By Teresa Turco, NAMI-UW Treasurer
Whenever I ask my friends how they’re doing, I notice a pattern in their responses: they are always “stressed,” “busy,” “tired.” Their responses don’t change based on the lack of sunlight in the week or the overwhelming onslaught of midterms or a poorly planned weekend bender. Collectively, we’ve come to evaluate our mood based on our to-do list and because of this, we’ve zeroed in on the negative. By learning to fixate on our stressors, we condition ourselves to constantly worry. We feel busy during syllabus week and stressed during spring break.
College life is challenging—we’re confronted with student loans, paper deadlines, exams, and the pressure of knowing this is supposed to be the time of our lives. It is normal to feel stress and to experience negative emotions. But it is not adaptive or healthy to chronically feel stressed, and it’s particularly maladaptive to create a social narrative on commiserating constant stress.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of health problems: prolonged tension in the muscles, pain in the neck and upper back, increased risk for hypertension and stroke, high levels of stress hormones, etc. Beyond the health risks, our rumination on the stressors in our lives sets up counterproductive styles of thinking which can perpetuate our feelings of anxiety.
College life is stressful, but there will always have another exam to take or group project to struggle through. And after college, there will be stress from work deadlines and inept managers and relationship problems. Stressors are a constant part of life, but stress doesn’t have to be.
For me, NAMI has emphasized the importance of mental health. Even those with subclinical levels of anxiety could benefit from taking care of themselves. Everyone experiences mental health problems, the same way we all occasionally get colds. Individuals with anxiety are taught to focus on breathing, to doodle, picture their worries falling like leaves from a tree. They are taught to cope with their anxiety, to care for themselves, and to say no when things are too much. In the same way, everyone should feel comfortable to take steps in managing their own stress.
I’ve come to understand and validate mental health concerns in everyday interactions, to notice how the response to “how’s it going?” can reveal a pattern in stress levels. Listening to my stressed, busy, tired classmates recount the horror of their schedules day after day, I vowed to myself to always answer “how are you?” with a new answer, to come up with something to say about my day other than how hard it was, to stop training myself to focus on the stressors in my life. No matter how busy and stressful it gets, life is good.
By Steve Stark, Live Free Student Wellness and Recovery
My story of substance abuse starts like many others. In high school, I drank and smoked weed with my friends. It was fun and exciting, just the latest adventure of our young lives. It seemed harmless, too: we were safe and responsible (as responsible as teenagers can be), and there were no serious consequences beyond a hangover or the munchies. One thing I realized right away was how much I enjoyed the feeling of being intoxicated. Everything seemed perfect and I was finally at peace with the world. It would be years before I realized substances affected me differently than others—that this would be the beginning of my addiction.
Moving away from home and into my freshman dorm at UW gave me many new freedoms: the freedom to make my own schedule, the freedom to go out whenever I pleased and stay out as late as I wanted—and the freedom to ingest substances whenever I wanted. Of course, I took full advantage of this. The first time I recall anyone questioning my substance use was the second semester of freshman year—my roommate, frustrated with my habits, asked me why I needed to drink and smoke so much. I wish I could say that was when I turned things around, but I just brushed him off.
I can’t pin down the exact moment things started to change, but as time went on, my substance use went from being something I did for fun to something I couldn’t have fun without. I dreaded going back home to spend time with family because I couldn’t use the way I wanted to. The consequences started to pile up. I got arrested. My grades plummeted. I got arrested again. I began to have mental health issues. I started becoming involved with more dangerous substances, spending my time with more dangerous friends.
I’ll spare you the details, but my life had to fall apart almost completely before I was willing to admit I had a problem. I burned bridges with people I was close to, spent a lot of money, was hospitalized for weeks for a serious injury I received while intoxicated, and even got asked to leave UW. It got to a point where I was barely functional as a person. Eventually, I had had enough of the consequences and decided to ask for help.
One of the important lessons I’ve learned from recovery is that I can’t do it alone. I wasn’t able to stay sober at first, and only through building new relationships with a community of like-minded people was I able to feel at home and finally put down the drugs and alcohol for good (I also had to cut ties with some of my more negative influences, but that’s a story for another time). I got back into UW and the community of individuals in Live Free—the only student recovery group on campus-- has been a big part of my journey. I’m a member of a 12-step group, which has also played a crucial role in my recovery.
It’s been over two years since I’ve last had a drug or a drink of alcohol and my life is better in every measurable way. The people I’m close to say I’m a completely different person. Some of the benefits were immediate and obvious—I started to look and feel better right away. Some of them were subtler: I had more time and energy to succeed in school and work, and even to explore my passions and hobbies on the side. I got into the best shape of my life. I developed new relations with wonderful people. Recovery has been a long and sometimes difficult journey, but there’s nothing in the world I would trade it for.
For more information on Live Free and what they do for students, their website is linked here.
By Maddie Schebil, NAMI-UW Ambassador
During my freshman year here at UW-Madison, I went through one of the most challenging experiences of my life. It was something I didn't see coming, but should have. No, it was homesickness. No, it wasn't the challenge of college level course. No, it wasn't making new friends. It was anxiety.
