Studying to sickness

As a student, have you ever felt like you get sick more than people you know who aren’t in college? Have you ever felt like no matter what you did you just couldn’t get rid of that cough?

Do you barely have time to catch your breath from one illness before some other plague shot from the nose of the sneezy student next to you at some class at some unholy hour in the morning finds its way past your immune system?

Or maybe you’ve found that since entering college it’s been a lot more difficult to remain optimistic. Maybe you’ve begun using drugs, alcohol, caffeine or tobacco more than you used to, just to cope, to relax, or just to keep your eyes open.

If the thought has crossed your mind that maybe being a student is bad for your health, you’re not wrong.

Students experience extremely high levels of stress, from the obvious pressure of midterms and finals to less obvious pressures from unspoken competition, financial strain, and work and relationship stress.

College students experience constant change: changing classes, changing living situations, and changing relationships. Independence is a great thing, but it can be too much of a good thing when combined with all of the other stresses involved in student life.

According to the Association of University and College Counseling, 63 percent of university students report an increase in psychological distress during the college years.

While some stress is normal, too much of it can definitely affect your health, physical and mental.

Margaret Trout, the Interim Assistant Director of Student Health and Counseling (SHAC), has no doubt that student illnesses at PSU are often "initiated and exacerbated by stress."

But why?

When the body is initially faced with stress, the nervous system initiates what is known as the fight or flight response – adrenaline is pumped through the body, the digestive system shuts down and more blood is pumped to the muscles. Similar reactions occur in conjunction with normal emotions.

However, when the stressors do not go away (chronic stressors are categorized as those that remain a month or longer), the body enters a second stage.

It is within this stage that the body can experience a reduction in epinephrine and norepinephrine in the brain, which induces an emotional state similar to depression.

This is an important finding since the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy reports that suicide accounts for 30 percent of deaths among university students.

And even if your chronic stress doesn’t result in depression or suicide, it will probably still affect your health.

Trout notes that among the student population at PSU, upper respiratory infections are the most common stress-related complaint, while headaches and irritable bowel issues are also common.

Her observations are supported in a 1998 report on psychological stress published in Health Psychology by Sheldon Cohen, William Doyle and David Skoner, which found that those who had chronic stressors had an increased risk of developing colds compared to those who had no chronic stressor.

It seems that too much stress can make it easier for germs to get past your immune system and stay in your body.

These stresses can also lead to self-destructive behavior that makes it even easier for students to get and stay sick. Everyone knows (or they should) that smoking cigarettes can weaken your immune system, but so can sleep deprivation, or the college favorite, binge drinking.

Finals (if they haven’t yet begun) are just around the corner, so for all of you sickies, smokers and drinkers out there, take a tip from Trout: Make sure you eat nutritiously and get adequate sleep.

Just those two things will go a long way toward improving your health. Exercise and meditation can also have a positive influence on your mental health, and hence physical health.

If all else fails, go visit SHAC and see what they can do for you.

If you’re enrolled in eight or more credits, you’re covered by PSU health insurance, so use it.

You can also visit http://www.shs.unc.edu/chsb/stress_management/stresstest.html to see if your stress levels are reaching dangerous proportions.

If all else fails, cut out this article and give it to your professors to try to convince them to cut you some slack!

Michelle K. Howa can be reached at [email protected]