or sleepy during the day for 3-7 days that week. Also, over 50% of students rate their overall stress level over the past year as more than average to tremendous stress.
University of Windsor student, Jay Rankin, explains, “I’m just so busy, between school and work, it’s really tough to find the time to sleep. And then when you finally do have the time to sleep, you’re too stressed to actually sleep. You’re too worried about actually getting much sleep or there’s too many things on your mind.”
Clinical Psychologist at the Student Counselling Centre, Dr. Mohsan Beg, says, “It can kind of feed off each other so if you’re really anxious and you’re not getting enough sleep, then you’re sleep deprived, so you’re going to get stressed more easily, get more anxious, and you’ll have even more problems sleeping, and it can become, yeah definitely, a vicious cycle.”
“I’m pretty much paranoid. I feel like the whole day is just gonna go wrong… I just have a really bad day,” says university student Amal Al-Jarousha about how she feels when she doesn’t sleep well.
Many students use caffeine to cope with their sleep deprivation, but caffeine can also trigger anxiety.
Dr. Beg explains, “I would consider [good sleep] a foundational pillar in terms of good mental health.”
This is part two of a two part series looking at Anxiety Disorders in University Students
Susan, who used to be “a health freak,” also started smoking cigarettes secretly two months ago. She smokes about one cigarette every three days and the hookah about once a week.
“I smoke cigarettes when I feel so stressed. That’s when I started. With the hookah, I think ‘well, we’re dying anyway.’ This is the way I started thinking,” says Susan.
Part of the reason she started smoking is to overcome her fear of dying, which causes her panic attacks. “I know it’s so stupid but I don’t want to be scared of anything,” says Susan.
“At the same time, I sometimes just want to leave and empty my mind,” Susan says. “The hookah makes me feel better but smoking cigarettes makes me feel disgusted.”
Research shows smoking cigarettes does not help a person relax– it does the opposite, increasing anxiety and tension. Nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation but this feeling is temporary and soon gives way to the withdrawal felt between cigarettes that increase anxiety, says the Mental Health Foundation.
BMC Medicine states that smoking and nicotine dependence increase the risk of panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
Research shows that those with a mental illness find it particularly difficult to stop smoking, but they have more reason to stop because smokers with mental illnesses are at an accelerated risk of diabetes, heart attacks, and stroke, says the website, Anxiety, Panic & Health.
Susan says that she does not know whether or not she will continue to smoke in the future.
“I’m scared that one day I can’t control myself,” Susan admits about her smoking.
“It happened so many times in 2007,” she talks about her panic attacks, “I felt like I was losing it big time. I thought I was dying.”
Tips for Dealing with Anxiety from Beg and Chaker
1. Self care is important. Don’t forget to schedule time for yourself, exercise, or visiting friends.
2. Sleep is huge. You should be getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night so you’re rested.
3. Manage your stress so you’re not taking on too much.
4. Caffeine and anxiety are not a good combination. Cut out your caffeine, if you can’t, reduce it significantly because it acts like a stimulant and increases your anxiety.
5. Seek help. Have a strong support group, even if it starts off as a friend and it moves on to seeking professional help later.
6. Figure out and pin-point where the anxiety is coming from. Try to avoid those situations or figure out a way that you’re able to face them.
7. Find hobbies that make you feel good about yourself. It will help you calm down.
Susan deals with her anxiety disorder in different ways.
“Sometimes if the weather is nice, I go for a walk,” says Susan. “I started excising. I know that it releases anxiety and it makes me feel good. Since I started working out, my anxiety reduced.”
“I keep up with my health, taking blood tests to ensure that there’s nothing wrong with me,” says Susan. “It’s all in my head.”
University students with anxiety disorders or suspect they have one can visit the Student Counseling Centre, where psychologists and other mental health professionals can help them.
Student Disability Services offers services for students who have anxiety disorders and need help in terms of academic accommodations.
“We offer them things that could ease their anxiety. We can give them extra time and a computer to write on so they are stress-free from spelling. We can also give them a calculator if they need one,” says Carleigh LaLonge from University of Windsor’s Student Disability Services.
“I think that knowing you have a mental health disorder should make you more confident in that you can still do things, and be even better then somebody else,” says Chaker. “So definitely don’t make it an excuse for yourself.
“You can morph your life into either using it against yourself or putting it as something that compels you even further.”
This is part one of a two part series looking at Anxiety Disorders in University Students
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.