As exams near, student stress levels soar

The four main issues that bring students into the USF Counseling Center are anxiety, stress, depression and relationships. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Assignments due, projects to complete, presentations to make, exams to cram for, life to prepare for.

At this time of the year, students are overwhelmingly pulled in every direction to meet expectations.

It is as stressful a time as ever, and for some students, it’s too much to handle, leading to worse grades and mental health issues.

“The demands are really high right now,” said Heidi Petracco, Interim Co-Director and Associate Director for Clinical and Prevention Services at the USF Counseling Center. “We experience stress whenever there’s a perceived threat in our lives. That perceived threat could be not passing a class or running low on time or having difficulty managing it.

“All of those stressors seem to increase at one time because there is a potential loss at stake.”

During finals week, multiple stressors seem to pile up more than any other time, mostly because of what’s at stake.

Whether it’s exams or graduation or personal issues, finals week adds another layer of stress to the majority of students, and it can lead to a drop in academic standing.

“We’ve seen an increase in students who reported stress, anxiety and depression as the leading academic impediments,” Assistant Vice President of USF Wellness Rita DeBate said in a presentation about mental health to the USF Faculty Senate on Feb. 22. “This is important because this is what the students are saying is an impediment to their academic success.”

The 2015 National College Health Assessment found 85 percent of students had felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point in the past year.

This can also lead to students using what are referred to as “study drugs” such as Ritalin or Adderall. According to the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, the misuse of prescription drugs can increase the risk of dependence and could result in “dangerously high body temperatures, irregular heartbeat, seizures or heart attack.”

There’s no doubt there’s pressure and demand during finals week, but there are ways to get through it, some without leaving the dorm.

Step 1, according to Petracco, is to make a plan on how to get things done and how to take care of yourself while you do it.

“Stress at this point in the semester is extremely common for college students,” she said. “Just being able to take the time to sit down and figure out how you’re going to get everything done that you need to is key.

“Figure out how much of what’s happening in your life is something to actually be afraid of and how much is perception — sort of a reality check.”

Petracco said a lot of what students tend to worry about is justified, but at the same time, some of it is just perception and emotion. Being able to withdraw some of the emotion allows students to think more clearly.

“Just because you did bad on one thing doesn’t mean you’re going to do bad on everything,” Petracco said. “That’s one of the perceptions that can be checked.

“There are these catastrophic thoughts that we jump to that evoke a lot of emotion and a lot of stress. If you just take a moment to scale that back and kind of ground ourselves back in reality, then we can lose some of that emotionality.”

The leading issues that bring students into the Counseling Center have consistently been anxiety, stress, depression and relationship troubles, regardless of the time of year, Petracco said.

But it’s how students respond to those issues that dictates the outcome.

“I see students who feel like something is not quite right, but they often ask themselves this question of, ‘Am I feeling bad enough to go to the Counseling Center yet?’” Petracco said. “They probably answer themselves, ‘No, it’s not bad enough yet.’”

She said these students often reiterate this question to themselves, a lot of times enabling the problem to build.

“You can ask yourself this question multiple times, but the first time you ask yourself the question is probably the right time to go,” Petracco said. “It’s so much easier to create change in your life when you’re only feeling a little bit distressed as opposed to letting it build.”