Chris’s fingernails are worn down so low from his nail-biting habit that his cuticles sometimes bleed from being chewed raw. The telecommunications senior bites his nails whenever he studies or contemplates life after his December graduation. He bites to get rid of the ragged skin around the ends of his fingers, he bites as a stress reliever.
Like 19 million other Americans, Chris suffers from an anxiety disorder. Psychologists at the MSU Counseling Center started a group-therapy program nearly three years ago to address the growing need to help students on campus struggling to manage anxiety.
[disorder] Dr. David Novicki, a professor, counselor, and specialist in the treatment of anxiety disorders at the Counseling Center, has noticed a significant increase in the number of MSU students seeking help for stress and anxiety over the past two years. During this time, he estimates that the number of students at MSU with this type of disorder has grown by 20 percent. Over the last decade, he said that it has risen by about 50 percent.
Eventually, the pain of his shorn fingernails forced Chris to seek psychological help for the negative thoughts weighing down his life. He described this habit as the physical manifestation of his worries about romantic relationships and pressure from responsibilities with the demanding clients at his job as a web developer.
Novicki said that he feels the general population of the United States is more anxious since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, spurring a jump in the number of people suffering from anxiety-related mental illnesses.
“Our culture is changing,” he explained. “Most everything that [our government] has done in the past few years is anxiety-causing. The stress level in our country has increased dramatically.”
Our country also places less influence on communication than it used to, noted Novicki. With the popularity of computer chatting, the huge amounts of daily email being exchanged in cyberspace, and a reliance on cell phones, he believes that Americans have less face-to-face human interaction than they did before the advent of technology.
“The internet isolates people,” said Novicki. “They talk with a keyboard instead of a person.” This, in turn, raises an individual’s level of loneliness, and that causes feelings of depression and anxiety.
No one knows this better than Joe, an English senior at MSU. A self-described “addict” of internet gaming, Joe’s new hobby is playing World of Warcraft, a role-playing fantasy game in which players journey through an epic alternative universe battling evil forces.
“It’s a very social game,” he explained, emphasizing that he has numerous online buddies around the country who play World of Warcraft as much as he does. “But it keeps me in my room. It isolates me from the people that live around me.”
Joe began group therapy when he transferred to MSU one year ago to help combat the social anxiety that was separating him from his peers. Although he lives in an on-campus dorm, he only socializes with few students on his floor. Weekends are often spent deeply involved in World of Warcraft, and after days have passed, Joe will realize that “suddenly, [he] can’t find people to do stuff with.” But he is working to improve his quality of life.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is that it’s up to me how much I want to change,” he said.
Joe explained that Dr. Novicki’s group has taught him how to feel more positive and productive by making small changes in his thinking, like replacing the word “should” with “want.” He doesn’t tell himself that he should go out and make friends: he reminds himself that he wants to make friends because that will help him to be happier. This small adjustment, he said, reduces a lot of unnecessary worry, guilt, and anxiety-producing thoughts.
Dr. Novicki also identifies the burden placed on young people to successfully transition from an adolescent to an adult as a trigger causing anxiety disorders in people at the college level.
“People are concerned with the way they’re ‘supposed’ to be,” said Novicki. “It’s an overload of the system. The anxiety becomes a real burden, until it affects the quality of life.”
A student’s general happiness can decrease dramatically if they feel overwhelmed by the pressure to achieve independence from their parents, attain high academic scores, maintain romantic relationships, and cultivate lifelong friendships.
When he was in high school, Chris fit the profile of someone whose quality of life dropped due to anxiety. He constantly worried about his grades and the pressure of being an honor student. He remembers not being able to focus when reading entire pages from his textbook. He was even concerned that he might have Attention Deficit Disorder.
“Something was wrong,” he remembered. “I had anxiety then, but I didn’t know it.”
Chris sought assistance from Michigan State University’s Counseling Center at the end of September, in hopes of finally overcoming his anxiety.
For the millions of sufferers across America, and the growing number of distressed students at MSU, Dr. Novicki wants to emphasize the fact that anxiety disorders are “incredibly treatable.”
Both Joe and Chris felt that they have received adequate help from the MSU Counseling Center in their struggle to cope with their anxiety disorders. They agreed that Dr. Novicki’s system of group therapy is helpful, because it allows them to talk with other students facing similar problems.
“You feel like you’re not alone,” said Chris, who now implements the group’s simple relaxation exercises whenever he feels anxious or stressed.
Joe prefers the group setting to individual counseling because he really likes getting feedback from the other students, with the assistance of a moderator trained in dealing with the subject matter.
“It’s like a safe place where people can say whatever they want,” he said.
The results are not immediate, though. Chris began noticing an improvement in his mood and general outlook on life after four of the weekly two-hour sessions. Novicki reported that students usually attend between eight and twenty sessions, depending on the severity of their disorder. But there is no limit on the number of times one can attend, as there is with one-on-one therapy; at MSU, students can individually see a counselor for eight hours per year at no cost.
“It’s liberating when you admit that you have issues,” Chris added. “You’ll be able to focus on the important things in life, as opposed to worrying about a bunch of [stuff] that’s probably not going to happen.”
For more information on how to treat and overcome issues with anxiety, contact the MSU Counseling Center at (517) 355-8270. The offices are located at 207 Student Services Building.