Excessive stress can have serious health consequences

By David Larter

The typical Richmond student is working toward a double major and is involved in multiple extracurricular activities, but being overcommitted can lead to unhealthy amounts of stress that can have serious health consequences.

Neal Holly, a Richmond College area coordinator in the Residence Life office, said that students are stressed before they come to college, and that once at college they continue the patterns they learned in high school. "The students here worked hard in high school not just to get into college, but to get into €˜the right' college," he said. "They put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves, and that continues once they come here."

Grade inflation has become an epidemic among the top universities in the country, and Richmond's high academic standards add to the stress levels, Holly said. "Students come here who had a great GPA in high school," he said. "A student might have been valedictorian in high school, but they come here and get Cs. It can be very stressful."

Peter LeViness, the director of University of Richmond's Counseling and Psychological Services said that about 12 percent of the student population go to CAPS every year and about a third of the population will go to CAPS before they graduate. "A common pattern we see among the students that come through here is that they are taking on too much," he said. "A lot of the stress they have is self-imposed. It comes from perfectionism."

Though academic standards add to stress levels, many students say that the stress comes from assigned academic work. A survey conducted during the fall 2004 semester revealed
that 45 percent of Richmond students think the heavy academic workload caused "very high amounts of stress" for them.

"I think stress is a major issue on campus," said Richmond College sophomore Tyler Morris. "Occasionally I'll have so much to do that I know I'm just not going to have enough time to do it."

Stress comes at various times in the semester and comes in several different forms, students said. "I'm most stressed when there are a lot of papers due at the same time, especially at the beginning of the semester," said Rachaphum Panichsombat, a Richmond College freshman. "I can accept it during finals, but at the beginning of the semester it's really hard to deal with."

Westhampton College junior Emily Smith said: "I think that midterm week is the most stressful time. It's just as busy as finals but you know that you are still only halfway through."
Graduating senior Ashley O'Keefe said: "The times I think are most stressful are when I have life things to do as well as academics. If I have to run a lot of errands or if I have interviews, I start to feel really overwhelmed."

Richmond students experience a whole range of stressors, LeViness said. "When we see students, a lot of times they are dealing with more than one thing," he said. "They are overwhelmed by academics, they are overcommitted with activities and they are dealing with things at home. They are getting hits from all sides and they get overwhelmed."

Not all stress is bad. There are three levels of stress. Not enough stress leads to boredom. Eustress is when a person has enough stress to motivate and to drive toward completing
goals. But distress is when a person has too much stress, and this can lead to exhaustion and other serious medical conditions, according to LeViness.

Sarah Fisher, a nurse at the Richmond health center, said that many of the students that come into the health center were dealing with stress-related illnesses. "It's difficult to document these kinds of things," she said, "but stress seems to tie in with any number of health issues that we deal with on a regular basis at the health center." Headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and, in extreme cases, pulmonary problems can all be linked with stress, Fisher said.

Insomnia is a common reaction to stress among Richmond students, Fisher said. "A lot of students that come through here with stress-related issues are having difficulty sleeping."

Students often sacrifice sleep during stressful times to catch up with work, but that will only increase stress and lead to exhaustion, said Tracy Cassalia, who is a health educator with the recreation and wellness department at Richmond. "If you are not getting enough sleep, it actually reduces your effectiveness by 50 percent," she said. "And pulling all-nighters are about the worst thing you can do if you are stressed. It takes your body three to seven days to adjust to a new sleep schedule, so you will not feel 100 percent again during that time."

LeViness compared studying while sleep-deprived with studying after a night of drinking. "Nobody would ever think about studying after six or seven beers," he said. "But students will not hesitate to study on four to five hours of sleep. Studies have shown that it is about the same thing."

Long-term, unmanaged stress can lead to behavioral, psychological and medical consequences down the road, LeViness said.

"Students often handle stress by binge drinking on the weekends or form other bad habits," LeViness said.

In the short term, high amounts of stress trigger the same reactions in the body that are used in self-defense, LeViness said. Adrenaline is triggered in the system and released into the bloodstream, but if the adrenaline is not enough to handle the stress, cortisol is then released as a long-term stress-coping mechanism, he said.

