Still adjusting to college life? No worries – it’s normal.

I wish someone had told me when I started undergrad that the adjustment can be really tough and that it can take awhile. I was also far from home, missing my friends from high school, and trying to get used to college life.

Instead, everyone told me that college would be the best four years of my life, that I would make amazing new friends, and enjoy the freedom of being on my own.

I later realized that it’s normal to feel awkward, lost, confused, homesick, and lonely (and so many other things!) when you start college. The first semester is especially hard for many people. It’s a huge adjustment, and even though everyone might not always be open about it, lots of people struggle when they start college. It’s still totally normal to not feel ready to call UNC home yet—sometimes it takes a semester or two (and sometimes more) to feel at home.

Here are some tips that I found helpful when I was struggling to adjust and that might help you find ways to make the campus feel a bit more like home.

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Remember, it took Harry a while to feel at home at Hogwarts, too! — photo: “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: This Way To Hogwarts.” Scott Smith. Flickr Creative Commons.
  • Know that you aren’t alone. Lots of people feel the same way, even if they aren’t talking about it. You are not the only one who is having a difficult time. It’s a time of transition for everyone and it can be very overwhelming.
  • Keep your door open. If you live in a residence hall, leaving your door open is a good way to meet people in your hall. It can also be a way to invite people to hang out without having to be especially social. It’s not too late to still meet people who live in your hall! If you’re a grad student, leave your office or carrel door open. Just the “window” to the rest of the world leaves space for some interactions that might not otherwise happen.
  • Find a place on campus you like. This could be a tree to study under, a favorite spot in the library, the Union, or an office on campus, such as the LGBTQ Center or Women’s Center. Leave some favorite spots in the comments!
  • Talk to people in your classes. Did someone ask a thought-provoking question in discussion? Tell them so—it can lead to a great conversation that you can continue over lunch or coffee. Also, forming study groups is a great way to know people while also helping each other out! This can be a good way to get to know people in your class you’ve wanted to talk to all semester.
  • Join a club or organization. Getting involved is one of the best ways to meet people. In addition to being a place of higher education, college is also a great time to try something new or connect with people who have similar interests. Check out a sport, a service or political organization, or a religious or cultural group on campus. Joining a club or organization gives you an opportunity to meet friends who have similar interests, and for many clubs you can join at any point throughout the year.
  • Know your resources! There are lots of people on campus who want to help you adjust and who understand it can be rough. CAPS can be a great resource to talk out how you are feeling, especially if these feelings persist. The Learning Center and The Writing Center are great places to visit to talk about adjusting to the college workload and college level writing. All these resources are covered under student fees, so it costs you nothing but a bit of time to take advantage of them!

Welcome to UNC, y’all!

Amee Wurzburg is the Sexual Violence Prevention Program Manager at Student Wellness. She is currently earning her Masters in Public Health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC. Amee received her BA in History from Barnard College of Columbia University. Before moving to North Carolina, Amee worked at an organization in India focused on HIV, where she worked on projects related to rights-violations, LGBTQ health, and domestic violence.

This post was originally published November 2014. It has been edited for clarity. 

Mission Impossible: Sleep and the UNC Student

“Sleep, social life, or good grades,” my buddy said with a grin, “pick two.”

College sleep

By now, you understand how busy life at UNC can become – which makes the statement above a bit closer to reality than most of us would like. With all the organizations to join, social events to attend, people to meet, languages to learn, papers to write, and projects to complete, most students at UNC wish for more hours in a day. Sometimes, they get those extra hours by forgoing sleep.

Especially at a competitive school like UNC, students quickly fall into the dangerous trap of taking pride in sacrificing sleep for academics. I’ve heard many UNC students brag about pulling an all-nighter. People even say things like “I can sleep when I’m dead.” or “Sleep is for sissies.” (That last one is advice a professor gave me at UNC. Yikes.).

Given the culture surrounding sleep on a competitive college campus, I know that prioritizing sleep is going to be difficult. But the research is clear: getting enough sleep has wide-ranging benefits in areas that are especially important to students such as memory, focus, and stress.

