College can be stressful. For any student reading this, that statement probably seems obvious. Of course we are stressed when we have projects due and exams to study for while we also try to ensure we are making the most of our four years at the University of Michigan. But why are we stressing more than older generations did when they were in college? Mental health disorders in adolescents and young adults have significantly increased within the last 10 years.
For the current generation of college students, stress seems inevitable. We are sent into college with a weight on our backs to come out knowing what we want to do for the rest of our lives. In reality, only 27 percent of college grads work in a job that is directly related to their major. I am a junior and have already changed my career path at least five times, and I can only imagine how many more times I will change my mind over the course of my life. All the extra stress that accompanies worrying about the future isn’t worth it. Small amounts of stress may motivate you to complete daily challenges and reach goals, but when stress builds up it can affect your mental and physical health. Common symptoms of stress include headache, muscle tension, fatigue, irritability, stomach upset, sleep problems, etc.
A simple way to view stress is with the following analogy. Imagine there is a volcano in the middle of a remote island. Villages surround all sides of the volcano and it is a central part of the island’s landscape. Each village on the island performs different tasks. For example, one village grows fruits and vegetables to maintain nutrition on the island, another village constructs comfy beds out of the palm leaves to ensure that the islanders sleep well and a third village plans parties for all the islanders to attend. You are the volcano, and stress is the lava inside. If you don’t take care of stressors as they come up, they can boil up inside of you just like a volcano, until finally it erupts and lava spreads throughout the villages like stress spreading to all the parts of your life — from appetite to sleep to social interactions.
How do we take care of stress once we identify that it is affecting our lives? This looks different for everyone and it is important to find what ways work best for you. Stress relievers can include working out, meditation, laughing with friends or, my personal favorite, playing with a pet.
Most of us don’t have our pets at school with us, but all of us actually do have access to this stress reliever. Every Wednesday there is a wellness dog at University Health Services that students can visit. Multiple studies have explored the relationship between human animal interaction and stress levels. One study found a significant increase in plasma oxytocin levels after human-animal interaction. Oxytocin expresses anti-stress effects by decreasing stress hormones and reducing stress-related parameters such as heart rate and blood pressure.
Another stress reliever we have access to is exercise. There are three gyms on campus that have a variety of equipment and fitness classes available to students. If you are not a fan of the gym, there are also sports clubs on campus and recreational sports teams that you can join. Working out can reduce stress by decreasing adrenaline and cortisol. In addition to reducing these stress hormones, working out increases endorphins which can elevate one’s mood.
Counseling and Psychological Services at the University offers apps for guided meditation, along with other emotional and mental health well-being apps. CAPS also provides “Wellness Zones” that have massage chairs and sun lamps for students to use. The Wellness Zone on central campus is expected to open in the Union after Spring Break.
Sometimes it would be nice to drop everything and travel to that remote island with the volcano, but realistically, we have to meet ourselves where we are. Since our generation already suffers from increased mental health disorders, implementing a plan to reduce stress may be more crucial for our health than we ever thought.
Emily Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.