Healthy or not, students stress for success
Itâs 6 a.m. and the sun is slowly rising over Leavey Library. After an all-nighter sipping on coffee, fidgeting students sit quietly in cubicles, staring at computer screens and dozing off, all facing the same scenario â stressing to pump out a paper, project or cramming anxiously to get an A.
âYou bring it on yourself, but itâs not really your fault because there is so much going on, and you feel likeâŠ you want to do everything at the same time,â said Sali Kharaza, a sophomore majoring in public relations.
There is no doubt USC students deal with stress on a day-to-day basis. With papers, exams, internships, jobs, extracurricular activities, financial responsibilities, social and family life â or even just short-term issues like getting stuck in a long line at Trojan Grounds and running late to class â a studentâs life without a little adrenaline flowing through the body and too many thoughts crowding the mind seems almost obsolete.
âThere is a line between working hard and having superhuman strength,â said Stephanie Graves, a senior and progressive degree student majoring in communication. âIn the real world thereâs some sort of demarcation between your work and the rest of your life and at school there isnât âŠ Everything revolves around your university life.â
Within the realm of USC university life, 41 percent of undergraduate students and 44 percent of graduate students said they experience more than average stress; 36 percent of undergraduates and 32 percent of graduate students say they experience average stress, according to the 2009 National College Health Assessment Report.
And not only do USC students experience stress, but they also said it is one of the leading and most frequent threats to academic success, along with having a learning disability, depression or developing a cold or the flu.
Yet the prevalence of stress on campus often creates a confusing dilemma for students. The psychological and medical communities emphasize its health effects, but sometimes students can be caught between whatâs good for them in the long run or at a specific moment.
âMost of our students are sleep deprived â I mean itâs just the name of the game,â said Ilene Rosenstein, director of USC counseling services. âWhen youâre tired, exercise sometimes feels like the exact opposite than what you want to do âŠyou might want to use the extra half an hour to sleep.â
Short-term effects of stress, Rosenstein explained, tamper with a studentâs decision-making ability, judgment, concentration, attention and memory and can create irregular and unhealthy sleeping patterns.
One long-term effect of stress is a weakened immune system. And some students might develop unhealthy habits like turning to food when theyâre stressed out, while others turn away from food. Other students can also be prone to getting in a car or bicycle accident.
âAlcohol and drugs are used as a way to relieve stress, and even sex, in terms of hooking up and those kind of things as these releasesâŠreally get people in trouble,â said Rosenstein.
Dr. Lawrence Neinstein, director of the USC University Park Health Center, said 20-29 year olds are especially prone to experiencing these short and long-term effects. The group has the highest rate of serious mental health issues, like stress that can eventually snowball into depression and anxiety for some.
The impact of long-term stress is more severe than acute stress on the brain â biologically and chemically. It alters brain chemistry, rewiring the brainâs connections and ultimately also affecting a personâs genetic make-up over a long period of time, according to Jean Chen Smith, USC professor of neurobiology who has studied the effects of stress on brain chemistry.
But the students who are most at risk are those who deal with day-to-day hassles. Acute stress is harder for people to deal with than chronic stress, such as the stress that can ensue from the loss of a loved one, long-term family problems or moving, Rosenstein explained.
âWho wants to hear it? You get no sympathy, no empathy for this. [You get] no attention, and you donât give it to yourself either,â she said.
Some students might have an even harder time speaking out because they are under hovering âhelicopterâ parents, Neinstein said.
âWhen you have parents at the level of an undergraduate or even a graduate student intervening for a student on everything from grades to interviews on a daily basis, what you have is an individual who is really not learning how to manage problems on their own,â he said.
This can lead to anxiety for many students, according to a medical study focused on parenting issues because students who were allowed to make decisions and face consequences on their own were less likely to have anxiety.
Amanda Christensen, a junior majoring in linguistics who decided to take a semester off to relax and figure out what she wanted to major in, said itâs really about how supportive family is of a decision like hers.
âI guess everyone does have their different pressures. Youâre [at USC] to find out what you want to do, but itâs nice to have friends, family, and counselors you can always talk to,â she said.
