As it turns out, for many, the instruction to ‘Keep Calm’, which is plastered all over T-shirts, adverts and mugs, is easier said then done. Anxiety disorder is one of the most common mental illnesses, particularly among students, causing tension, irritability and tiredness, but also on a more extreme level, trembling, depression, nausea and panic attacks. According to The Guardian, approximately a third of the population will be affected at some point in their lives by an anxiety disorder. There are multiple types of anxiety disorders including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and specific phobias (an irrational fear of snakes, spiders, etc.). However, the most common disorder amongst students is called Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines an anxiety order as being, “constant and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress and interferes with daily life”, as opposed to stress in correlation with occasional, anxiety-inducing events. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that some stress is normal before exams and deadlines, and does not necessarily mean that you have GAD. The key distinction here is that anxiety disorders are constant and generally irrational, not necessarily requiring a trigger.
The symptoms of GAD can be quite severe and can make daily life incredibly difficult. The pressures of university can also lead to a heightening of anxiety in many students. One third-year medicine student at the University of Edinburgh, Julia, was diagnosed with GAD by her psychiatrist last year. She would frequently have panic attacks before deadlines and tests, but also during study sessions and while talking to friends: “I’m a perfectionist and put a lot of pressure on myself”, she says, describing her obsessive, all-consuming study agenda. She has created an environment where she is unable to ever feel secure or confident, constantly fearing failure: “You beat yourself up about things that you said or things that you do and it drives you crazy! I would go over what I did wrong again and again.”
This increased pressure on academic achievements may be attributed to the competitive job market in which we live. A simple university degree is no longer enough to guarantee you a job, and a job is not enough to guarantee a steady income and comfortable life. Life has become harder and the increasing requirements and expectations are causing more pressure, which has perhaps led to an upshot of GAD diagnoses. However, the causes of anxiety are incredibly complex, involving both genetic and environmental factors.
So what’s the best course of treatment? Medication? A lot of people seem to think so. Julia admitted to taking Beta-blockers to slow her heart rate when she had anxiety attacks. Beta-blockers are a prescription drug, associated with very competitive lines of work and often used by people such as professional athletes and musicians. Julia admits they are helpful, saying that ever since she started taking Beta-blockers she feels “calmer” and her “heart doesn’t beat as fast anymore when [she is] stressed”. Other relaxant medication includes ‘worry free’ tablets and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). GPs will often prescribe mild anti-depressants such as Valium and Sertraline as they are a quick fix. However, some argue that such medications only mask the symptoms, and do not solve the problem, and that it is best to exhaust all alternatives before resorting to medication. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, has been proven to be very effective as a treatment for GAD.
Fortunately, there is much support available for those suffering with anxiety. Anxiety UK is a great source to consult external to the university, for example. The University of Edinburgh also offers assistance to those experiencing heightened stress levels through its stress control class, which is a free six-week, cognitive behavioural therapy. More information can be found on the University of Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing website. You can also call Nightline on 0131 557 4444.