When to Stress About Stress

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Your head throbs and your palms sweat as you gaze longingly at the dregs of your third cup of coffee. The study guide for your upcoming midterm lays open in front of you while you push yourself to stay awake and study for one more hour. You’ve been at it for days, but you just can’t silence the persistent worry that you might bomb this test. Normal college stress, right? Maybe, but if this scenario sounds more familiar than not, stress might not be the sole source of your problems.

Anxiety disorder may cause every week to feel like midterm week, but you don’t have to suffer in silence. Find out whether pre-exam jitters bring on your sweaty palms or if you should start seeking professional help.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 18 percent of adults in the United States suffer from some form of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. But what exactly does anxiety entail? The Mayo Clinic defined generalized anxiety disorder (or GAD) as “excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that interfere with day-to-day activities.” This may cause people to approach everyday situations with a disproportionate amount of worry.

So no, the sense of dread that comes over you when you face your history test doesn’t necessarily connote an anxiety disorder. However, if you notice that same feeling while completing other, low-stakes tasks, you might be suffering from more than just normal college stress.

Karen Cassiday, PhD., offers professional insight into the world of mental health. As the ADAA President, Clinical Director and Owner of The Anxiety Treatment Center, Clinical Assistant Professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences and Clinical Director for Rogers Behavioral Health Chicago, she knows a thing or two about anxiety. Cassiday wants college students to understand that stress isn’t always a bad thing.

In fact, she defined stress and said “[It can be] anything that requires adaptation.” We need stress, both positive and negative. Cassiday said, “You can’t live a stress-free life. Life, by nature, is supposed to be stressful, and that helps us stay mentally and physically healthy. It’s normal and helps us grow.” Of course, anything in excess can put one’s health in danger, stress included, but we need to recognize that we shouldn’t always be afraid of stress.

So how can you differentiate anxiety from run of the mill stress? First, you can examine the cause of your worry. If you can pinpoint a stressor and the worry it causes qualifies as legitimate, then you’re probably just stressed. The thought of writing your upcoming English paper might make you want to pull your hair out, but doesn’t mean you have anxiety. However, Dr. Cassiday warned that if you feel your motivation start to wane, notice a chronic sense of worry, think that  nothing you do ever feels “good enough” or start to withdraw from activities because you don’t feel like you can handle them anymore, it might be time to talk to a medical professional.

The Clinical Director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center and member of the ADAA Public Education Committee, Dr. Debra Kissen, PhD, MHSA also shared her expertise on this subject. “We all have moments when we’re going to be stressed in life, but if you’re in a chronic state a stress that’s uncomfortable and impacts your functionality, you could benefit from extra help,” explained Kissen. Dr. Kissen also wanted readers to feel comfortable seeking counseling at any time. “One doesn’t have to wait until they’re fully meeting every criteria of an anxiety disorder. Even if it’s preventative, that’s ok too. The earlier you catch [anxiety disorder], the better off you’ll be.”

But everyone gets stressed about school, right? You could easily write off the symptoms of anxiety as the annoying harmless stress that comes with the territory of being a student. Especially in recent years, talking about how overwhelmed you are has become fashionable. Think about how often you hear phrases like this as you walk around campus:

“Sleep is for the weak. I’m running on three hours right now.”

“I have six classes back-to-back; I don’t even have time to eat!”

“I’m so busy, I didn’t leave my room all weekend.”

Negative stress has grown into something to brag about rather than overcome; it’s the new chic topic to discuss with friends at brunch, so people suffering from genuine anxiety may have difficulty realizing that what they experience does not qualify as normal stress. Dr. Cassiday said, “Failure to keep a good sleep cycle or the feeling that your sleep isn’t restful or restorative is one of the warning signs of an anxiety disorder.” If your stress makes even sleep seem impossible, well, it’s probably more than stress.

Anxiety can make life difficult, but that doesn’t mean that you should let the symptoms consume you. Think you might be suffering from GAD or a related anxiety disorder? Contact your campus counseling service or read up on more information from the ADAA website.

You can enjoy college and all it has to offer even with a mental illness. And if you realized that you’re just a little stressed, that’s ok too. Midterms will be over soon. As Dr. Kissen said, “There’s no reason to feel hopeless.”

Kate is a junior at Luther College who is majoring in English with minors in education and linguistics. She is a fan of Rod Serling, Van Halen, and rescue dogs, and thinks wordplay is really punny.

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