But not every stressed USC student uses counseling services, and some believe the stigma and social connotation of the word âcounselingâ will ward off even the most stressed of the USC population.
âThe word [counselor] alone is not very inviting at all,â said Slag.
But Rosenstein said the stigma of the term is rapidly changing.
âYour generation is so used to getting help. If you didnât get an SAT score high enough, you go to class. People are used to trying to do their best âŠ so it makes sense that people also want to get their stress to a healthy level,â said Rosenstein.
If counseling doesnât seem like an option for some minutely stressed students, USC offers other ways to deal with stress, such as a meditation group and a two-unit stress management course that teaches students mental and physical ways to deal with stress.
The class, according to USC physical education Professor Danielle Roman, attracts students from an array of majors and class standings and teaches them how to look at stress not as a threat but as a challenge and motivating factor.
Roman said some students may not take anything away from the class because they are not open to trying these techniques and have a hard time changing their habits. But other students, like Darci Kimble-Manalo, a senior majoring in kinesiology, and Marie Agnello, a junior majoring in broadcast journalism, think the class has helped them make a change in their lives.
Kimble-Manalo, who said she is usually stressed because of long lab hours on top of lecture hours in the kinesiology department, has been thinking about stress at USC as well as ways the university could help stressed students on campus.
âMy idea was to have, like, a building on campus where there would be individual rooms and students can go there and take naps. You can design the room in terms of music, smells, temperature,â Kimble-Manalo said.
Mary-Helen Immordino-Yang, assistant USC professor and expert in the neuroscience of learning, including student anxiety, said USC should design healthy learning environments that support âintrinsicâ motivation rather than anxiety, because the mind and biology are intertwined. Thoughts and interpretations about school work are going to affect the way a person biologically reacts to stress, she said.
âSome people do their school work because they are intrinsically interested in it and are motivated to learn it,â Yang said.
âOthers [do it] because they focus on extrinsic motivation because their parents are going to be mad at them because they spend a lot of tuition,â she said. âBoth sources of motivation will motivate you, but intrinsic motivation results in much meaningful learning that is built into the knowledge that you are learning instead of pleasing someone else.â
Students said they find the reading assignments, papers and tests in general education classes tedious. The courses can be stressful, they said, because itâs hard to become interested in a required class that might not be relevant to their major or interests.
âThis isnât just coming to school doing what I want to learn because if thatâd be the case Iâd only be taking theatre and psychology classes,â Slag said. âI wouldnât be forced to take all these âGEâsâ.â
Although parents can have high expectations for students to perform well, Graves said there is more to understand about the university lifestyle.
âEverybody is busy here, but some people can handle amounts of stress more than others,â Graves said. âIf someone doesnât join an organization because they donât have time, and you feel like youâve got more on your plate, youâve got to understand you canât judge them for that because they might not be able to handle stress a lot.â
As for major classes, students may begin to feel stressed because the courses and majors can be âcutthroat.â
âYouâre like, âWait, this is really competitive,â and that freaks you out because you think, âAm I going to succeed?â Everyone here is on my level,â said Kharaza.
But Graves disagreed.
â[School] is competitive, but I donât feel like in a bad way sometimes because you still have that sense that this is the Trojan Family, and it just pushes you to be better,â she said.
Graves, who is a squad leader in the Trojan Marching Band, a sorority member, co-director of a ballet dance company, working an internship, and a member of a concert band and orchestra, said itâs a learning process for students to figure out just how much they can handle without being stressed.
âI know I canât do everything, â Graves said. âI get to the point where I have a good idea of I need to be involved in.â
Because our Western model of education involves independent work with deadlines and enforces extracurricular activities, Yang said the system is inherently stressful. Other students said life is just stressful from college onward and right now is the best time for a student to use the resources USC provides so it will be easier for them after graduation.
In the end, the question may not be what else USC can do to help students, but how students can come to terms with their daily lives âwhether itâs counseling, or just a 20-minute jog every day.
âCollege is stressful, but so is life,â Neinstein said. âSo the answer is, do you know how to cope and deal with it?â