MEAGAN DILL

It’s no secret that being a student is not always easy. Sure, there are lazy afternoons spent eating cake from Coffee Buzz on the HSB grass, and raucous outings to the Square to blow off steam – but in order to enjoy these moments of freedom, those of us not blessed with natural genius have to put in a lot of hard work first.

Most students are familiar with that fleeting moment of panic at 2am the night before an assignment deadline or semester test. Some may experience this feeling more than just “fleetingly”, but still regard it as an inevitable part of studying full-time. However, for them, and for others, these feelings may reach a point where there is cause for concern.

According to EverydayHealth.com, 75% of people with anxiety disorders experience initial symptoms before the age of 22. The article also reveals how another survey found that 80% of university students often feel stressed (no surprises there) and that 13% of university students are diagnosed with anxiety disorders or depression.

In the field of psychology, it is generally believed that there are two main factors which can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders: environmental factors (such as stress) and biological factors (such as a genetic predisposition to a particular disorder).

Most anxiety disorders involve some form of panic attack, the intensity and frequency of which varies from disorder to disorder. In basic biological terms, what happens during a panic attack is that the body’s “fight or flight” mode is activated in a situation where there is no actual danger. Since the adrenaline produced is not needed, the body reacts in various ways, producing symptoms such as a racing heart, chest pain, dizziness, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath and nausea. This can cause the person to feel detached from themselves or from reality, which can be accompanied by a sense of impending death as well as an intense fear of losing control.

Panic attacks can have a recurrent quality and be triggered by certain situations or places, or they can happen at completely random moments which are part of everyday life, like walking down the street to varsity or shopping at Pick n Pay. The fact that panic attacks can happen so suddenly and without warning is part of what makes them so terrifying to those who experience them.

There are various disorders that fall under the category of anxiety, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, among others. In most cases, there is usually accompanying or underlying depression.

However, feeling anxious does not necessarily mean you have any kind of disorder – there is no need to worry about ordinary varsity stress with a clear cause. However, if you start having frequent panic attacks and/or anxiety which in any way begins to compromise your quality of life and inhibits you from doing things you normally would, like going to class and socialising, it may be worthwhile investigating these feelings further.

Despite the negative stigma that tends to surround mental illness, once you start reaching out you’ll find there’s help everywhere. For a start, the medical institutions on campus cater not only for those with physical ailments but are also able to assist those with assorted mental disorders.

Perdeby spoke to a student health representative, who explains the process of this assistance: “When a student comes with possible anxiety problems, we will see the patient and then we will refer the student to Student Support for evaluation and possible counselling. [If] they decide that the student probably needs some medication, they’ll refer the student back to Student Health. We will [then] refer the student to the doctor, where the doctor will determine if any further intervention is necessary.”

Alternatively, if you wish to seek treatment outside of campus you can make an appointment with your GP who may be able to prescribe appropriate medication or refer you to a psychiatrist (if necessary). Additionally, he or she will likely refer you to a psychologist.

While medication can be extremely helpful on the road to recovery, it is important to employ a dual approach when it comes to treating an anxiety disorder – to treat both cause and symptom. This is where psychological support comes in. In the case of anxiety disorders, a method called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been established as extremely effective.

The core idea of CBT is that experiencing panic where there is no actual external threat is a learnt behaviour, reinforced each time a panic attack takes place. Logic dictates that any learnt behaviour can be unlearnt, and so CBT attempts to re-teach the patient appropriate reactions and thought patterns.

When dealing with a mental illness, knowing that you’re not alone can be a huge comfort. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is an organisation dedicated to supporting those with mental illness and dispelling the stigma which prevents many from seeking help. SADAG also encourages its members to start support groups, which are numerous. You can get information about support groups in your area by contacting SADAG. Visit their website at www.sadag.org or call them on their toll-free helpline: 0800 21 22 23.

Photo: Gloria Mbogoma

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