Benefits of Sleep

Truthfully, researchers don’t really know why we sleep.

They do know that when people are sleep-deprived, their attention, focus, motivation to learn, creativity, ability to think abstractly, and vigilance are all decreased. This makes it harder to receive and properly process incoming information, and makes it more likely that we make sloppy errors in our work.  When tired, neurons don’t function properly, and we are less able to recall previously learned information. Can’t learn new things? Can’t remember old things? Lack of sleep takes its toll on the student’s brain.

In addition to negatively affecting memory both before and after learning, inadequate sleep impairs judgment, mood, motivation, and how we perceive events. Over time, poor sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and depression.  Lack of sleep can also lead to weight gain.

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New research has even suggested that not getting enough sleep makes us appear unattractive and sad.

If you don’t get enough sleep over time, you build up a sleep debt.

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Sleep is good. I get it. Now what?

Getting good sleep is about developing good habits, or “Sleep Hygiene.” Harvard Medical School has a Division of Sleep Medicine website which I highly recommend if you are interested in learning more about sleep. They have listed 12 tips for improving sleep which are amazingRead them nowSeriously.

Below is the abbreviated version. For full explanations, hit the links above!

  1. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other chemicals that interfere with sleep (especially 4-6 hours before bedtime).
  2. Turn your bedroom into a sleep-inducing environment. Keep work, electronic devices and bright lights out of the bedroom.
  3. Establish a soothing pre-sleep routine.
  4. Only go to sleep when you are truly tired.
  5. Don’t be a nighttime clock-watcher.
  6. Use natural light to your advantage to stay on a natural awake-sleep schedule. Avoid devices after nightfall, or if you can’t turn off your mobile device or laptop, consider a red-light filter to remind your body when it is time for sleep.
  7. Keep your internal clock set with a consistent sleep schedule.
  8. Nap early, before 5pm, or not at all.
  9. Lighten up on evening meals.
  10. Balance fluid intake.
  11. Exercise. Ideally early in the day, and at least 3 hours before bedtime.
  12. Stick with your new sleep routine!

Want more info? Check out greatist.com’s list of 27 ways to sleep better tonight.  The NY Times has some great info on sleeping better in their wellness section, like steps for more, and better, sleep and how exercise can help us sleep better.

It’s easy to let your work slip into sleepy time, but remember that doing so makes your hard-working brain work even harder. Instead of pulling an all-nighter, plan ahead and break up studying into multiple smaller sessions. Sleeping between bouts of studying will help consolidate your memories and help you do better on your test. When socializing, make sure you are taking into account how much sleep you have been getting before deciding to hang out with friends late at night.

If you are still having issues with sleep, come into UNC Counseling and Psychological Services or Campus Health Services. Both services offer insight to support UNC grad and undergrad students in getting higher quality and more regular sleep.

Happy Sleeping!

This post was originally published Sept 27, 2013. It has been edited for clarity.

Pokémon Go Out and Be Well

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve probably heard about the new game called Pokémon Go by Niantic Labs. The free-to-play smartphone game is based off the Japanese franchise in which players collect and battle virtual creatures, called Pokémon. Since its release on July 6th, the game has been downloaded more than 500 million times, quickly becoming the biggest mobile game in US history (sorry Candy Crush fans!).

Despite some of its potential risks—do NOT play while driving!—the game has garnered the praise of many experts as a public health boon. Because the app uses GPS technology, players or “trainers” are encouraged to get out and explore the world beyond their computer screens. Whether it’s hatching a 10km egg, looking for the nearest PokéStop, or hunting that elusive Bulbasaur on the in-game tracker, Pokémon Go promotes a more active lifestyle. In fact, Niantic CEO John Hanke confirmed in August that trainers have walked about 2.8 billion miles while playing the game!

