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’Tis the Season To Be Anxious

Strategies for handling end-of-semester stress

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David Farb, a School of Medicine professor and chairman of the department of pharmacology, will answer questions about end-of-semester stress, deadlines, and anxiety disorders tonight. Photo by Frank Curran

The season is upon us — of presents, eggnog, and family gatherings, but also sweaty palms, rapid heartbeats, and dreams of showing up to exams with a blank mind. Or naked. Or both.

Not to worry. It’s normal, says David Farb, a professor and chairman of the department of pharmacology at Boston University’s School of Medicine. In fact, run-of-the-mill anxiety, commonly felt around this time, can have an upside, helping you be more productive and motivating you to meet those fire-breathing deadlines.

While Farb’s specialty is anxiety-related pharmacology, not psychiatry, he’ll serve up his insights at a question-and-answer tonight at the George Sherman Union, one of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Resource Center’s Faculty Forum Chats. Among the topics: anxiety’s effect on the body, tips on how to manage and harness it, and how to tell if anxiety is nudging you into troubled waters.

BU Today: Judging by all the pill commercials on TV, it seems we’ve become a pretty anxious society.
We grew up in tribes, isolated areas, and we’ve evolved. The changes occurring today, and their rapidity, never were anticipated by evolution. Evolution only reacts. We need to think about how we deal with the information flow and social connectedness that’s such a big thing now. With all this information immediately available, everyone’s in a spotlight. You don’t get a break. Everything’s being quantified, evaluated, and analyzed.

And that doesn’t take into account the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
That’s probably more pronounced in the Northeast because that’s where the attacks occurred. For those of us who grew up here, there was always this sense of security. We don’t have hurricanes to speak of. We don’t have earthquakes. We don’t have wildfires. The nearest enemies were across the Atlantic; of course, there were missiles. But then all of sudden, you find that it’s possible for iconic structures like the World Trade Center to be brought down by terrorists. Then we had the anthrax scare. I think Europeans are more accustomed to living with these kinds of threats.

The state of the economy, too, is significant. The stability of U.S. currency, the value of students’ parents’ retirement funds, the ability to finance a college education, the idea that a college graduate could be guaranteed a high-paying job — all these beliefs were destabilized.

What’s the difference between normal anxiety and a disorder?
Anxiety can be good. It’s a normal part of our adaptive mechanisms and can increase our productivity. Having a sensation of mild fear over a midterm exam, a deadline, or a career issue is not an abnormal response and can be a motivator. It’s part of a survival mechanism. Even the extreme end of anxiety, which is fear, can be productive. For example, an artist having to perform in front of an audience could think about how to use that anxiety or fear to improve the performance. If that person was unable to perform and would freeze, then that would reach the level of anxiety disorder.

An anxiety disorder is characterized by a shift toward unproductive behavior. Once the emotional response interferes with normal life functions, it becomes a disorder. A free-floating sense of fear not associated with any trigger or event, someone who’s walking around fearful all the time, that gets into the area of anxiety disorder.

What causes an anxiety disorder?
A full-blown anxiety disorder can result from social mores. Agoraphobia, which is Greek for “fear of the marketplace,” or fear of going outside, is an anxiety disorder characteristically suffered by women, though it’s growing in men. It was typical in male-dominated societies where women feared going to the market, and they would develop a disorder and couldn’t leave the house. Today, that’s easily treatable with an anxiolytic.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is associated with war or violence. Even when the circumstances are gone, the fear-like sensation can persist. Anxiety disorders can be related to other kinds of issues like minor depression, which can lead to lack of productivity, difficulty studying and getting up in the morning, doing poorly on an exam, feeling bad about that. It can become a downward spiral.

What effect does anxiety have on the body?
It can increase blood pressure, make one more sensitive to stress. Increasing blood pressure can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The consequences of a lifetime of elevated blood pressure are pretty significant. Cardiovascular disease is the major killer. Stroke can result from cardiovascular disease.

How should students deal with the stress of exams and final papers?
Isolate life’s challenges and think about the specific problem and how to solve it, rather than reacting emotionally or out of fear. If it’s possible, build in a “dwell time” between the challenge or the perceived threat and reaction. Take a breath and see that this isn’t the end of the world, that there is life after final exams. Channel emotional energy into action. Of course, it’s easy to give advice.

There are also mechanisms for biofeedback, such as meditation or the relaxation response that was advocated by Herbert Benson. Those techniques are based on Eastern meditation. Various religions and philosophies incorporate these ideas, too. For the Catholic Church, it’s rosaries and repetitive chanting. Buddhism has bell ringing and chanting. It goes on and on.

Will you feel anxious before Thursday night’s discussion?
Definitely. The way I deal with it is I don’t think about it. I think about what I have to do. I compartmentalize. I might get anxious if I start to think on Monday, Oh my god, what will I do on Thursday if someone asks me a question and I don’t have an answer, and they’re videotaping it? So instead I think, OK, what do I have to do now? I focus on the next job. I have a block of time on Thursday; I’ll give myself two hours to think about it then.

The Faculty Forum Chat Anxiety! (Anxiety & Learning: Bad or Good?) is presented by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Resource Center, and will be moderated by John Carroll, an assistant professor of mass communication at the College of Communication. It takes places tonight, Thursday, December 3, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the George Sherman Union Metcalf Ballroom, 775 Commonwealth Ave. For more information, call 617-353-3696.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


2 Comments on ’Tis the Season To Be Anxious

  • Anonymous on 12.03.2009 at 1:18 pm

    I find it interesting and simultaneously disheartening to see all these articles in BU today (not to mention global western publications and news casts of any sort) that go out of their way to express (and downright defend) the idea that major stress is a normal, and functional, part of life. The push in America for a student to compete, to achieve, and to work devastating hours for average results is out of control, and, when you ask me (and for that matter, any of my friends studying at BU or comparable American universities) dysfunctional. We should be at a University to learn and grow, not to develop anxiety disorders, weaken our immune systems or amass hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

    I think this article is one more piece of evidence for a broken ideology. The simple fact is that extreme amounts of stress and work with an uncertain positive outcome (“the idea that a college graduate could be guaranteed a high-paying job…”) is not a functional way of life. And I disagree with seeing it defended as such.

  • Anonymous on 12.03.2009 at 2:11 pm

    good read babydoll


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