In Sickness and In Stress

Apr 302012
Authors: Kate Wilson

Jenny wanted to take a long, relaxing walk one Sunday morning, but she couldn’t. She has irritable bowel syndrome, which requires her to stay close to a working restroom. Plus, she’s got asthma, which sometimes makes it difficult for her to breathe. But the root of Jenny’s health problems is psychological in nature. She suffers from stress – and it’s created physical reactions that have limited her activities since she was in fourth grade.

Stress can become a serious health burden, leading to heart disease, high blood pressure, mental health disorders, sleep disorders, digestive problems, obesity, skin conditions and menstrual problems for women, according to websites by Mayo Clinic and the Office on Women’s Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Like Jenny, people with high levels of stress can experience life-altering illness.

Studies as a stress factor

College students are an especially susceptible group to stress, and in a 2010 study, college freshman reported the lowest self-rated emotional health levels since 1985. “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,” conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA, also reported that 29.1 percent of the 201,818 freshmen surveyed felt overwhelmed. That’s up from 27.1 percent in 2009.

Lisa Lively, a post-doctoral fellow at Colorado State University Counseling Services who has a master’s degree in health psychology, said financial need is one reason for higher stress levels among the recent generation of students.

“I think that more students are working while in college,” she said during a phone interview. “They have a financial need to work, and trying to balance that with classes is really difficult.”

Susan MacQuiddy, director of Counseling Services at CSU, said in an email that 73.8 percent of students seeking counseling services at CSU indicated they were moderately or severely stressed. In a November 2011 survey conducted by the National College Health Association, 87.5 percent of CSU student participants reported that they felt overwhelmed by all they had to do at some time during the past 12 months, according to MacQuiddy.

Ashley Hamm, a 21-year-old senior at Colorado State University, said she thinks she would experience less stress if she weren’t holding down a job and taking classes full time.

“I have a job, which makes it harder to get homework done,” she said. “But I still have to pay bills, so I have to work.”

Information from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms Lively’s hypothesis. Although the percentage of full-time college students who are employed has decreased from 47 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2009, it’s higher than the 32 percent who worked in 1970.

Hamm said she believes it’s typical for college students to be stressed, and that students generally experience more stress than adults who aren’t in college.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be this stressed again after I graduate,” she said. “Right now the only thing that stresses me out is school.”

Anticipation and Antacid

Jenny, who asked us to withhold her last name to protect her medical privacy, is a full-time student at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colo., where she takes online classes. She also works full time as an office assistant at a sports memorabilia services company. Her stress-induced asthma and irritable bowel syndrome affect her quality of life. Her daily decisions revolve around the limitations her illnesses place on her. She said she can feel problems starting to arise before the physical symptoms become apparent to others, although oftentimes she is crying when the attacks begin.

“I start breathing a little heavier and a little faster. I can inhale, but I can’t breathe out very well. I have to force it,” she said. “I usually carry [my inhaler] in my vehicle.”

One particular day Jenny’s stress caused an even scarier symptom: a panic attack.

“I was walking to work, headed to the bus station and I got a horrible pain in my chest, like someone was crushing me from the inside,” she said. “I couldn’t breathe, and I felt like I was suffocating. I thought I was having a heart attack. A girl who worked with me took me to the hospital, and it turned out that it was a panic attack. I just remember thinking ‘no way, no way – it was so much more than that.’”

Jenny said she’s only experienced a panic attack that one time, and there was no specific trigger that set it off. The ongoing stress in her life caused the attack.

“At the time, I loved my job but I had a horrible boss. Nothing had happened that day, there were no major events. But I had that one huge stress.”

Kendra Duff, an administrative assistant at CTL Thompson and a CSU graduate, experiences severe heartburn and other symptoms when she’s stressed.

“I first started noticing symptoms when I’d try to go to bed at night,” she said. “It just felt like I had small flames creeping up my throat. … I couldn’t eat because I either felt nauseous or nothing would go down right. As a result came weight loss and other problems, like the headaches and the loss of sleep.”

