It is graduation day and feet slowly trudge up the aisle to professors, the college dean and even Rita Cheng. As you get closer, you hear them reading off the names:
“Cooper, Allison. Who failed biology three times to get here a semester late.”
“Cline, John. Kissed up to his professors but still only managed a C average.”
Next is your name and all of the stress, forgotten exams, missed classes and nights of binge drinking come flooding back, and you jerk awake.
It has been 10 years since you reached for that diploma.
For many students, graduating is no big deal. Moving on from the stresses of school to the stresses of life is an easy transition, but students whose college career was more than just stressful are finding it difficult to let go.
Several magazines, which cover topics like stress, anxiety and other mental disorders, call this “post-college graduation stress.” And it is a result of the chronic stress of school being lifted and graduates being thrown into a new world of adult life.
Ethan Simpson, 2010 ASU graduate with a degree in religious studies, describes the anxiety he has had since graduation.
“As a professional in my mid-30s, I still get that dream at night,” said Simpson. “The nightmare is my adviser telling me that I didn’t graduate and I still had other classes to take. At the end of the dream, I jolt up and have to physically hold my college degree. Holding it snaps me back into consciousness and gives me a sense of relief. Seeing the date and signature at the bottom reminds me I finished.”
Chronic stress or anxiety has a variety of health impacts that can last for years. The American Psychological Association (APA) cited in a 2016 report that “untreated chronic stress can result in serious health conditions including anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.”
Many report stress dreams occur on a regular basis, such as what was seen with Simpson. Even though what happened in those dreams may be from events over 10 years old, they still pop up. This calls into question whether the stress of university life ever really leaves.
According to a study released by the APA in 2014, an increasing number of students are developing anxiety disorders that make it difficult for them to function in day-to-day situations.
And as many see, the first year and a half to two years of college run similarly to what is seen in high school. They work as preparation for the years to come when the workload is quite a bit larger.
The work and stress load students face in their junior and senior year is high all over the world. It has been cited by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America that anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States for adults 18 and up.
Susan Patrick, a Flagstaff psychologist, has been in practice for more than 10 years. Patrick specializes in anxiety along with marital, premarital and relationship issues.
“If it’s not treated and people continue on their way, it is likely some people have chronic stress,” said Patrick. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean they get an anxiety disorder — some have proportionate stress levels and may be prone to it.”
The 2013 National College Health Assessment described numbers as high as one third of college students battle depression and almost half have debilitating anxiety attacks within a year.
Junior mechanical engineering major Bart Mandaag gets through the tough weeks by relying on a variety of crutches.
“I drink. I also drink coffee and eat a ton of food. But I’m still distracted, feel anxiety almost the entire time and of course I use dark humor,” said Mandaag.
On campus, students are given a variety of ways to help them cope with anxiety and work toward managing their stress. For students living on campus, residential assistants are available around the clock to help with any major issues, and campus has counseling services as well.
But much of the issue is being able to identify when the stress level is too high. The issue arises when students are unable to find healthy coping mechanisms.
“Aerobic exercise is great for helping relieve the tension in your body,” Patrick said. “Once we get stressed, we hold it in our bodies. If you feel anxious, go run or do aerobic exercise so your body can relax.”
As part of tuition, visits to the Health and Learning Center are already paid for. But if working out does not do the trick there are places across campus and Flagstaff that can help relieve some of that stress as well, including nature hikes down the Urban Trail system.
Despite the prevalence of post-college graduation stress, graduates like Simpson would not change their undergraduate years.
“I graduated with a degree in religious studies because I loved the topic and I still do. It was hard and has obviously had repercussions, but what I find is that I could not be more grateful to have this information,” Simpson said. “It doesn’t have much to do with my profession, but it helps me everyday. I wouldn’t give any of it up, even the nightmares, if that meant I lost this knowledge.”