Niantic has been very transparent about the game’s health-related components. As Hanke stated in an interview:

“A lot of fitness apps come with a lot of ‘baggage’ that end up making you feel like ‘a failed Olympic athlete’ when you’re just trying to get fit, Hanke says. ‘Pokémon Go’ is designed to get you up and moving by promising you Pokémon as rewards, rather than placing pressure on you.”

But expanding your Pokédex is not the only reward for playing. Several recent studies have shown connections between a sedentary lifestyle and health risks like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

And Pokémon Go’s benefits could be more than simply physical. As other studies have shown, physical activity is likely to have a positive effect on mental health—and shows promise in reducing anxiety as well as improving self-esteem and cognitive functioning. Moreover, Pokémon Go’s more social aspects could help prevent feelings of depression and loneliness. And while Pokémon Go is not a substitute for professional mental health treatments, it can encourage players to improve their own wellbeing by being more active and social.

So, for all those active trainers still out to catch ‘em all, here are several tips to promote a healthier way of playing!

  • Start a Poké-running club – Get a group of friends together to go for a run while keeping those cell phones handy. What better way to alternate between sprints and cool-down walks than by synchronizing your run to all the Pidgeys that appear in your path?
  • Meet new people – Socialize with fellow trainers if you feel comfortable. Many impromptu conversations have arisen from comparing caught Pokémon or working together to weaken a gym. (Go Team Mystic!)
  • Explore new areas – Explore a part of the local community that you may not have visited yet—Coker Arboretum, the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, Bolin Creek Trail. The UNC Visitors’ Center even occasionally runs Pokémon-themed tours that introduce students to new areas on campus (there’s one coming up November 4th!). However, be careful to avoid dark or isolated areas.
  • Put your phone down and look around – Although it can be tough to tear your eyes away from that glowing screen, remember to come up every once in awhile for air and to enjoy your surroundings. Even that real-time generated 2-dimensional Pokémon Go map cannot compare to some of Chapel Hill’s fantastic views!
  • Set a time-limit for playing – Even the greatest trainers need to study before taking on the Elite Four (or an impending Stats exam). Use the app as a micro-break during intense study sessions. Or set a time limit for playing the game if you’re noticing that your Poké-jaunts are turning into Poké-journeys.
  • Wear sunscreen and insect repellant and stay hydrated – While summer sadly is behind us, North Carolina is still sunny, buggy, hot, and humid. Take care of yourself if you are going to spend extended time outside.
  • Manage your privacy settings – Pokémon Go got into hot water in July due to its privacy policy for the iPhone, which allowed the game full access to a player’s Google account. The policy has since been amended, but it is still good practice to be aware of and manage how much personal information will be accessible to the game and other smartphone apps.

Are you playing Pokémon Go? Do you have any other Pokémon Go health tips?

Please share in the comments!

Mark C. is the Program Assistant for the UNC Men’s Project at UNC Student Wellness. Read their bio here.

 

Alcoholism. It’s just for after graduation…right?

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“It’s not considered alcoholism until after you graduate,” so the saying goes.  You may have heard these words echoed throughout UNC’s campus before.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for this saying to be heard on any campus in this country.  Someone, somewhere formulated an idea that drinking excessively in college is not only okay, but normal.  However, once you leave college, drinking in abundance no longer becomes okay or normal.  With a degree in hand, you are suddenly an alcoholic.  Here is some word-math to break the saying down:

college student + drinking excessively = not an alcoholic.

college graduate + drinking excessively = you’re an alcoholic.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily believe this math adds up.  I decided to dig into the research and see what real scientists and doctors have to say about this.

For starters, alcoholism has no age limit.  Alcoholism can affect anyone, at any time.  Of course, alcoholism doesn’t just happen out of the blue.  It takes time.  I’m not talking about the few seconds it takes to walk across the stage to grab your diploma and head off into the sunset, I’m talking months to years.  So how, then, does alcoholism start to brew? (Yes, pun was totally intended.) Well, this time period can be characterized by an “almost alcoholic” stage. Let me explain…

There is a common belief in our society that you are either an alcoholic or not.  You have a problem with alcohol, or you don’t.  Unfortunately, it’s not as clear cut as that.  Two doctors, Doyle & Nowinski, found that there is a spectrum when it comes to drinking behavior.  The spectrum ranges from “Normal Social Drinkers” to “Almost Alcoholics” to “Alcoholics”.

