Why failure can be beneficial for an increasingly anxious generation

Leslie Ralph, a psychologist at Counseling and Psych Services at the University of Arizona Campus Health Services (Photo By: Devin Hoston/ Arizona Sonora News)

College students are more anxious now than they have ever been.

Based on a Spring 2017 survey done by the American College Health Association 60.8 percent of college students said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year. This was nearly a 10 percent increase from the assessment back in 2008 and a 3 percent increase just from the previous year.

In the last decade, anxiety has surpassed depression as the No. 1 reason college students seek professional help or counseling.

The trend remains the same at the University of Arizona, according to student surveys administered at the University Campus Health Services. Anxiety was listed as student’s top concern with depression following as a second in an annual self-reporting survey.

Leslie Ralph, a psychologist at Counseling and Psych Services at the University of Arizona, said social media and the unlimited availability of other people’s lives at our fingertips plays a major role in this significant spike in anxiousness amongst young people.

“In our increasingly digital age, we see that technology has the potential to contribute to anxiety just as much as making life more convenient… students come in with more expectations for instant results and gratification and seem to have more trouble tolerating the frustrations that are a natural part of college and growing into adulthood,” said Ralph.

Ralph said that students comparing their appearance, lifestyle, and success to others that they may or may not know via social media can create feelings of self-doubt, depression, and anxiety about aspects of their own lives.

“People only depict themselves the way they want to be seen on social media but in turn this can cause us to compare ourselves to people who seem to be doing better than us,” Ralph said.

Ralph who sees students at CAPS daily,  said that the number of students seeking help for anxiety has increased in the last years and based on their most recent survey 70 percent of students self-reported anxiety as their top concern. She said that college students tend to be more anxious than the general population because of the high expectations they place on themselves and their lack of “emotional resilience.”

Students need to become comfortable with the idea of failure as a normality, and build the ability to “bounce back” rather than be deterred from it.

As people it’s normal to feel anxious about day-to-day activities. Anxiety becomes problematic when it begins to cause distress or create a barrier for carrying out those day-to-day-activities.

The counselors at CAPS meet students for brief therapy sessions where they assess the student’s concerns and determine what kind of follow up services are needed. CAPS counselors provide students dealing with mild anxiety the tools for managing anxious thoughts and effective problem-solving strategies. Students are encouraged to start a journal, meditate, exercise, and engage in personally meaningful activities, whatever that may be for them.

Psychiatrists at CAPS evaluate students who are determined to be dealing with more severe forms of anxiety, some similar problem-solving strategies are used along with follow-up medication checks if medication has been prescribed.

Kerry Schwanz, a psychologist and professor at Coastal Carolina University, did extensive research on anxiety and college students. Schwanz and various other psychologists conducted a 2016 research study titled Self-Reliance and Relations with Parents as Predictors of Anxiety and Depression in College Students.

Schwanz and colleagues wanted to determine the role self-reliance plays in the lives of college students blindsided by the academic demands, financial commitments and overall stress that comes with moving away from home and living independently.

The survey of over 150 students found, “self-reliance, which specifically represents a positive view and confidence in one’s ability to make decisions, was a better predictor of lower levels of self-reported anxiety…”

Schwanz said college students whose parents take an overbearing role in their children’s lives when it comes to decision making has a direct link to onset anxiety.

“They have never been given the chance to succeed or fail, which leads to feelings of anxiousness when it comes time for decision-making in adulthood… they’ve become accustomed to never having to make them on their own,” Schwanz said.

Helicopter parenting based on data from numerous college counseling centers can induce anxiety. Parents attempting to protect their children from failure may actually harm their child in the long run as failure is deemed to be a necessary part of success.

“Parents need to allow for their children to make their own decisions starting at a young age… success and failure can build feelings of self-reliance,” Schwanz said.

She said there are simple things that can relieve feelings of anxiousness in college students as they come naturally. Breathing being one of them.

“There are several breathing techniques that students can try when the body is in this fight or flight mode that it enters during an anxiety attack… breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and is proved to be successful in stressful situations of all forms.” Schwanz said.

The Anxiety Depression Association of America can help students looking to find a therapist or mental health care provider in their area here, or students can visit their school website to learn how to make an appointment with a counselor at their school.

Devin Hoston is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at deh@email.arizona.edu.

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