By Caroline Pelletier
It wasn’t until Sherry Ipanaque lost her sense of taste that she realized she was stressed out.
The third-year computer science student says she was so stressed when she started her degree that she couldn’t taste anything for three months.
“I stopped eating. It was awful,” says Ipanaque, who regained control of her tastebuds after she started visiting a relaxation clinic. There, she learned breathing techniques to help her relax and alternative “perspectives” to help her control her stress levels.
Stress is the leading health problem for students, according to Ryerson’s health centre and affects one-fifth of university students across Canada. But with long waiting lists in the busiest year they have ever seen, staff at Ryerson’s Student Development and Counselling Centre are struggling to meet the burgeoning needs of the students they counsel.
“We see many stressed out students. That’s typically why they come,” says Diana Brecher, a counsellor and the clinical coordinator at Ryerson’s Student Development and Counselling Centre.
While they see about 185 students a week, there is currently a two-week waiting list to see a counsellor at the centre. Aside from a daily, one-hour spot at 3 p.m. for students with sudden crises, new patients can expect to wait a couple of weeks to get an appointment as the walk-in spots are always snatched up quickly. During her 12 years at the centre, Brecher has never seen it so busy.
For Ellen Tubigan, Wednesday is the toughest day of the week. It’s her busiest course day and as the hours trickle by, the assignments pile up. At first, it seems perfectly manageable. But as the day goes on she begins to feel helpless as she wonders how she’ll deal with it all.
“The day goes by and everything seems to be adding on,” says the first-year nursing student. She finds making priorities difficult when stress sets in and doesn’t know where to begin: “It’s as if everything I have to do is in a box, and I reach in and pick something to do for that day. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I want to be isolated in a corner.”
Alison Burnett, a health promotion nurse at the health centre agrees that stress is the student body’s main affliction. She and Brecher are co-ordinating four stress management workshops throughout the fall, the first of which took place last week. The theme was healthy lifestyles and stress and Burnett, as facilitator, kicked off the session with a primer on the subject, followed by a stress-level test. A score of 300 or more indicated the person had an 80 per cent chance of becoming ill in the near future. Of the 14 attendees, a couple shouted out their scores. 685, one woman called. Another revealed she’d scored a 700.
“I liked [the workshop] a lot,” says Ipanaque, who sat in on the session. “Anything that would give me relief or manage stress in daily life help me. I don’t have time to see a counsellor and this is more convenient.” She plans on attending the next three sessions, which will cover perfectionism, meditation and how to laugh about stress.
If students don’t learn to cope, they may be in for some damage. Unfettered fretting can cause on to gain weight, catch colds and canker sores, develop migraines and even heart problems.
Stressed students are also at risk of decreased bone density and diabetes. Chronic stress may lead to an anxiety disorder, and according to Susan Molder, a physician at the health centre, many stressed out students sink into depression. She says that many simply have too much going on to not be extremely stressed. “I’m glad I’m not a student now,” says Molder.
According to a Ryerson study of first-year students, 70 per cent were working or planning on working while in school. More than half of them were clocking in between 11 and 35 hours a week. Dina Sharaf works 20 hours a week as a cashier at Home Depot — eight hours on both Saturday and Sunday and four hours on Friday nights. The first-year ITM student says that between her job and school, she’s working every day and rarely has time to see her friends. “My leisure is watching TV,” she says. “That’s not how someone should spend their life.”
But as the workshop pointed out, stress in moderation is helpful to students. It promotes adrenaline rushes and a subsequent ‘fight or flight’ response to situations. “It helps you to fight, therefore sometimes, stress is good,” says Ipanaque.
In manageable amounts, stress can actually help you perform better academically. “A certain amount of stress is good for you,” says Burnett. “It motivates you and keeps you going. To have a stress-free life is impossible. Nor would you really want that because it’s kind of boring.
Melissa Lacuna, a second-year nursing student who calls stress a “personal trait,” says it works to her benefit sometimes. “I think stress is kind of a good thing. If I didn’t have stress, I wouldn’t care.”
Eat well, sleep enough, and exercise is what most psychologists, health experts and counsellors suggest. If you don’t, you will become weak or sick, and even more susceptible to stress.
Heavy drinking also weakens your ability to cope with stress by depleting your body of nutrients. Caffeine and nicotine should be nixed — they may exacerbate stress by making you tense and overly-alert. And being pessimistic should also be avoided. According to experts, those who believe the glass is always half-full are better at handling their problems.
“We view our own resources to cope with stress as higher when we’re optimistic and self-confident,” says Michelle Dionne, a psychology professor at Ryerson, who teaches a course on stress. “We feel like we have a greater control over stressors in our life. Try not to let the first impression of a stressful event be ‘Oh my God, I can’t cope with this!’ or ‘I can’t do this.’ And instead tell yourself: ‘Take a minute, think about it, what do I need to do?’” Good relationships with friends and family may also keep you sane. “I think we can all use a coach, we can all use someone to bounce ideas off of,” says Dionne. “It doesn’t always have to be a professional.” For 95 per cent of us, Dionne adds, a good social support system will keep us out of counselling.
Larissa Rozdzilski is stressed-out and looking for just that. The first-year social work student is starting a bimonthly support group at Ryerson for students suffering from anxiety and stress.
“Just talking about it and having a network is the most powerful tool,” she says. Rozdzilski plans to have experts come in, such as a shiatsu therapist, and give seminars on stress.
Rodzailski has an anxiety disorder, and her panic attacks are sometimes set off by stress. When attacks occur, she feels an extreme need to get away from the situation. Her heart rate increases, she becomes dizzy and confused. Since she started at Ryerson this fall, she’s had two minor panic attacks, one of which happened in philosophy class.
“I totally agree that if you don’t deal with stress properly, that it can build up to severe anxiety,” she says. “I’m one of those people who used to deal with stress by ploughing my way through it.” She would tell herself, “Okay, we’re going to get through this, we’re not going to really pay attention to our feelings. We’re just going to get through the stress and move on.” But the stress built up and sometimes end up in a panic attack.
She explains the importance of “positive self-talk” — telling yourself that you’re able to get through the stress instead of dwelling on worst case scenarios. And she has a tried-and-tested way of ending a stressful day: “I call it a ‘beer and bubble bath’ — you just have a cold one, and have a bath. It really eases your mind after a tough day,” she says. Daily yoga has also helped her wind down, as well as the ballet classes she’s currently taking at the Ryerson Athletic Centre.
When she’s stressed, Ipanaque tries to escape reality. “You’ll always find me with a novel about something completely unrelated to what I’m doing.”
“I want to be ahead of everything but it’s impossible right now,” adds Tubigan. “I think I’m doing okay. I relax and meditate. I just want to look on the positive side of life, because I know that if I dwell on it more it’s just not going to help.”