The “Almost Alcoholics” stage is characterized by these traits:

  • You continue drinking the way you always have despite one or more negative consequences. (Like getting an underage drinking ticket, DWI, getting into trouble in the dorms, having a hangover, being sent to the emergency room, etc.)
  • You look forward to drinking. (For example, not drinking all week and anxiously waiting to get drunk on the weekends.)
  • You drink alone and not just socially. (This doesn’t necessarily mean going “ham” by yourself. A lot of different factors come into play here, mainly your reasoning behind drinking alone.)
  • You sometimes drink to control an emotion or physical symptom. (For example, drinking to relieve social shyness, anxiety, stress, boredom, or physical pain.)
  • You and/or your loved ones are suffering as a result of your drinking. (This could include saying or doing things you did not intend to a friend/family member while you were drinking, or a friend having to care for you while you are drunk, etc.)

You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? A lot of college students have some of these qualities associated with being an “almost alcoholic,” and they’re all fine.  I had the exact thoughts.  A lot of people may view it this way too.  It’s because, in the world of college, the “almost alcoholic” stage has been normalized.  It is being replaced with the label: “being a college student.”  No one ever talks about this, because they assume it’s just how young adults behave for a period of time until they graduate college and enter “real life.”  The thing is, real life is always happening.  Whether you are in college or not.

These doctors did not decide to make up the “almost alcoholic” part of the drinking behavior spectrum to crush spirits.  I am pretty sure they are just trying to say, “Hey, sometimes drinking can cause problems, and sometimes if you don’t take a step back to think about these problems, it could turn into a disorder like alcoholism.” And a disorder like alcoholism, is nothing to joke about.

This post is not meant to point fingers, and say, “You are definitely an ‘Almost Alcoholic’, you need to get yourself together.” But it is meant to inform you about the spectrum of drinking behavior, and how part of that spectrum has been normalized in college culture.

If you are looking for more resources on this topic, here are a few:

You can also make an appointment in the BASICS program to talk to an Alcohol and Drug Prevention Specialist about concerns/questions you may have about drinking.  BASICS stands for Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students.  BASICS is completely confidential, and free if you refer yourself.  You can contact basics@unc.edu at any time!

Flashback Friday: How to be social without drinking

This blog post was originally published on September 24, 2015.

Feel like social life revolves around drinking?

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Here are 10 alcohol-free ways to have fun in the Triangle.
(TIP: Always ask about a student discount!)

  1.  Host or attend a game night FREE
  2. Join an intramural sports team FREE
  3. Group outing to the theatre! FREE-$$$
  4. Go ice skating or bowling $$
     
  5. Join a student organization FREE
  6. Check out a local farmer’s market over the weekend FREE
  7. Attend local community events FREE-$$$
  8. Check out student group performances (search category: performance) FREE-$
  9. Learn a new dance/go out dancing (all types of dancing) FREE-$
  10. Watch an outdoor movie or a CUAB movie (seasonal) FREE-$
“Movies Under the Stars” in Downtown Chapel HIll

Or, maybe you want to go to parties and just not drink!

Have you ever been out trying to have some alcohol-free fun, and people won’t stop  bugging you? Here are some ideas of things to say, but they are dependent on your personality type, individual needs, or safety/comfort concerns!

  1. “I’m not drinking tonight, but thank you!”
  2. “I’m good for now, I just had one.”
  3. “I’m taking it easy tonight.”
  4. “I have to wake up early tomorrow/study, etc.”
  5. “I’m driving home tonight.”
  6. “I’m the designated driver tonight.”
  7. “I’m just trying to be a bit healthier right now.”

