By Sam Prue
Aaron Percey, ’18, sits idly in Spanish class as close to the classroom door as possible. Spanish pours from his professor’s mouth, but the sentences bounce off his brain, and he doesn’t understand a word. His stomach churns as a sense of panic starts to invade his body, overwhelming his senses as shallow, raspy breaths escape his mouth. All of a sudden, he can’t feel his chest expanding, a buzzing hum engulfs his hearing and he stares straight ahead without focusing on anything. Aaron recognizes the symptoms; he’s having a panic attack.
Panic attacks are a common symptom of anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting roughly 40 million adults. Percey was diagnosed at age 11 and struggled with both anxiety and depression throughout middle school. While anxiety and depression are widespread conditions that affect many individuals, their burden weighs especially heavy on the backs of today’s college students. A survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 73 percent of respondents had experienced a mental health crisis while attending college.
With the pressure to be perfect in order to “make-it” in today’s ever-changing job market, it seems that students are facing significant burdens that can impact their mental health. When more emphasis is placed on physical well being, many students forget that mental health is also an important piece of the wellness puzzle.
Anxiety, defined by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as the anticipation of a future threat, can often be accompanied by increased muscle tension and vigilance in preparation for that threat.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines depression as severe symptoms that interfere with your ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy life. Each year, just under 7 percent of U.S. adults experience a major depressive disorder, and women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime.
For students who struggle with anxiety and depression, creating a support system is key when trying to combat anxiety and depression. This support network can include family, friends, or a personal counselor, but it can also be a collection of strategies such as breathing techniques, self-care skills, and staying organized. Here are a few strategies that can help you build your support network:
Get support from a personal counselor
Having a personal counselor for support is an important step in treating anxiety and depression symptoms. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive in 2013 on U.S. adults found that 68 percent of respondents cited seeing a mental health professional as a very effective technique for coping with stress. “There are a lot of resources on campus that folks can tie into,” said Ryan Stanton, a personal counselor at St. Michael’s College’s Bergeron Wellness Center. “Counseling can be really effective for both anxiety and depression.”
Sarah Klionsky, an expressive arts therapist and personal counselor at the Wellness Center, said students often feel a weight lifted from their shoulders when they decide to speak with a therapist or counselor. Personal counseling resources across campus are meant to help students with many issues, and are an important strategy to consider for feeling balanced. On the St. Michael’s campus, students can see personal counselors as many times as they need, and are also encouraged to see them during their walk-in hours, which require no appointment.
Pencil in time to breathe and relax
Many college students often forget the importance of taking time for themselves during busy weeks packed with homework, classes, and other responsibilities. “It can be really important to be active about using your self care skills, like making sure you get enough sleep, eating well, getting some exercise, and being connected to your community,” Stanton said. During stressful weeks, try to pencil in time for sleep, exercise, and meals within your schedule and stick to these times.
Practice breathing techniques
“For me, a panic attack is when it feels like you’re internally screaming and you can’t stop,” said Percey. Percey often feels the crippling effects of panic attacks when he’s in a large crowd, which drastically limits his ability to live a normal life.
Being mindful of your breathing is an effective technique to try when you feel the initial symptoms of a panic attack. “For me it’s visualizing my breath,” said Alice Chapman*, ’17at St. Michael’s. “Seeing my breath going in pink and coming out blue and going in purple. I always see it as colors, so I make this pretty rainbow and soothe myself that way.” With the help of a counselor, Chapman first employed this strategy in high school after experiencing a panic attack before taking the SAT test. “They are all soothing colors, blue and pink, purple and red, green and red, orange and black. They are always in the same pattern and in the same order. I always laugh in my head about orange and black and it’s very distracting. It also calms my heart rate down because I’m very slowly seeing the color go in and slowly seeing the color go out,” Chapman said.
Get some exercise
Exercise can be an extremely effective coping mechanism to relieve stress related to anxiety and depression. The previously mentioned survey found that 62
percent of respondents stated that exercise or taking a walk helped them cope with stress, and 73 percent said participating in a sport was also very effective. Percey found that going to the gym really helped him cope with his anxiety symptoms. “I went to the gym three days a week, exercised on the bike and watched anime at the same time.”
Make lists, and stay organized
The stress of classes and other commitments is a huge source of anxiety for many college students; so taking the time to organize your responsibilities can be a key stress reliever when you feel anxiety about your workload. “I make lists a lot and that’s how I let my anxiety out is through organization and crossing things off a list,” said Chapman, who also uses lists to remind herself herself what she is thankful for. “I’ll go to the chapel, I just sit there and I make lists of all the things I’m grateful for, all the things that are good in my life, all the positives, all the people that are good for me, and all the lights in my life.” Chapman said that she carries the lists with her at all times so that if she begins to feel the onset of a panic attack, she can pull them out and consult them.
“It doesn’t make it perfect but it makes it so that I deal with what I have in front of me.”
Escape into a book or a movie
For Percey, an avid lover of anime, a Japanese form of animation, different forms of media are great strategies for distraction when he feels the burden of anxiety or depression weighing heavily on his shoulders. “One of the reasons why I like anime is because it’s fictional,” Percey said. “It’s escaping the world I’m in right now, and after watching people flying around with angel wings, I almost feel like I can appreciate where I am more. It helps me pull myself out and put myself in.” Storytelling can be a helpful medium that allows people to exit reality, if only for a short while. However, if you aren’t a fan of anime, or even fictional storytelling, try a magazine, book, or podcast as a form of distraction to combat symptoms of anxiety.
Join a club or extracurricular
Staying connected with your community is an important part of fostering self care skills. Participating in extracurricular activities or joining a club can help build a wider support system that can help combat the symptoms of anxiety and depression. “There are plenty of extracurricular activities that help,” Percey said. “Sometimes I think it’s just because it gets my mind off of it, but it’s so much more than that.” Percey is an active member of Common Ground, the LGBT club on campus, and finds that the people he works with are like a family to him. “We are a support system, and we call each other a family. If you have a problem half the people are willing to listen and that’s really great.”
Anxiety and depression are difficult issues for many individuals, but they can be especially problematic for college students. Moving beyond these struggles can be hard, but finding the right support system and creating a toolbox of strategies can help you work towards a balance that can help keep those symptoms at bay.
Sitting in Spanish, Percey still feels his thoughts racing, as sweat pools on his brow. It’s almost his turn to speak in front of the class, and he rifles around in his bag, frantically searching for the one form of relief he knows will calm him down. Finally, at the bottom of his backpack he retrieves his stress ball. The professor calls his name and Percey slowly gets up from his chair, rolling the stress ball around in his fingers. He stands in front of the class; the ball feels soft and reassuring in his hands. The buzzing noise lessens, and the classroom slowly comes into focus. Finally, he opens his mouth and begins to speak.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the source