"Adrenaline is like a match," he said. "It gets the fire going. Cortisol is like a furnace that keeps burning. The problem is that cortisol, when it is in the bloodstream for prolonged periods, can damage your body."

Cortisol can cause people to gain weight under stressful situations, he said. "Adrenaline releases the fuel," he said. "Cortisol increases hunger so that the fuels can be replenished. That's why people have a tendency to eat high-carb foods and sugars when they are stressed and they put on weight."

Cortisol in the blood can also affect the brain, he said "Your memory will not work as well," he said. "Recent animal studies have shown that cortisol could be linked with brain degradation. It can cause damage to the hippocampus."

It may also explain why so many people get sick during midterms and finals, he said. "Cortisol works away at your immune system and leaves you more susceptible to sicknesses like the cold and flu."

In the long-term, stress, combined with prolonged large amounts of cortisol in the blood, can have serious behavioral and mental consequences. People under stress are prone to heavy smoking, eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Psychologically, stress can lead to sexual dysfunction, anxiety disorders, burnout and depression.

There are also serious medical risks associated with prolonged stress. Stress can cause heart attacks because cortisol has negative effects on the cardiovascular system, LeViness said. Stroke is another possible consequence of unmanaged stress. High blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, tension headaches, ulcerative colitis, skin breakouts, and general aches and pains are all possible consequences of unmanaged stress, he said.

So what are some good ways of managing stress? Students said they had different ways of limiting stress in their lives. "I never work for more than two or three hours at a time, Panichsombat said. "I find other things to do. Going to D-hall and talking with friends are good ways I have of managing stress."

Richmond College freshman Matthew Plotzker said that he used several healthy methods of stress management. "I sleep, talk to my roommate, play videogames," he said. "Sometimes I go to the gym."

Graduating senior Ella Fratantuono said that sports helped her clear her mind and limited her stress. "Definitely athletics help me focus more," she said. "I play ultimate frisbee and that's really effective in relieving stress."

Exercise is one important way that experts say helps manage stress, Cassalia said. "Exercising releases endorphins into the blood," she said. "That is where the €˜natural high' that
people talk about comes from. Really, it relieves stress by getting your mind off of whatever it is that is stressing you out."

LeViness said that working out would not only relieve stress, but it would also increase energy. "Stress triggers the fight-or-flight reaction and all those fuels, the adrenaline and cortisol go into your body," he said. "The problem is that when you are under stress, especially in an academic environment, physical action is very rarely what is required. Exercise allows you to use and burn off all those extra fuels."

O'Keefe said that time management was an important part of relieving stress in her life. "I definitely try to schedule things as opposed to cramming them all in at the last minute," she said.

Experts agree that this is an excellent way to control the impact of high levels of stress. "The problem becomes that people, even if they schedule, will start to over schedule," Cassalia said. "People need to understand that when they make their schedule they need to schedule time for exercise or meditation, or whatever it is that they do to relax."

LeViness said that meditation could also aid in stress relief. "Things like meditation, visualization, deep breathing and muscle relaxation are all very helpful ways of managing stress," he said.

Holly said that students should be aware of the resources on campus. "Its important to realize that there are people here that you can talk to," he said. "The people that you see succeeding here, who are involved in multiple activities, are the ones who are constantly talking with people about their issues and getting help."

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One Response to Excessive stress can have serious health consequences

  1. I remember when I was in university (way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) that I learned a valuable lesson about balance.

    I had pulled an all nighter in my first semester to get my calculus and algebra assignments finished. Somehow, I managed to hand in both to my calculus class so that I didn’t have it when I got to algebra.

    After a bit of a panic and talking to my algebra prof, it all came into perspective. The weekly assignments worked out to 1% of the overall mark (and the worst assignment mark didn’t even count).

    Needless to say, learning that helped me to focus on what really mattered (and I don’t mean partying 8=)

    Ultimately, you go to college for the learning, so don’t sweat the marks too much although they are a good gauge of how well you’re doing the learning part.

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