Anxiety in College: Understanding, Unpacking, and Treating The Disorder

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It’s no secret that anxiety is a widespread disorder plaguing many Americans today. In fact, anxiety disorders are considered the most common mental health issue in the country, affecting about 40 million adults, which means 1 in 5 Americans struggle with anxiety today. 

With anxiety running rampant in so many minds, it’s no wonder that college students are particularly prone to feeling a general sense of worry and discomfort as they try to navigate one of the most stressful times in their lives. Still, anxiety is even more prevalent in college students than many realize, but it’s also quite treatable with the proper resources.

How Many College Students Suffer from Anxiety?

Given that 1 in 5 American adults suffer from anxiety, a person might logically assume that about the same proportion of college students suffer from the disorder as well. This is not the case, though. 

In 2017, around 18 million students were enrolled in college. Of those 18 million students, 3 in 4 reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” at some point, and nearly 30% said they had felt that sense of overwhelming anxiety very recently. 

These statistics speak to a fact that any college student already knows: higher education is stressful, and that stress often manifests in the form of anxiety. It’s important to understand that there are many different shades of anxiety, ranging from the feeling of anxiousness before an exam to an all-encompassing panic disorder; sometimes lesser forms of anxiety can progress into more serious disorders if left to their own devices.

Given the range of anxiety disorders that exist, there is a similarly wide range of symptoms that can be linked to different disorders under this umbrella. Still, these symptoms are associated with all types of anxiety:

  • Muscle aches and headaches
  • Trembling, sweating, tension, and worry
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • General restlessness and irritability

A cursory glance at this list is all it takes to see, that symptoms like trouble concentrating, restlessness, and persistent worry could spell disaster for the success of a college student. 

It’s not uncommon to feel this way for short periods of time, but if these symptoms persist regularly, the disorder may have crossed the line from ordinary college stress to treatable anxiety.

Why Is Anxiety So Common Among College Students?

Simply put, college is hard. Precisely how challenging the coursework feels depends on the individual student, but the difficulty of a class appears to directly correlate with the amount of stress a student feels while taking it. 

A 2019 study found that the more difficult a student found a class (for a number of reasons), the more anxiety they were likely to report during their semester in that class. There were a number of factors that appeared to affect how difficult a given student found their class (like gender and major of study), but the more important focus is the relationship between perceived difficulty and performance.

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As one might expect, the more anxiety a student experienced while taking the class, the lower their overall grade would be at the end of the semester. 

This speaks to an entirely understandable source of college student anxiety: students feel immense pressure to perform well in their classes, so when they find themselves especially challenged, they respond with heightened anxiety. This anxiety, in turn, makes it difficult to perform well in any class.

Does Anxiety Lead to Other Mental Health Disorders?

Perhaps the most unfortunate fact about experiencing anxiety in college is the fact that it can often lead to something that the Mayo Clinic terms “college depression.” This issue is simply characterized as a depression brought on by the college experience. 

Depression in college can be brought on by a number of outside factors, like poor sleeping and diet habits since many students are experiencing total independence for the first time in their lives. 

Unsurprisingly, college depression also often occurs when students feel overwhelmed. Students experiencing anxiety are quite likely to feel overwhelmed considering their anxiety may cause their performance in classes to fall. 

Moreover, many anxiety symptoms also double as symptoms of depression, like irritability, difficulty with sleep, and bodily discomfort. In a sense, these disorders are like a vicious cycle: difficult classes lead to anxiety, anxiety leads to poorer performance, low grades lead to feeling overwhelmed and disheartened, feeling overwhelmed leads to depression.

Should Anxiety Be Treated with Medication?

There are many situations in which prescription medication is vitally important to treating a college student’s anxiety. Of course, there is the risk of eventual dependency on this medication, but that risk pales in comparison to the potential fallout of self-medicating. 

When a college student finds themselves in the throes of a mental health disorder, they may turn to drugs and alcohol to soothe the pain they’re feeling, which often leads to addiction. Of course, these methods fail to affect any real, positive change. Self-medication also makes it difficult for a clinician to determine whether the addiction or the disorder came first, but treatment can help.

Unproductive as it may be, self-medicating is so common among college students that their families may fail to notice anything out of the ordinary until addiction has already taken hold. 

Instead of resorting to these methods, college students should contact mental health professionals to get the help they need. Each manifestation of anxiety is different, so combinations of therapy, prescription medication, and lifestyle changes may be utilized by clinicians.

Though the precise method of treatment varies, the simple act of talking through their stressors in a therapeutic setting can prove transformative for college students, as it can for anyone experiencing anxiety. 

College is universally stressful, but it doesn’t have to be a recipe for life-changing anxiety disorders; contact Mission Harbor Behavioral Health for help treating anxiety before it spirals out of control. 

The facilities at Mission Harbor are staffed with trained experts to best assist patients with their mental health issues. We are capable of dealing with any and all cases with a licensed staff, equipment, and approved techniques. Our mission is to help those who want to help themselves, and we support your decision in seeking help.

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