Escaping the rat race: What I learned from anxiety and stress

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. This post is by Jannis Kreienkamp.


 

It is Monday morning 8 a.m., the first day of my well-deserved summer holiday. Instead of sleeping in and waking up to the brisk smell of fresh croissants and coffee, however, I find myself in a small and packed waiting-room. I notice that while about half of the patients have left their 50s behind them, the other half is around my age. We are in our mid-twenties, and not exactly the group I expected to find at a cardiologist’s office.

“The event that led to this marathon of doctor visits was my first year of university.”

While the doctor examines my heart with a high-tech ultrasound unit, I learn that “all the people your age, waiting out there” have the same symptoms as I do (what a consequentialist’s perspective on confidentiality). I later leave the office with the knowledge that my heart is strong and healthy, but my way of dealing with stress might need some treatment. I will spend the next couple of days meeting different doctors who tell me similar messages.

The event that led to this marathon of doctor visits was my first year of university. Physical and psychological stress were causing my body and mind to collapse. For me this stress climaxed in a series of full-blown panic attacks that made me doubt my capabilities. There are two things about stress and anxiety I find most unsettling. Firstly, anxiety seems to be a major keep-dead-quiet topic. And secondly, the stress that leads to the anxiety is a problem for which many preventative measures are available.

“I was surprised to learn how many fellow students are in treatment or taking medication for anxiety.”

The 2011 American College Health Association survey found that among more than 79,000 students surveyed, stress (30%) and anxiety (22%) were the factors most strongly influencing academic performance. Moreover, among 340,000 students surveyed between 2012 and 2013, 46% sought help for their anxiety. This makes anxiety the leading cause for students to take the step to talk to a counselor, even surpassing depression (39%).

My “I-won’t-hide-it” attitude led me to hear countless stories similar to mine. I was surprised to learn how many fellow students are in treatment or taking medication for anxiety. Although part of this perceived omnipresence might be my confirmation bias , I feel that anxiety is still a topic kept under wraps. In the tradition of social critics I will only complain about this here and not offer any feasible solution. Nevertheless, it might be time for a more public debate about the causes and consequences of anxiety among students.

“Two habits that help me reduce stress in my everyday student life are sport and meditation.”

Besides trying to hide anxiety as a vulnerability, I think that the stress that oftentimes leads to the anxiety is not set in stone. I encourage anyone who experiences mental health problems to reach out for professional help. For example, the University of Groningen offers psychological counseling. However, I believe that there are many other, and perhaps more easy and attainable, changes that can reduce stress to prevent negative consequences. Two habits that help me reduce stress in my everyday student life, which are actually based on scientific evidence, are sport and meditation.

Sport has the positive effect of decreasing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and increasing levels of mood-enhancing hormones such as endorphins . Sport has a buffering effect on mental health and above all helps me clear my head after a long and stressful day (for other awesome effects see this link ). However, I also try to keep in mind that sports are something to enjoy, share, and have fun with, rather than a tool to reduce stress.

“stress and anxiety are two intrinsically linked topics that have enormous consequences for our lives as students, and thus for society at large”

For me meditation is also a stress reducer. I feel we are active and restless for the most of our days and there is little time to focus on ourselves. Meditation can be an island in this fast-moving and all-consuming life-style. We now know a lot about how meditation works and we learn about new benefits of meditation-practices every day, including how it can help reduce stress and anxiety. It has surprised me how much calmness and appreciation I have found in meditation. Experiencing the transience of sensations and emotions and acknowledging the moment, to me is of equal value as to say that meditation modifies cognitive and affective processes. Unlike what most people think, mediation does not have to be time-consuming. It comes in many forms and shapes. Even a two-minute stop from the hectic rat race to look inside helps me deal better with the fast pace with which life seems to pull us forward.

In sum, I believe that stress and anxiety are two intrinsically linked topics that have enormous consequences for our lives as students, and thus for society at large. It is unfortunate that the topic remains partially outside of the public debate and that many of the available preventative measures are not well communicated. Our understanding of how stress and anxiety might be prevented could also be broadened by considering our sleep-wake rhythm, diet, and social support.

References:

American College Health Association (2014). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2014. Hanover, MD, US: American College Health Association. Retrieved from: http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/ACHA-NCHA-II_ReferenceGroup_ExecutiveSummary_Spring2014.pdf

American Psychological Association (2014). America in Stress – Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits? Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/stress-report.pdf

Benefits of exercise – reduces stress, anxiety, and helps fight depression (2011). Harvard Health Publications Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/benefits-of-exercisereduces-stress-anxiety-and-helps-fight-depression

Carroll, R. T. (2014). Confirmation Bias. In: The Sceptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved from: http://skepdic.com/confirmbias.html

Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98(2), 310-357.

Cooper, B. B. (2013, August 13th). The Power of Mediation and How It Affects Our Brains. Buffer Social. Retrieved from: https://blog.bufferapp.com/how-meditation-affects-your-brain

Corliss, J. (2014, January 8th). Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967

Davis, D. M. & Hayes, J. A. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness. Monitor on Psychology, 43(7), 64.

Gladding, R. (2013, May 22nd). This Is Your Brain on Meditation. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation

Gonzalez, M. J., & Miranda-Massari, J. R. (2014). Diet and stress. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 37(4), 579–89.

Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, Berger Z, Sleicher D, Maron DD, Shihab HM, Ranasinghe PD, Linn S, Saha S, Bass EB, & Haythornthwaite JA. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 124. (Prepared by Johns Hopkins University Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2007-10061–I.) AHRQ Publication No. 13(14)-EHC116-EF. Rockville, MD, US: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Retrieved from: www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/reports/final.cfm

Holmes, L. & Scheller, A. (2014, October 21st). This Is What A Panic Attack Physically Feels Like. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/21/panic-attack-feeling_n_5977998.html

Kravitz, L. (2007, October 1st). The 25 Most Significant Health Benefits of Physical Activity & Exercise. IDEA Fitness Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/benefits-of-exercise

Ramel, W., Goldin, P. R., Carmona, P. E., & McQuaid, J. R. (2004). The effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive processes and affect in patients with past depression. Cognitive Therapy And Research, 28(4), 433-455.

Reetz, D., Barr, V., & Krylowicz, B. (2013). The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors Annual Survey. Retrieved from: http://files.cmcglobal.com/AUCCCD_Monograph_Public_2013.pdf

Schwarz, L., & Kindermann, W. (1992). Changes in beta-endorphin levels in response to aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Sports Medicine, 13(1), 25–36.

Weir, K. (2011). The Exercise Effect. Monitor on Psychology, 42(11), 48.

Image note:

Dynamist of a Cyclist (1913) by Umberto Boccioni, picture downloaded from Wikimedia Commons; because of its age it is public domain.

After completing a voluntary service with United Nations refugees and working in human resources, Jannis started the Bachelor of Psychology program at the University of Groningen in 2013. His present research at the Heymans Institute is concerned with self-conscious emotions. Jannis is also interested in the fields of motivation and group dynamics.


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