By Hadley Butler—
With the end of the spring semester approaching, final projects coming due and finals week on the horizon, Tarleton State University students are gearing up to cross the finish line.
As the end of the semester approaches, college students’ stress and anxiety levels typically rise. According to the American Psychological Association, 41.6% of college students are facing anxiety, while an average of 24.5% are taking psychotropic medications.
Shanna Moody, the assistant director for campus recreation, and Dr. Julie Merriman, associate dean for health sciences and human services and associate professor in the department of counseling, gave some helpful information to provide students with resources for handling stress without the use of psychotropic medication.
When handling stress and anxiety, “fitness and mental health go hand-in-hand,” said Merriman, owner of Dragonfly Therapy Services Institute. “What counseling can do is teach specific coping mechanisms so one can de-stress.”
Merriman said the campus counseling center provides biofeedback, meditation and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy), which are “all great stress reduction coping mechanisms.”
“There is stress we can control, and there’s stress we can’t control,” Merriman said. “I have found it helpful with my patients over the years to sit down and write on a piece of paper ‘what the stress is’, ‘what I can control’ in one column and ‘what I can’t control’ in the other column. This really brings them back to the here and now.”
This time of year, catastrophic thinking, the ruminating about irrational worst-case outcomes, stress and anxiety are all going to take a negative toll on students across the nation. Merriman said in order to keep taking steps forward, students need to stay on top of their feelings.
Reframing thoughts from worrying about a test will counteract negative hormones being dumped into your system, she explained. The Polyvagal system, also known as the Polyvagal theory, is the theory describing the nervous system’s response to stress or danger. This theory describes how individuals assess stress or danger based on cues in the environment.
“The more we can keep our Polyvagal system in balance, by meditating, by taking a deep breath, by grounding ourselves, and by seeing our therapist weekly even if we don’t have anything we’re worried about, that helps us handle stress,” said Merriman.
Merriman continued to highlight the importance of being in the present moment as stress and anxiety are being faced by college students here at Tarleton.
“The more present you can be in the here and now it’s impossible to worry,” said Merriman. “Worry happens when we’re thinking about 10 miles in the future, or 10 miles in the past. But, when we’re focused on the here and now, it doesn’t occur.”
Switching gears to the health and fitness aspect of mental health, Moody discussed how fitness can play a role in reducing stress levels.
“We are seeing such a rise in the reports of anxiety, stress and depression especially among our college students,” she said. “It’s a problem nationwide, and I just think that we could combat that with holistic treatments to reduce the overcrowding that is happening at our counseling center if we could get more people active and involved in our recreation center.”
Many students on campus are facing gym intimidation due to the size, crowd and noise of the recreation center. “Probably one of our biggest barriers,” Moody said, is attracting people who aren’t always comfortable in the gym, aren’t familiar with it or don’t know exactly what to do.
When discussing the best types of exercises for reducing stress and anxiety in students, the first response was yoga, due to the mindfulness behind the activity. However, Moody said that she has found that “really you can get that same feeling from any physical activity. It’s really more where you feel comfortable.”
For students facing stress and anxiety, focusing on staying disconnected, walking on the treadmill for a few minutes, turning [off] your notifications from your cell phone, staying off social media, grounding yourself outside in nature, getting out in the sunshine and sitting and breathing with your eyes closed for a few minutes creates space in your mind, in your body and in yourself to allow more positive mindfulness in.
“There are so many opportunities,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be one thing. Fitness and health don’t have to be just working out in the gym.”
Moody highlighted the overall success of health and fitness.
“Research proves that students who participate in regular physical activity have higher GPAs, they’re more likely to stay enrolled in their college, more likely to graduate and more likely to get hired on at a job,” she said.
Both Merriman and Moody voiced the importance of using resources readily available on campus to reduce stress and anxiety levels instead of handling stress with psychotropic medication as finals quickly approach.
“Exercise is so different than medicine, but exercise is medicine. Find a niche and you’ll find your breakthrough,” said Moody.
Merriman added, “I look at mental health as body, mind and soul. We have to nurture our body, mind and soul in order to be the most mentally fit we can be. Medication might be a piece of that, but it cannot be the only thing.”
For more information about campus resources for handling stress and anxiety, give the department of counseling a call at 254-968-1687, or the campus recreation center at 254-968-9912.