Evansville senior Elise Ward grips paper while yelling. Ward said she pushes herself to get the best grade she possibly can. “If I don’t get the best grade because of my anxiety, I beat myself up about and constantly tell myself I should have done better,” Ward said. “If I did do good, I always think I still could’ve done better.” (Photo by Brodie Curtsinger)
What it’s like living with anxiety as a college student
Generalized anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses among college students. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 2.7% of U.S. adults were living with it in the past year.
Though many people experience anxiety and worry, in excess it can also be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Psychology professor Kelly Truelove said anxiety is both a physiological and psychological response.
“Anxiety involves disruption of nerve cell circuits in the brain that trigger alarm responses, even when there aren’t dangerous stimuli,” Truelove said.
Truelove said that before she became a professor at WKU, she was a mental health therapist for approximately 10 years. During her time as a therapist, she noticed that anxiety was the most common problem that she saw in clients.
For emerging adults around ages 18 to 25, Truelove said that change can be a major cause of anxiety.
“The transition from living at home as a child to living on your own as an adult can be hard as well as learning how to manage time on your own and adjusting to a new social world,” Truelove said. “Add in new and different academic expectations and of course many students would feel anxiety.”
Truelove said that a certain amount of anxiety is normal before things such as the first day of classes, exam days or big project presentations. it becomes a problem when it is considered impairing and interrupts our decision making process in the brain which leads to poorer choices.
Truelove said prolonged anxiety increases the stress response in the body, which can in turn shrink the hippocampus, a region in the brain that is crucial for processing memories.
“Many exams require at least some recall, so high levels of anxiety can lead to poor test performance,” Truelove said.
Freshman Jana Hebenstiel from Union said that being a college student can be stressful in general because it’s hard to manage your classes while still maintaining your work and social life. They said when you add an anxiety disorder into the mix, things can become even more stressful.
Hebenstiel said they started having trouble concentrating in their classes in seventh grade and experienced frequent mood changes along with constant worrying. After going to the doctor, they were diagnosed with anxiety and prescribed medication.
While Hebenstiel said everyone’s experience with medication is different, their experience taking Sertraline has been negative.
“At first, I felt that it was helping. My mood swings were much more controlled and it was easier to focus in class, but after a while I felt that it just numbed my emotions,” Hebenstiel said.
Hebenstiel said many people form friendships by getting lunch between classes or dinner after classes. Because of their anxiety, they struggle to form connections with classmates this way.
“I have always had issues with eating in front of people due to my anxiety, and I associate studying with new people with eating food, so I simply don’t find people to study with,” Hebenstiel said.
Along with not feeling comfortable eating in front of people, Hebenstiel said that their anxiety takes effect on not only their social connections in college, but also their education because they have a hard time focusing.
“When I struggle to understand material in class, I can’t bring myself to ask questions because I feel like people will think I’m stupid,” Hebenstiel said.
Overall, Hebenstiel said they feel like they have a good support system within their friends and family as well as the WKU community.
“I think WKU definitely has good resources to help students struggling with their mental health,” Hebenstiel said. “I used Gatton’s counselors when I went there, and I’m planning on starting sessions with the WKU counseling center soon.”
Evansville senior Elise Ward said that there is always room for improvement when it comes to the school’s support system. She said that when it comes to mental health, more awareness can always be added.
Ward said she was diagnosed with anxiety in February of 2022 afterher parents encouraged her to go to the doctor and get diagnosed.
“Honestly, I thought it was normal. I didn’t realize that some people didn’t live how I do when it comes to anxiety,” Ward said.
Since she was diagnosed, Ward said she has been on a medication called Buspar. Ward said she immediately felt a difference after taking it.
Ward said that one of her main struggles caused by her anxiety is her schoolwork.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect. When I do my assignments, I tend to overthink it,” Ward said. “I will read over my homework at least four times before submitting it. I always make it more complicated than it has to be.”
Ward said she often zones out during class.. She said that when she is in one class, she tends to start thinking about other classes instead of paying attention to the content that is being taught in the class she is in.
She said she has experienced anxiety attacks during class.
“There have been times where I am taking an exam and end up having an anxiety attack if I don’t know the content well,” Ward said. “Most of the time, I actually do know the content, I just stress myself out and make myself think that I don’t.”
When all of her professors make due dates around the same time, Ward said she gets extreme anxiety as she worries if she will be able to manage her time and complete everything.
Ward said that when her anxiety flares up in school, she sometimes gets embarrassed because she doesn’t want people to think she’s weird.
“Anxiety is a real thing. I can’t control it. Some people may not know what it is or what is happening to me which makes me worried about what others think about me,” Ward said.
Truelove says she struggles with anxiety from time to time.
“Standing in front of 60 college students and trying to make sure that all material is covered clearly and accurately can be stressful which in turn could increase anxiety,” she said.
Truelove said that time management is important when it comes to facing anxiety in college. She said that her best tip for time management skills would be to create lists and keep calendars.
“Lists allow us to remain organized, which in turn gives our brain a break,” Truelove said. “If we know all of our assignments are listed on a calendar and we have a list of things that need to be accomplished this week, then we can reduce worry or stress about potentially forgetting something important.”
Even though her anxiety affects her life daily, Ward said she is grateful to have people who support her and her mental health.
“I have been lucky enough to surround myself with people that care about me and don’t look at me differently because of my anxiety,” Ward said.