UT-Austin's University Health Services sees rise in anxiety-related illnesses toward end of semesters

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Photo Credit: Andrew Choi | Daily Texan Staff

Every year around finals season, University Health Services sees a rise in symptoms related to anxiety or chronic stress, said Dr. Melinda McMichael, interim executive director at UHS.

“(For) the providers, the physicians, nurse practitioners and PA’s who have worked at UHS and in college health across the country, there is a general consensus that stress-related illnesses increase toward the end of the semester,” McMichael said.

UHS professionals see increases in respiratory infections, fatigue and symptoms of any underlying chronic medical condition a person may have, McMichael said.

What happens in the body when a person experiences anxiety is the brain’s fight or flight system is triggered, said Laura Wahlstrom, a licensed psychologist who has a private practice in Austin.

“The brain is detecting a threat and sending a signal to the body to release stress hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol which help to mobilize us to defend ourselves,” Wahlstrom said. “What those hormones also do is they turn off different systems in our body that we don’t need when there is a threat, things like digestion and immune functioning.”

The fight or flight system can be activated when in a state of anxiety or stress, producing adverse effects on the body. Insomnia, increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and impaired immune system functioning could all happen in a state of high stress, Wahlstrom said.

 

Public relations senior Michaela Newman went to the UHS last week thinking she had strep throat, but then found out she had a “stress ulcer.”

Ulcers found in the throat are sores that form in the back of the throat and can sometimes block a person’s airway. 

“It’s my last semester of college in residence … I’m taking 18 hours, and I’ve been pretty well able to manage all of the classes except for one which has caused me quite a bit of stress,” Newman said. “Last week I was really feeling the pressure, and I genuinely think it was that class that brought (the ulcer) on.”

Wahlstrom said she recommends students try to spread out their workflow throughout the semester rather than letting assignments pile up at the end of the year.

“I think moderation and healthy habits and consistency are the key to trying to manage stress and anxiety,” Wahlstrom said. “This goes a little bit against the way many college students function, which is like feast or famine.”