Not a talker? No worries! There are other ways to ward off peer pressure, again – dependent on your personality type, individual needs, or safety/comfort concerns. For example, some people have suggested holding a drink in their hand and not actually drinking, drinking alcohol-free drinks (like a rum and coke….minus the rum), or attending a party as a sober attendee and playing the games either with water or an alcohol-free drink!

Is alcohol actually bad for your brain?

I’m sure you’ve heard people say something like this before: “Your brain doesn’t stop developing until your mid-twenties, and alcohol can negatively impact your development.” But what does that even mean? Is it just a blanket statement for why alcohol is bad? Is it a scare tactic to keep you from drinking? If you’ve wondered this before, here’s some info about what’s actually going on in your brain when you’re drinking:

  1. The communication between your brain cells slows down. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it depresses synaptic activity, or the communication happening between neural cells. As a result, your central nervous system and cerebral cortex slow down, which means that you can’t process information from your senses as quickly, and it takes longer to send messages from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Ever felt like everything was happening in slow motion when you were drinking? This is why.
  2. You get a dopamine rush. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes you to feel a sense of pleasure. It gets released as your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) rises. Sometimes people keep drinking once the rush is over so that they can experience it again—unfortunately, this can lead to dangerously high levels of alcohol in your blood (and no additional pleasure).

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    From “Alcohol, Drugs, and Brain Development,” http://www.speaknowcolorado.org
  3. Your frontal lobes are impaired. This is important, because your frontal lobes are basically the CEO of your brain. They monitor what’s going, make plans, and coordinate action—allowing us to solve problems and make decisions. That’s why you might feel like your judgment is seriously different than normal when you’re drinking enough to impair your frontal lobes (Note: This starts happening at a .04 to .05 BAC, which depending on your size and some other factors, could be as few as 1-2 drinks).
  4. Balance and coordination are a struggle. This is because alcohol enters your cerebellum, which normally helps you walk, hold onto things, balance, etc. Your cerebellum generally starts feeling it at a BAC of approximately .07 to .08.
  5. You have to pee—a lot. This is partly because alcohol is a diuretic. It’s also because alcohol impacts your hypothalamus, which regulates a number of bodily urges like thirst, hunger, and yes—the urge to urinate. While the impact on your hypothalamus makes your body temperature and heart rate decrease, it makes your urge to urinate increase.
  6. Your memory is impacted, sometimes to the point of blackout. Your hippocampus, which is the primary structure in your brain that forms memories, is not able to tolerate alcohol as well as other parts of your brain. So, it’s entirely possible that someone can be up walking and talking normally, but have absolutely no memory of what happened. For more info about what happens when you black out, check out BuzzFeed’s 10 Facts about Blacking Out that Actually Make So Much Sense.

Those are some things that can happen any time you drink alcohol. But what about heavy drinking? (Note: Heavy drinking does not (necessarily) = alcoholism/dependence. The NIH defines it as drinking 5 or more standard drinks on one occasion 5 or more times in the past 30 days.) Heavy drinking can result in difficulty with a number of cognitive functions, including the formation of new memories, abstract thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration, and perception of others’ emotions.

The good news? Most of these effects are reversible. People who stop drinking are able to recover these abilities. However, researchers believe that the damage can sometimes be irreversible when individuals are drinking 3 or more drinks per day. The frontal lobes of some heavy drinkers literally shrink as a result of chronic drinking.

If you’re going to drink, the important thing to remember is to try to keep your BAC at a safe level. Here are some risk reduction strategies you can try:

  • Stay hydrated (with water)
  • Eat a (nutritious) meal before you drink
  • Pace yourself—consider avoiding drinking games and shots, which will spike your BAC quickly
  • Keep track of how many standard drinks you’ve had
  • Know what’s in your drink/make your own drink
  • Drink alcohol with a lower percentage of alcohol
  • Get plenty of sleep (i.e., don’t go out after pulling an all-nighter—fatigue has a strong impact on BAC)

Stay tuned for more risk reduction strategies to come!

For more information, see:

Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2008). Buzzed: The straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Available at UNC Libraries!

