Do sabre-toothed tigers prowl university campuses?

Do sabre-toothed tigers lounge in empty lecture theatres? Have you seen a grizzly bear queuing for coffee?

They sound like ridiculous questions, but one-fifth of Australian university students would subconsciously answer yes…including me.

A grizzly bear Source: wikicommons

A typical lecture during my undergraduate degree went something like this.

I’d walk in to the theatre and run a mental algorithm to find the perfect seat. The perfect seat was close to an exit, preferably in the aisle seat and not too close to the front. I had to be able to escape the lecture theatre without drawing much attention…just in case.

Next, I would sit down and take out the materials I needed for the lecture: a note book, pen and glasses. Not too many items. I had to be able to scoop them up in a hurry…just in case. My stomach would groan. My logic told me if I didn’t eat breakfast, I wouldn’t have to worry about vomiting it up. But, I worried anyway and carried a spew bag with me everywhere I went…just in case.

My mouth would feel like the Sahara desert, but I’d hesitate drinking water because of my constant nausea. In every lecture, every tram, every crowd and every pub, my heart beat soared and my liver released extra sugar so I was pumped full of energy ready to fight…or flee.

Fight or Flight

The fight or flight response, which I just described, was useful for ancient humans who did encounter predators like grizzly bears and sabre-toothed tigers. Fighting or fleeing in the face of danger without needing to think about it was vital for cave-dwellers’ survival.

In fight or flight mode, our amygdala tells our hypothalamus we’re in danger and it needs to prepare our body to attack or run away. Our hypothalamus signals to our pituitary gland to release adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). These hormones boost our energy and make us hyper focused on any danger nearby. By the time this process occurs, our conscious mind has probably only just realised there is a threat. The fight or flight mechanism is incredibly important for our survival.


Fight or flight response diagram Source: wikicommons


But, sometimes the amygdala is too trigger happy. Like a smoke alarm beeping every time someone burns the toast, the amygdala sets of the body’s fight or flight response when there is no fire. This is called an anxiety disorder.

Why are university students so prone?

Seventy-five percent of people with mental health disorders have their first episode before the age of twenty-four. University is a time when many students move away from home and are usually under serious financial stress. Trying to balance full time study with a job, plus the pressure to perform, and perfectionist tendencies make universities a petri dish for mental health disorders. And anxiety is the most common.

Did you notice the past tense?

You may have noticed my description of a typical lecture was in past tense. Earlier this year I sought help from my GP. She prescribed medication and referred me to Melbourne University’s counselling services. The medication stops my serotonin (the happy hormone) from breaking down and the counselling helped me identify anxiety triggers and gave me tactics to deal with the anxiety. My quality of life has improved a thousand percent. I no longer look over my shoulder for sabre-toothed tigers, I look forward with hope.

Sabre-toothed tigers are dead Source: wikicommons


If this raised any issues with you, or you can relate to the symptoms I described, please seek help. These services are free for students and young people.

Beyond Blue

Head Space

Unimelb Counselling Services


10 Responses to “Do sabre-toothed tigers prowl university campuses?”

  1. chatzis says:

    Great post and thanks for sharing! I advocate for anyone to always seek help for their mental health, because for me it was lifechanging. It’s all about finding what works best for you!

  2. Kimberley Reid says:

    Thank you all for the positive feedback! I think it’s important to understand and show the physical effects of mental illness. The same symptoms i.e. nausea can be caused by physical illnesses (e.g. food poisoning or the flu), which most people wouldn’t hesitate talking about or seeking help for.

    Also, there is a pretty bad stigma surrounding anti-depressants, which is why it took me years to actually see my doctor, but if I had known a lot of that stigma wasn’t accurate I would’ve sought help sooner.

  3. Paige Druce says:

    What a great post to bring awareness to something that affects so many of us. I really enjoyed the way you weaved the science into your narrative. Thank you for sharing your story.

  4. feliciabon says:

    Really appreciate and respect you sharing your personal experiences with mental health, it makes it much easier for the reader to relate and not feel alone! The metaphor of the sabre-toothed tiger makes the post very engaging and easy to follow along, good work!

  5. awylde says:

    Such a great read. Your description of your usual routine at lectures painted a very vivid picture as to how it must have felt. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Nancy Rivers Tran says:

    The topic is so relatable for everyone, not just university students. Great choice!! The explanation and narration of the science behind fight and flight response was also fun to read.
    You also provide link and services for others who might need help as well. Amazing.
    Thanks for a good read.

  7. Sam says:

    What a powerful piece. Thank you for helping to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness.

  8. Ben says:

    What an articulate and creative piece, thanks for helping to normalise the unspoken!

  9. As someone with an anxiety issue as well, I really enjoy your writing and I am proud of what you have done to help yourself

  10. Tom says:

    Really accurate description of the effects of anxiety that hit close to home. I’m proud of you and your recovery story is a great article