Health & Safety
Student stress and the “winter blues”
By Lucy Ewing
As my daughter’s work at art school became more and more demanding, I noticed an increasing level of anxiety during our conversations.
Each work of art required dozens of hours, and double overnighters were becoming the norm. One night Anna called and could not stop crying. My assurances that she would meet her goals were no longer helping.
I strained to console her, scanning my mental toolbox of strategies. It was winter, and cloud cover was the norm in her coastal New England city. Was it Seasonal Affective Disorder? I gave my standard “drink water!” advice, hit the online order button for a bright light simulator lamp, and urged her to visit a campus counselor.
Most schools offer free counseling to students, a service that privately would cost $150 to $250 an hour. It’s a chance for students to air their feelings, get information, and have unobstructed time to think. Not being able to find the time is a major reason students cite for not accessing campus counseling services. Some doubt that talking to a stranger will help, and others feel the stigma of seeking help. Thankfully, Anna agreed to give it a try.
What Anna was experiencing was typical of many college students who have academic stress, poor sleep patterns that deprive them of deep sleep, and unbalanced diets filled with high fat/high carb “comfort” food or very little food. Anna’s off-campus “meal plan” consisted of midnight dashes to the gas station for coffee, crackers and candy. All this contributes to fatigue, which can mirror depression. A nationwide survey of college students by the American College Health Association found that about 30 percent of students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year.
The basis is very often physiological, according to Dr. Timothy Silvestri, a college counselor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. “Without whole food, the frontal part of the brain doesn’t get the fuel it needs,” Dr. Silvestri explains. Feeling down, depressed and stressed robs people of their desire to maintain proper fuel levels. When this vicious cycle continues for weeks on end, the cortisol hormone released from the adrenal gland in response to stress “gets nasty,” Dr. Silvestri says. Emotions become disregulated, typical coping strategies don’t help, and students are crying without explanation. However, with good whole food — unprocessed grains, fruit and vegetables — and with sleep and exercise, Dr. Silvestri finds that the students he cares for start bouncing back in five to ten days.
My daughter’s counselor helped her get back on track with talk therapy and solid advice about good health. Soon, to my relief, she sounded a lot more like herself. Regardless of the severity of “the blues,” attention to physiology is most important. “Simply stated, one can’t function optimally without optimal levels of fuel,” affirms Dr. Silvestri.
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