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The UCSD Guardian

The Student News Site of University of California - San Diego

The UCSD Guardian

The Student News Site of University of California - San Diego

The UCSD Guardian

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    Student’s Guide to Stress

    College can be a particularly difficult time for young people, causing stress and anxiety for many. Mental health specialists at UCSD want students to know that they are not alone.

    For many college students already haunted by the pressure to succeed and the consequences of failure, finals week will take a very real toll on mental health. According to a 2013 study by the American College Health Association, 51 percent of American college students felt “overwhelming anxiety” within the previous year.

    Fortunately, there are many resources on campus to help combat stress, chief among them being the College Mental Health Program, provided by the UCSD Health System. Nancy Swerdow Downs, a Professor of Psychiatry at UCSD, is Section Chief of the College Mental Health Program. She explained stress and anxiety to the UCSD Guardian in scientific terms.

    “Physiologic stress is our body’s response to fear-provoking or dangerous situations and the symptoms that accompany this response,” Downs told the UCSD Guardian. “Anxiety is a feeling of unease, apprehension or doom that occurs when no immediate danger is present. Anxiety is the same feeling as fear, but without a specific danger, therefore anxiety can be a free-floating or vague feeling.”

    Although stress is normally regarded as harmful, Downs notes that it also plays a very important role in the functioning of our body. Stress hormones such as glucocorticoids and prolactin cause our body to adapt in response to perceived threats, increasing blood flow to the brain and muscles and alerting the immune system to respond to potential injuries.

    “Central to the stress response is how our brain interprets the threatening stimuli,” Downs said. “There is an acronym, “NUTS,” which encapsulates this process of threat assessment. Situations that are novel, unpredictable, threaten our self/ego and/or diminish our sense of control activate our biological stress response.”

    Although a certain amount of stress is normal, college students can find themselves overwhelmed by their often heavy workloads and the impact they feel their current decisions have on the rest of their lives.

    Dr. Hickman, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness, spoke with the Guardian about the challenges facing current UCSD students, which are different from those that previous generations faced.

    “I think there’s a lot of uncertainty in that age group of college students because we are a society in transition,” Hickman said. “In the old days people went to college and were quick to find a job right after they graduated and moved into their own places, but now there is much more of a trend toward people having to take some time after they finish college to find a job; that’s stressful too because that’s not what parents and grandparents are used to seeing.”

    Young adults are particularly susceptible to stress due to their relative inexperience in dealing with it. However, Downs notes that college students’ youth and surroundings can be powerful aids to overcome it. For the most part, college is a very protected environment for students to live and study in, and universities provide multiple programs to treat students’ mental health. Also, as a benefit of their youth, college students’ have an advantage in adapting to new challenges.

    “We know that the connections to the frontal parts of the brain continue to form into early adulthood. These connections are responsible for complex cognitive tasks such as inhibition, attention and executive functioning,” Downs said. “Some researchers think that experiences in [transitional-age youth (ages 16-24)] such as emerging independence, college life, starting a career and new family/social relationships may be partly responsible for continuing the process of frontal lobe development.”

    In addition to social and economic changes, the rapid development of digital technology is one of the major factors that has quickened the pace of modern life, and as “digital natives,” today’s college students are deeply connected to it. As the Internet and smartphones are fairly recent inventions, scientists and professionals are only beginning to understand the larger effects they have on mental health. For Downs, this new technology has both positive and negative influences on students’ ability to manage stress.

    “On one hand, the Internet can be an excellent source of information and psychoeducation,” Downs said. “On the other hand, students may become addicted to certain video games or websites, and these addictions can carry many of the same harmful effects as addictions to substances, including reduced resilience to stress.”

    Hickman adds that modern technology can provide a means of practicing mindfulness, which is his unique approach to stress reduction, with other people.

    “The easier answer is to say that social media has made things more stressful because we’re constantly on social media capturing everything, that it’s just one more distraction,” Hickman said. “But it’s also just a part of how people connect with each other. I like to think that when people pause long enough to notice what their food looks like, or where they happen to be and they take a picture, or they comment on something somebody says, that it’s actually a way of practicing mindfulness.”

    Mindfulness, the guiding philosophy of Hickman’s center, has experienced a surge in popularity in the last four years. Hickman attributes this to an increase in scientific research affirming its benefits. First developed as a part of Buddhist meditation, the philosophy was brought to the attention of American researchers in the 1970s through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Inspired by Kabat-Zinn’s work, Hickman founded the Center for Mindfulness 15 years ago, after a career of treating chronically ill patients with more traditional therapeutic practices. He spoke extensively about how to practice mindfulness, which he considers a lifestyle as much as a form of therapy. Leaning back in his chair and sipping coffee, he couldn’t look more relaxed.

    “The idea of mindfulness is really to be in the present moment, because stress really doesn’t come from what’s happening right now, it comes from our minds going into the future and remembering things from the past,“ Hickman said. “That’s when we find ourselves not present and tend to have more stress.”

    To help people practice mindfulness in their daily lives, Hickman advises that, when overwhelmed by stress, people should ask themselves where their feet are. This forces people to focus on their immediate surroundings and nothing more — which is the key to mindfulness.

    Contrary to Hickman’s advice, a study by the UCSD department of psychology published in Sept. reported that mindfulness meditation may harm memory retention, making those who practice it susceptible to confuse real and imagined experiences.  Still, mindfulness meditation has many supporters, though students have many other forms of therapy to look into as well, such as those offered by the CMHP.

    Although both specialists advise students to seek help when needed, they note that students can make important lifestyle changes on their own to reduce stress. As a long-time scholar of psychiatry and counselor of individuals with mental health problems, Downs advises students to eat healthily and exercise, avoid addictive substances and practice meditation or mindfulness to manage stress and anxiety. She has faith that, despite the many challenges and stressors facing today’s youth, UCSD students are more than capable of overcoming their burdens.

    “It’s important to understand that stress is a natural part of life; you can learn from it and become a more resilient person,” Downs said. “Over the years, I have been impressed at the resilience and tenacity of our UCSD students as they learn to accept, understand and cope with various stressors in their lives.”

    The CMHP provides many psychiatric services to students, going beyond simply prescribing medications to treat mental conditions. According to Downs, the program prioritizes non-pharmacological treatments such as changes in diet, exercise, sleep and hygiene, as well ascognitive-behavioral therapy. On campus, students can find help at The Zone, a lounge located at Price Center Plaza and at Counseling and Psychiatric Services.

    Additional reporting by Sally Park.
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