Weekly Checkup: Stressing out

Stressed college students are like ducks in a pond, drifting along the water as they thrash beneath the surface.

At least that’s how Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky puts it. Sapolsky, whose new PBS special “Killer Stress” premiered last Tuesday at the National Geographic Society, has spent much of his life studying the biological effects of stress on sub-Saharan baboon troops.

During his studies, Sapolsky also kept an eye on another unique specimen, the college student. He said students appear to glide through their four years of college, when in reality they are struggling to stay afloat.

But Amir Afkhami, an assistant professor of public health, said Sapolsky “must have a West Coast view of things.”

Afkhami, who has served as an adviser to the U.S. Department of State and the World Bank on public and mental health issues, said GW students are highly functioning and capable individuals, but they frequently ignore the pressure that accompanies their many pursuits. This allows stress to accumulate until it eventually boils over with dangerous consequences that include a weakened immune system and altered sleep cycle.

Susan Haney, associate director of Student Health Services, said that around exam time students come to her office complaining of headaches, insomnia and stomach illnesses, which can often be traced to increased stress. Some of these students change their lifestyles to alleviate stress, others speak with counselors and the rest may require medication, she said.

Afkhami is well-known in his field for advocating yoga and other mindfulness practices to reduce the effects of stress. These techniques calm students by focusing them on their present lives, rather than the past or future, he said.

The University Counseling Center designed the new “Mindful Meditation Program” to employ some strategies Afkami promotes. The program, which will be held in the Health and Wellness Center, starts next week and is free for the month of October.

But Afkhami also said most stress is actually positive. In modest doses, stress can act as a motivator to keep students functioning optimally, he said.

“Stress is like the air in a soccer ball,” he said. “You need some air to get the ball rolling, but too much air will cause the ball to explode.”

Dr. John Dages, the Counseling Center’s interim director, said stress on college campuses is a serious issue.

“There was a 54 percent increase during the first three weeks of the current academic year in scheduled initial appointments (for counseling) compared to the same time period in Sept. 2007,” Dages said.

Though some of this surge in appointments may be attributed to increased outreach by the Counseling Center, Dages said there is more to it than that. GW students are under pressure to get internships and succeed in their future professions, leading them to experience perceived failure early on in their college careers, he said.

In order to help students cope with stress, the Counseling Center offers a wide range of programs including mental health podcasts on their Web site and screenings around campus throughout the year.

But the most effective weapon for combating stress is time management, experts said. Instead of clamoring to take part in every activity available, students should prioritize.

Haney said the next time students find themselves stressing, they should take a step back and relax.

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