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 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.
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.
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.