The university's Counseling and Psychological Services saw a record 469 students last year, and of those students more than 50 percent were seeking help to cope with stress.
Since 2000, CAPS has seen a steadily increasing number of students -- about 20 students more per year, on average.
The reason for the increase is debatable, but what is certain is that most students who visit CAPS are dealing with high levels of stress or coping with stress-related disorders.
Peter LeViness, director of CAPS, said most Richmond students are stressed from being "typical," defined as someone who is working toward a double major and is involved in multiple extracurricular activities.
"A common pattern we see among the students that come through here is that they are taking on too much," LeViness said. "A lot of the stress they have is self-imposed. It comes from perfectionism."
Being overcommitted can lead to unhealthy amounts of stress that can have serious health consequences, while a lack of stress leads to boredom and apathy.
There are three levels of stress: Level one is no stress; the second level is eustress, which occurs when a person has enough stress to motivate and to drive toward completing goals; and distress occurs when a person has too much stress, leading to exhaustion and other serious medical conditions.
Sarah Fisher, a nurse at the university's health center, said a number of the students who come into the health center are dealing with stress-related illnesses.
"It's difficult to document these kinds of things," she said, "but stress seems to tie in with any number of health issues that we deal with on a regular basis here." Headaches, nausea, diarrhea and, in extreme cases, pulmonary problems can all be linked with stress, Fisher said.
Insomnia is a common reaction to stress among Richmond students, Fisher said. "A lot of students that come through here with stress-related issues are having difficulty sleeping."
Students often sacrifice sleep during stressful times to catch up with work, but that will only increase stress and lead to exhaustion, said Tracy Cassalia, who is a health educator with the Recreation and Wellness department.
"If you are not getting enough sleep, it actually reduces your effectiveness by 50 percent," she said, "and pulling all-nighters is about the worst thing you can do if you are stressed. It takes your body three to seven days to adjust to a new sleep schedule, so you will not feel 100 percent again during that time."
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LeViness compared studying while sleep-deprived with studying after a night of drinking. "Nobody would ever think about studying after six or seven beers," he said. "But students will not hesitate to study on four to five hours of sleep. Studies have shown that it is about the same thing."
In the short term, high amounts of stress trigger the same reactions in the body that are used in self-defense, LeViness said. Adrenaline is triggered in the system and released into the bloodstream, but if the it is not enough to handle the stress, cortisol is then released as a long-term stress-coping mechanism, which can damage the body over the long term, he said.
Increased cortisol can lead people to gain weight because it increases hunger, and recent animal studies have shown that cortisol could be linked with brain degradation, he said.
That may also explain why so many people get sick during midterms and finals, he said. "Cortisol works away at your immune system and leaves you more susceptible to sicknesses like the cold and flu."
In the long term, stress, combined with prolonged high doses of cortisol in the blood, can have serious behavioral and mental consequences. People under stress are prone to heavy smoking, eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Psychologically, stress can lead to sexual dysfunction, anxiety disorders, burnout and depression.
Medical risks associated with prolonged stress include increased likelihood of heart attacks because cortisol overworks the cardiovascular system. Stroke is another possible consequence of unmanaged stress. High blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, tension headaches, ulcerative colitis, skin breakouts and general aches and pains are all possible consequences of unmanaged stress.
Exercise is one important way that experts say stress can be managed, Cassalia said. "Exercising releases endorphins into the blood," she said. "That is where the 'natural high' that people talk about comes from. Really, it relieves stress by getting your mind off of whatever it is that is stressing you out."
Exercise gets rid of excess cortisol during times of stress, too.
"Stress triggers the fight-or-flight reaction and all those fuels, the adrenaline and cortisol go into your body," LeViness said. "The problem is that when you are under stress, especially in an academic environment, physical action is very rarely what is required. Exercise allows you to use and burn off all those extra fuels."
Experts agree that time management is an important part of handling unhealthy amounts of stress.
"The problem becomes that people, even if they schedule, will start to over-schedule," Cassalia said. "People need to understand that when they make their schedule they need to set aside time for exercise or meditation, or whatever it is that they do to relax."
It is important to remember that there are resources available to you if you are having trouble coping with life at Richmond, or adjusting to your new environment.
Contact staff writer David Larter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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