It is difficult dealing with stress on college campuses. There are many expectations at college including those that are academic, social, or environmental. In addition, students may not have the support systems they had at home. College is fast paced with many tests, quizzes, projects and weekly assignments. You are expected to stay on top of your work and not miss classes. It also requires a lot of effort to keep up with your social life. It can be hard to carve out time for it in your busy schedule; you even have to constantly be texting and planning to have a daily meal with your friends. Sometimes no one is available for a while, because of their busy schedules and you have to spend a lot of time by yourself. Other times, your friends may be giving you a cold shoulder for no specific reason or expecting too much from you. In addition, there can be environmental stressors, such as crowds and noise. Everything can be easy to manage for a while, but when it gets to be too much it can be hard to slow down and catch your breath. During times around midterms or finals when the due dates are coming at you like a hailstorm or when dealing with struggles such as financial concerns, health concerns, or concerns about your family or friends, students may experience short periods of intense anxiety, which can last form a few days up to two weeks. However, for other students, the anxiety they experience is more chronic. This may be due to something going on in their lives or due to a mental health disorder and how they process things. In both scenarios, getting help managing this stress is important.
There is a lot of stigma around mental health issues. Sometimes, even with short term anxiety people may not understand what it feels like for a given individual, or know the importance of feeling like they can talk about it, and the necessity of having tools to mange it. Historically, people have had a very “do it yourself attitude” and have not wanted to give significance to issues such as one’s emotional state. They made it seem like once someone turned 18 that meant they automatically had to deal with their own problems and should not speak about them or get help. The number of people getting help for mental health issues has significantly gone up in the last decade. However, this does not mean the issues did not exist before, it just means there was not as many resources to get help. This made the people who experienced them even more marginalized and less able to be a happy, functional person in society than they are today.
It is a slow process for schools to get adequate resources for supporting mental health needs; but it is a movement that is growing as people become more aware and informed and as ambitious leaders in the community step out to take the first steps toward making resources accessible and available for populations that have been waiting for these resources for a long time. However, people can try to make resources available all they want; but there is an essential step in between the person and the resources existing on the same campus and the person being able to successfully find what the resources are and take advantage of them to help meet their needs.
I think because there can be so much stigma around seeking out help with mental health challenges, many people do not try to get help. Also, many people do not know where to turn to even look for resources or know that help is available. People who have been through traumatic situations have a lot of extra weight on them with trying to manage stress in life. Many situations can be triggering for them or it can be hard to get out of repeatedly feeling powerless once someone has spent a long time in situations where they felt like they had no control. I dealt with family trauma for many years as I tried to process what was going on with siblings experiencing mental illness. It can affect everyone in the house and many people in my family developed PTSD. But, I learned something during this time; I learned that I could go to high school counselors who could support me, I could use breathing techniques to calm my nervous system, I could identify the teachers who would inspire me and who I could strive to become better for, and I could keep moving forward. I also learned about things like weighted blankets, service animals, and essential oils that have a relaxing effect as I watched family members try to overcome their battles with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
By the time I got to college, I still had a lot to deal with, but because I knew how to access tools and resources, probably more than many other people, I was empowered and I was able to grow and succeed moving forward. Many people think that ‘getting help’ is an act of admitting that you are weak or not in control; I disagree. I think that using resources such as school counseling or attending mental health talks is a step that shows that someone is empowered and very strong. It shows that they can identify what they need and take initiative to get it. It shows they are taking responsibility over their life. Also, once people have learned how to get resources for themselves, they are also uniquely empowered to get resources and be understanding for others. What people need is to be able to believe that they can overcome the stressful situation they face and that they have tools and resources available to do so. Sometimes people think if they are just strong enough they will be able to manage everything on their own and try to deal with things in isolation, however, if people do not know the steps to take this will not help them. Its like trying to build a house without taking any classes in construction or architecture. It just does not make sense. We live in a community and we have the ability to act so we should take advantage of that.
