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When stress hits, unhealthy habits kick in

Story by Lauren Kassien

It can be so easy. One all-nighter here, a few extra work shifts there, a midnight pizza and breadsticks run — all washed down with a few hearty energy drink shots.

In college, a student’s day is packed with classes, projects, meetings and work. Stress is high and unhealthy decisions are abundant.

The American Psychological Association released a study on Feb. 7, showing that college students feel more stress than any other age group. Bearing the responsibilities of maintaining a high GPA, leadership roles, internships and a social life, Drake University students are no exception to the effects of stress.

“I know it’s not healthy for me to be stressed out all the time,” first-year Damion Miller said. “But I just don’t see being all healthy as an important part of my life.”

Between his position as Morehouse Hall president and managing his part-time job at Gap, Miller is one of many Drake students who suffer from increased stress. He said he feels the most effects in his sleep patterns.

“Four hours of sleep a night usually gets me by,” Miller said. “Right now, I’m operating off of three hours. I’m always up late socializing or doing work. But every student is sleep-deprived. No matter who you are, you’re going to lose some sleep in college.”

For some students, the pressure to succeed academically is enough to keep them up at night. Junior Claire Vandercar says her heavy course load is responsible for her lack of sleep.

“All the teachers assign all the projects and all the tests in the same week, and then I’m stressing out like crazy,” Vandercar said. “I’m a person who loves sleep. If I could sleep 12 hours a night, that would be awesome. But I can’t. Classes and stress do cause me to stay up later. Physically you get tired, and mentally it wears you out.”

Kirk Bragg, a therapist at the Drake University Counseling Center, said a lack of sleep is a main cause of increased stress in college. When students sleep for fewer than six hours a night, they miss out on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Bragg said this is a crucial stage in the sleep cycle because it allows the body to restore itself. A lack of REM sleep can cause several health concerns ranging from physical diseases to mental illness such as depression.

In 2012, the counseling center saw 412 students. Depression and anxiety were the most common diagnoses.

“You just get more and more run down,” Bragg said. “That’s why you’re sick all the time.”

When sleep is low and stress levels are high, students often rely on caffeine. Though Drake’s dining services offer quick coffee breaks for worn out students, these quick energy bursts won’t help in the long run.

“Caffeine won’t sustain you for the long-term,” LuAnn Volkmer, a nurse practitioner at the Drake Student Health Center, said. “Caffeine is going to increase your heart rate and increase your blood pressure, which is more taxing on your body.”

College students also rely on drugs and alcohol as a way to escape stress. While some students know binge drinking will have negative effects in the long run, many aren’t aware of how it can affect them at the present.

“People turn to alcohol because they want to numb themselves from the stress of what’s going on,” Volkmer said. “People don’t think about it as much, but it always brings about the sexual assaults, the rapes. This one bad habit leads to something else.”

In addition to looking to alcohol for comfort, students also turn to food as a means to get rid of stress. Whether it’s giving in to that mac and cheese craving or quickly stuffing down a piece of pizza between classes, unhealthy eating plays an important role in a student’s wellness.

“Spring semester is always more stressful,” Carlyn Crowe, internship coordinator for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said. “Seniors are getting ready to graduate, juniors and even sophomores are looking for internships. A lot of people under stress do eat more comfort food that isn’t healthful for them.”

For the best performance, college students should eat a variety of foods, Volkmer said. Whole grains and lean proteins can keep hunger at bay and give students the energy they need. Fresh fruits and vegetables should also be a staple in every college student’s diet.

Though poor health choices are common on college campuses, Crowe sees students who are learning to better cope with its effects.

“I think students are recognizing more that stress is impacting their body,” she said. “I think the fact they’re looking for healthier options may affect how universities respond to that. I think it’s an up-and-coming trend.”

Learning to cope with stress is a life skill that benefits students throughout their lives. For some students, staying active helps them fight their anxieties.

“Since I’m a double major in music and news-Internet journalism, I’m stressed with practicing and balancing my schoolwork that involves writing,” sophomore Hannah Keisker said. “Exercise is what I do. Whenever I exercise, it helps me clear my head and take a break from everything. I haven’t worked out for the past few days, and I feel like I have to tomorrow.”

Other students have mastered using the stress to fuel their performance. Junior Lauren Erickson said she uses the stress of her position as Kappa Alpha Theta president as a way to be successful.

“Living in a sorority house has given me a lot of opportunities to take stress from school and release it in a positive outlet such as programming or sisterhood activities,” Erickson said. “I’m constantly being encouraged to relieve stress through positive outlets.”

When she does feel overwhelmed, Erickson has developed her own way of coping. Using her faith as a means to fight stress, Erickson often relies on both advice from church missionaries and prayer.

“Starting my day with a morning prayer has been super helpful,” Erickson said. “I realize I can only do so much. I can only control my own actions, and that kind of puts my day in perspective.”

Though stress is an unavoidable part of a person’s life, focusing on healthy habits and keeping those carb-filled all-nighters to a minimum allows college students to tackle busy schedules with wellness in mind.

“There will always be struggles in life,” Erickson said. “But if we keep our health in check, that is one less thing we have to worry about.”


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