Classroom concerns

According to the CSU student health insurance summary of benefits, maintaining good health and prevention of illness are critical to academic success. Students who experience continual illness and poor health are at risk of excessive absences and getting behind on coursework. But Lively said that even when physical symptoms are lacking, stress can be a factor in a poor academic performance.

“When people aren’t managing stress well, it can build up and become overwhelming,” she said. “I see a lot of that: not sleeping, not being able to concentrate, not being able to focus and think clearly. … The sympathetic nervous system … makes it harder to think, organize and plan.”

Adversely, when a student begins to miss classes or struggle with a curriculum, more stress can occur.

“Anxiety, worrying about how they’re doing in classes, it turns into a circular situation,” Lively said.

During Duff’s senior year, she experienced exactly that.

“The anxiety and stress caused me to procrastinate. Because I would become so overwhelmed by all that was on my plate, I couldn’t touch any of it. I ended up pulling a lot of all-nighters. I always took naps in between classes and going to work on campus because I constantly felt tired,” Duff said. “The worst was my senior year, with trying to finish classes along with working a full 40 hours a week. I was constantly grumpy and would become very snappy with others, which is something completely out of character for me.”

Duff agrees that the stress-classroom relationship can be a vicious cycle, and she said her stress levels have improved since she graduated. She’s also learned that avoiding stressful tasks and losing sleep aren’t healthy ways to cope.

“I try to de-stress by doing things like working out to release tension and going to bed early,” she said. “Talking with those around me also helps tremendously. I’ve learned that I must ask for help when I need it instead of trying to tackle things on my own.”

Physiology of freak-outs

According to an article from the Mayo Clinic website, there is a reasonable scientific explanation for why human bodies seem to break over life circumstances. The article states that stressful situations in life set the body’s fight-or-flight response into motion. The “natural alarm system” is turned on when a person feels under attack, whether it be from a bear in the woods or a killer homework assignment. The brain sends hormones and nerve signals to the adrenal gland to release adrenaline and cortisol, the principal stress hormone, into the blood.

Adrenaline increases a person’s heart rate and raises blood pressure. If someone is attacked by a predator, this function would allow that person to react quickly. Cortisol releases extra glucose, a type of sugar, into the blood and boosts the brain’s ability to use glucose. When a person is constantly stressed, the cortisol release is ongoing. When over-produced, cortisol suppresses digestive functions, affects the reproductive system and growth and wreaks havoc on the immune system. These changes can result in dangerous medical consequences when gone unmanaged, according to the article.

And those consequences can lead to large medical bills for a lot of people. American Psychological Association CEO Norman B. Anderson told the “Monitor on Psychology” that 75 percent of health-care costs involve chronic illness, and that stress is a “key driver of chronic illnesses.”

Americans aren’t handling stress well, and it’s affecting the health of individuals across the nation, according to the APA’s 2011 report, “Stress in America: Our Health at Risk.” The report indicated that 22 percent of Americans experience extreme stress, levels of eight or more on a scale of one to 10. In the same report, even more reported physical symptoms, including 32 percent with headaches, 24 percent with upset stomachs and 37 percent with fatigue – all due to stress.

The APA report stated, “Overall, Americans appear to be caught in a vicious cycle where they manage stress in unhealthy ways, and seemingly insurmountable barriers prevent them from making the lifestyle or behavioral changes necessary for good health.”

According to Lisa Lively, a post-doctoral fellow at Colorado State University’s Counseling Services, good self-care is the best kind of stress prevention. “We all get so focused on how to get through and survive, we let the things we know are good for us fall to the side,” she said. She’s offered these stress-busting tips for students who want to stay well.

• Keep a regular schedule. This includes sleep, exercise, and eating. Try to do things at about the same time every day.

• Monitor and limit substances. Be aware of caffeine and alcohol intake, and limit yourself. Don’t use substances as a coping source.

• Talk to people you trust. Sometimes just having someone who will listen can alleviate stress.

• Spend time doing activities you enjoy. Take up a hobby, take a bath, go outside, play with animals, or even cleaning can be therapeutic.

• Be intentional about your time. Evaluate how you spend your time on a daily basis. Some of it might be better spent doing a 30-minute relaxation exercise, talking to someone on the phone or going for a walk.

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