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Why Are Today’s Students So Anxious?

Posted by Lori Reese on 10/31/18 8:00 AM
Topics: student mental health, student experience

These days many college stores are joining the fight against student anxiety. Searching for ways to offer students more than just a place to shop, collegiate retailers have found numerous innovative strategies   — from hosting de-stress events to bringing in therapy dogs — for reducing stress among college-goers. Those who invest in promoting student well-being know it’s a worthwhile effort: students’ outsized anxiety not only precipitates other health concerns, it interferes with academic success, driving some out of school altogether. Most higher education institutions are aware that anxiety is a problem. What’s less obvious is why.

Why Are Today's Students So Anxious?The end of high school and first few years of college should be among the best times of our lives — a period of exploration and learning that stretches our minds and builds our skills before the responsibilities of adult life kick in. But for a  percentage of the young people born in 1995 or later — collectively known as Generation Z — these transitional years are rife with internal and external pressures that are making them sick. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of students seeking help from on-campus counseling services spiked 30%, even while enrollment only increased 6%. Well over half (61%) reported overwhelming anxiety. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of college students reported debilitating anxiety, according to the National College Health Assessment. Why?

We don’t typically think of mental illness as something that spreads like the flu. There’s no such thing as a germ or virus responsible for outbreaks of depression or panic attacks among teens. But as our world grows increasingly interconnected and we continue to find new ways to document and share even our lives’ most quotidian details, the likelihood increases that our thoughts and behaviors will start to reflect one another’s. Neuroscientists talk about “mirror neurons,” which prompt us to imitate other human beings instinctively. The human capacity for imitating others is among the most powerful forces that drives our personal and social development.

Unfortunately, the evolutionary genius that makes everything from learning our first words to mastering a training-wheel-free bicycle fun and rewarding can also work against us. Think riots, social media scapegoating, or, in this case, fearful thoughts spreading like influenza among young people online, in the classroom and on campus. What’s more, it’s not as though student fears are baseless. Any young person looking for evidence to support apocalyptic dread need only turn on the TV — or check Twitter — to find tales of economic uncertainty, mass shootings and unyielding polemics.

“Honestly, I’ve had more students this year hospitalized for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues than ever,” high school counselor Kathy Reamy told the National Education Association in 2018. “There’s just so much going on in this day and age, the pressures to fit in, the pressure to achieve, the pressure of social media. And then you couple that with the fact that kids can’t even feel safe in their schools — they worry genuinely about getting shot — and it all makes it so much harder to be a teenager.”

Students bring these worries with them when they arrive on campus. The first year when they’re adjusting to the loss of their former support networks — high school friends, teachers and family — can be among the most difficult. Campus services play a critical role in helping students form new connections that keep them grounded and focused. Yes, the school counseling center is responsible for handling mental health issues, but many students only turn to professionals after their situation has become dire. Every adult students encounter— from faculty to cafeteria workers — is a part of their campus support network. Collegiate retailers can offer a great deal in terms of assuring students the school cares about their safety, success and well-being.

What can you do?

Students appreciate de-stress events and VIP nights that introduce newcomers to the store. The University of California at Davis has begun hosting week-long events during finals designed to help students let go of pressure. William & Mary Bookstore hosts an event that features animals from a local shelter, who offer the school’s high-achieving undergrads an uncomplicated source of affection. Swarthmore Campus & Community Store keeps two friendly Labrador retrievers — Molly and George — in-house that students and locals from the surrounding community seek out for comfort and community.

Even without animals and big events, store associates can offer stressed-out students relief. You don’t have to be a professional to help them do what therapists suggest: Reframe their fearful experiences. You can draw on your own experience and talk to them about how stress can be a blessing. Extra adrenaline heightens our focus and helps us complete tasks.

Suggest to stressed students that it’s possible to find something positive in the symptoms we associate with anxiety: quickened heartbeat, shortness of breath, muscle tension. Excitement has this impact on us, too. Ask them think of the symptoms as a sign that they’re excited about the challenge ahead — the opportunity to meet a goal, check an accomplishment off their list and prove what they can do. Finals can be a chance for them to surpass their own expectations, and the physical effects of anxiety might help them do it.

Simply acting as a steady listener with confidence in a student’s ability has a powerful effect.  When the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the importance of even a single individual’s contribution to social well-being, he uses an analogy drawn from his experience with refugees crossing turbulent waters in small, crowded boats fleeing the south.

Often, he said, a panic would erupt on the tiny boats during the crossing, putting the occupants at greater risk. However, if one person remained calm, that was all the other passengers needed to restore their confidence and sense of safety. The calm person provided an instant role model, a mirror that wordlessly affirmed everything would be alright. Once the panic subsided the passengers were in far less danger.

Be the calm person on the academic boat. A college store professional doesn’t need to mirror a student’s panic about grades and finals. Demonstrate your confidence in the student’s ability and those mirror neurons are likely to activate, confirming they have all they need within for success.  

Generation Z Research

About Lori Reese

Lori Reese has more than 15 years’ experience teaching in college and K-12 classrooms. She studied philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, earned an MA in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University and an MFA from University of North Carolina - Greensboro. At UNCG she won the Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award and received a Fulbright to conduct research for a novel in Sri Lanka. She has taught undergraduate creative writing, composition and literature as well as seminars for the Lloyd International International Honors Program. She worked in private K-12 education for two years as an English teacher and Academic Dean.

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