I have been getting counseling at Framingham State University for a few years now, and I was happy to see that the counseling center recently held a talk to share tools for managing high stress levels. This talk was called “Calming the Storm” and was advertised through leaflets in the waiting room. I attended the second session of this event. In this talk two women from the counseling center presented a range of skills and tools for managing stress to a group of students.
The first tool was walking through the acronym STOP which went through the steps stop, take a breath, observe, and proceed mindfully. It focused on stepping back from stressful situations and doing something like talking to a friend to help you get perspective. Sometimes this could even be doing a relaxing activity or writing about the situation, because friends are not always available. This may seem simple but having the acronym to remind you in a stressful situation may be helpful.
The next acronym was TIPP. It talked about temperature control, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation as ways to manage stress. I learned that when someone is stressed and their heart is racing they can hold their breath and submerge their face in cold water and it would activate a response called the dive response. The dive response decreases your heart rate and can calm you down. I also learned that paired muscle relaxation includes tensing up muscles that may be feeling tense already and then relaxing them to trick them into being more relaxed than they were in the first place. Its kind of like how with a Chinese finger trap you have to push in to get your fingers out, you can trick your body by using the opposite response of what is expected. I would not have learned how to use these tools if I had been following the ‘suck it up and deal with it’ and ‘don’t talk about your problems’ approach. Choosing not to talk about things does not give you effective tools for managing them. Many tools can olny be discovered through research and talking to people.
Furthermore, I learned about self-soothing with the five senses. We learned about using vision to look at the night starts and the benefits of arranging your room in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. We learned about using hearing to listen to soothing or invigorating music to boost energy or calm oneself and about listening to sounds in nature for relaxation. We learned about using the sense of smell to smell nice soaps or perfumes, using taste to eat tasty foods we love or drink tea, and using touch to curl up in a blanket or feel the water in the shower against our skin.
Lastly, we learned about radical acceptance, which is just accepting yourself the way you are, flaws and all. If people have an anxiety reaction they may judge themselves for the reaction and their harsh judgement of themselves may actually perpetuate the reaction, causing a continuous negative cycle. Radical acceptance is about learning how to accept yourself just the way you are. It prevents this negative cycle from happening. All of these are tools that I would not have learned about without seeking out resources around me.
Right now, the counseling center is mostly advertising these talks to people who already go to counseling as they branch out and try to find new ways of helping people. However, they plan to meet to reassess what people got out of it and the best ways to continue to have these talks in the future. In the past, they have had a few different group therapy sessions for various topics. However, it is hard for them to have group therapy overall since people are very busy and have conflicting schedules and this is still a fairly small campus with a small student population. This is why they decided to do the individual talks or sometimes two talks that were connected. Its hard for a school to be trauma sensitive as much of the general population is still figuring out what it means to have PTSD and not be soldier who got it from a combat experience. Even among friends and family, I have seen that many times when people have PTSD the first counselor they see does not know how support them and recommends them to someone else. This reflects how little knowledge there currently is, even among counselors for how to be trauma sensitive, but it is great to see that even if there are always areas that schools need to improve their trauma sensitivity, our school is taking steps to teach people skills for managing high stress that often accompanies trauma, anxiety, or just college life in general.
The only way people can learn skills and work through things is by finding the tools and skills they need to do so. This can be done by taking advantage of the resources around you. People can ask at the counseling center what resources are available and that will help them get started. Its similar to talking to a teacher or a special education director to help figure out struggles you are having in class. People should take advantage of the resources in their environment and try to improve their lives if that is what they want. Also, if someone lets the stigma dictate whether they get help, they are increasing that stigma. Instead, people should listen to their friends or family or even an acquaintance when they try to share their struggles. They should get resources on campus if they feel they need some assistance. We are part of a community which provides resources for getting help. I have been told that it seems like I should not be able to make it in college given my life experiences, but its all about finding the resources you need and working through experiences and coming out stronger in the end. Community is about being there for each other. Let us not forget that and not be afraid of taking advantage of the resources it provides.