Expert Q&A: Why Students of all ages are so anxious

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If you know anyone under the age of 23, the information in the next paragraph probably won’t surprise you.

Young adults, in college and in high school, are totally stressed out – about everything from schoolwork to social media to career prospects to the state of the world.

The situation isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.

With each passing year since at least 2008, studies have shown that an increasing number of students are suffering from anxiety.

In 2013, for example, almost half of all college students sought counseling for stress, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

We asked clinical social worker Dianna Stencel, who has worked for Loyola University Chicago’s Wellness Center since  2002, what’s going on.

Stencel has a B.A. in psychology and a minor in philosophy. She later received her Master’s in Social Work at the University of Illinois.

Here, she explains why college students – and even high school students at such neighborhood schools as Senn and Sullivan – are so anxious.

Define anxiety in your own words.

Anxiety isn’t necessarily an illness or a problem, it’s more of a feeling we can’t control. It’s much more than just being overwhelmed. For instance, when we are sad, we do something that cheers us up, like call a friend or take a walk. Anxiety isn’t as easily controlled and I think that’s what students struggle with it the most. They cannot control it, and today that is something that students have trouble grasping. They want to be in control of everything they do to ensure a positive outcome or future.

What is the most common cause of anxiety?

Most students say expectations are too high. They think they have to do certain things in order to be worthy, or successful.

Why do you think anxiety has become such a prevalent issue in college students today?

Over the past several years, anxiety has completely surpassed depression as the number one reason students in college go to therapy or some kind of counseling service. One study says anxiety increased in college students from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016. That being said, I think it all goes back to what I said earlier about having too many expectations. There seems to be a constant push to do even better, almost like there is no limit. Students no longer understand the concept of “trying your best.” It’s about being the best.

What’s changed in this generation?

There have also been studies about the concept of perfectionism, especially in college students today. They are consistently bombarded with schoolwork, extra-curricular activities, keeping a job, only to keep fighting for better jobs, because they feel it just isn’t enough. I’ve been told so many times by students that if they aren’t doing something worthwhile, they feel anxious and cannot sit still. And when they cannot sit still, they resort to their phones or computers to scroll through social media. But then when they see others “doing.” they feel instant stress.


Do you think society as a whole is an additional cause to anxiety?

What society expects of young people is crazy to me. Just what people do in their everyday lives is crazy to me, no matter what age. College students in particular though are juggling so much mentally and physically to the point that it’s chipping away at them, which comes in the form of anxiety. Students always tell me about their parents or grandparents telling them that schooling when they were young is nowhere near what it is for their kids today. The workload was lighter, there was more room for free time and fun, and just less stress. But I hear about students that are already focusing on their lives years down the road, and I think to myself, why is this a worry in the present? And it is because society paints this picture in our minds that we have to be successful or life is not worth living.


How do you feel about social media’s role in increasing student anxiety?

Social media absolutely plays a role in the development of anxiety. Students post virtually every aspect of their day on Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Students viewing these posts compare themselves to others.  If the viewer feels the other person has a better life, then the viewer feels stress. It’s one big cycle.

What advice do you have for students today to help minimize anxiety?

Check in with yourself. It sounds easier than it is unfortunately, but remaining in tune with what your mind and body needs is huge. Mindfulness, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation are exercises my students have found very helpful.

Here is a five minute meditation to decrease stress.

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