Growing up, I was always a Type A kind of kid. I was never late for school, I always did my homework on time, and I organized my things to a T. Looking back I would say I was an anxious child. If my mom was 20 minutes late picking me up for school, I would cry. Knowing this about myself now, I should have expected anxiety to rear its ugly face when I went to school, but I didn't.
After the first couple months of college, I began to feel very different. I would wake up every single morning feeling like I was about to take an exam or give a speech. There was a pit in my stomach that wouldn't go away no matter what I did. Naturally, I would call my mom. She would know how to help. See my entire family has anxiety. My mom, both my sisters, my brother and my dad (who doesn't like to admit it). I knew this was something that could affect me too. Anxiety can be situational, but it can also be genetic. After a couple weeks of feeling this way my mom thought I needed to do something about it. This wasn't just being homesick, normal college kid stuff. This was a much bigger issue.
So I made an appointment with UHS and let me tell you it was the best decision I ever made. After a session or two it was obvious my anxiety stemmed from a chemical imbalance in my brain. My psychiatrist thought I should go on medication and see if it helped.
Sure enough after about a week and a half, I started to feel like myself again. I didn't wake up feeling as anxious, and I was sleeping normally again. Of course this didn't mean my anxiety was gone completely. I still deal with panic attacks and anxious moments, but I have control over it. And with the help of medical professionals, I learned skills to help me cope with it.
I am so happy that my mother was so understanding of how crippling living with anxiety can be. She directed me to the right people to get the help I needed, and I am forever grateful. Most people don't talk about mental health when they talk about going away to college, but it is something that affects more people than you would think. If you ever feel like you need help or support, do not be afraid to go out there and get it. You are not weak because of it, you are actually stronger than you can imagine for being able to recognize that there are things you can do to be your best self.
By Hannah Entner, NAMI-UW Ambassador
A great quote from one of my favorite movies, Legally Blonde is “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.” I’ve always thought this line was funny and maybe true, but never really thought about it until recently. Can you think of a time when you left the gym, a yoga class, or finished a run in a bad mood? Probably not. In fact, every time I leave the gym I feel like I could conquer the world. This mood boost happens because exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, the hormones that make you feel good inside. This is the reason you are constantly hearing that exercise is good for mental health. Endorphins help to decrease anxiety and depression. Chemically, this makes sense. It is proven to me every time I feel an anxious episode coming on and decide to head to the gym. Or when I’m having a particularly bad day at school and I stop at the gym on my way home. Nothing special happens between the time I walk through those doors and walk out, but I always feel significantly better afterwards, like I had never had those negative feelings in the first place. However, I don’t think endorphins are the only reason that exercise is good for our mental health. When you work out, you are doing something for yourself. It may be to destress, lose weight, or improve heart health, but all of these are ways to improve yourself and no one else. This is something to feel good about because it can be really hard to motivate yourself to exercise. But once you get there, it makes sense to feel happy because you achieved something. Good for you! You deserve those endorphins! So pick a type of exercise you love, because who doesn’t feel good when they do something they love, and the next time you’re feeling down, try to work out instead. You truly will feel the benefits inside and out.
By Natalie Hammer, NAMI-UW Ambassador
Anxiety ≠ Crazy. From early on in my diagnosis, I had to realize this statement true, but it was something I struggled with. I constantly thought having Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) made me crazy because I would worry and fixate on the little things, which my peers around me didn’t do. I’ve anxiety for as long as I can remember, and I want to share with you all my experiences with mental illness. IT’S OKAY TO TAKE MEDICATION. From my diagnosis, I’ve tried several medications to help with my anxious and sometimes depressive symptoms. There was one time in my life that I became particularity stubborn about taking medication. Again I felt crazy that I had to rely on medication every morning to make my day be smooth. During this time in my life, I hit rock bottom. I didn’t go to class, I didn’t hang out with my friends. I would lay in my bed sleeping or watching TV and would have mental breakdowns on the daily.
One day, my mom came to Madison and picked me up because I got so bad and she was so worried about me. She decided to make an appointment with my doctor for a med check (which I haven’t had in years). Long story short, my mom took me to the doctor and about 45 minutes later, I left the doctor with tears streaming down my face and a new prescription. I did not want to be dependent on medication. I thought I could improve without it. But then my mom told me something—she said that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain and medication was necessary in my treatment to balance my brain again. With her words and the doctor’s recommendation, I hesitantly took my new medication. At first, it made me feel foggy and gave me headaches (which is normal when starting a new medication). Although I felt crappy physically, I kept taking the pills and within 6 weeks, I could feel the medicine start to work. I began having a more positive mindset. I stopped sleeping as much. I hung out with my friends again. I went to class more. And most importantly, I started feeling like myself again. SO if you’re like me and get stubborn about taking meds for your mental health, it’s okay. We’ve all been there. But realize in some cases for your healing process that it is necessary in order to balance the chemicals in your brain, and taking medication does not make you crazy or weird or different from anyone else.