Kaitlyn B. is the Program Assistant for Resiliency Initiatives at Student Wellness. Read their bio here.

On Trigger Warnings, Intellectual Curiosity, and Self Compassion

Trigger warnings in academia have become a hot topic. The University of Chicago recently released a controversial letter to the Class of 2020 stating that they did not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings’…or the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” The latter, in theory, makes sense – higher education is supposed to challenge you, to make you question your ideas and open your mind to a variety of perspectives, and the ways in which trigger warnings have been exploding in use lately can inhibit that. But for someone who navigates higher education with a specific set of mental health needs, finding a balance between triggers, intellectual curiosity, and self compassion can be a challenge.

On one hand, the traditional use of trigger warnings are a great tool for those in early stages of recovery from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. When a person who has experienced trauma gets triggered, symptoms of distress that result can range from physical (such as headaches, fatigue, and difficulty breathing) to emotional (like fear and dramatic mood swings, among others) to psychosocial (for example, difficulty connecting with others or an inability to manage stress). In these cases, a trigger warning can be crucial. It allows the person who has experienced trauma to prepare themselves for what they are going to experience. It gives them the agency to choose whether or not they feel capable at that moment to deal with something that could have serious consequences on their wellbeing. And more often than not, it allows for someone to come back to this potentially triggering content at a time and in a place in which they feel safe and ready to deal with it.

The other side of the argument makes some important points, too. It notes that trigger warnings seem to have been co-opted by those who think they should not have to experience information that they may disagree with or can be uncomfortable at all. Professors have reported students requesting trigger warnings for everything from famine and religious intolerance to spiders. By using trigger warnings to refer to things that can be uncomfortable, but not necessarily retraumatizing, their true meaning and utility is being put at risk. Yes, talking about topics like religious beliefs, race, and gender can be incredibly uncomfortable sometimes, but facing that level of discomfort and engaging with the topic can be rewarding and beneficial. This level of discomfort can be a catalyst to help us think more critically and can hopefully spark intellectual growth, and college is a place where growth and curiosity should be encouraged and explored.

So for people who have experienced trauma, what are some ways in which they can navigate these classroom experiences in a manner that is useful for them? There’s no cut and dry answer for that, since everyone experiences triggers in different ways, but here are a few tips that anyone could use:

  • Talk to your professors. If you see something on the syllabus and are concerned it might trigger you, ask about it. And if you feel comfortable, talk to that professor about what your needs are, whether it’s just additional time to complete a reading for class or the flexibility to step outside during a class session if need be.
  • Seek help on campus. Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a great resource for students who have experienced stress, anxiety, and trauma. The counseling staff can help you make a plan for how to deal with triggers in and out of the classroom, and are available for drop-ins Monday through Friday during normal business hours..
  • Practice grounding techniques. If you find yourself getting triggered in class, grounding can be a great tool to help minimize anxiety and other symptoms. Try breathing in and out slowly, focusing on the sound of your breathing, the chair you’re sitting in, the ground your feet are on, and other physical sensations to bring down your heart rate and relax your body. There are lots of ways to practice grounding in all sorts of situations, so find the one that works best for you!
  • Give yourself a break. Be gentle with yourself and know your limits. If you don’t feel ready to confront a trigger, you don’t have to. A little self compassion and care can go a long way.

Get outside, UNC! Your outdoor exploration checklist

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.” -Edward Abbey

The woods and water can be an integral part of your UNC experience. The triangle region is full of outdoor spaces to camp, hike, run, and paddle.

Ask any outdoor enthusiast and these spots will be on their list of adventures while at UNC. Explore them! We start with those closest to campus and swirl outward across the state.

Learn more about these spots – and then, go play outside! (pro tip:Don’t feel comfortable adventuring on your own? Check out Outdoor Rec’s Expeditions! They provide gear, guides and routes for some of these fantastic adventures.) Continue reading

Study Drugs: Why the Cons Outweigh the Pros

You’re new at UNC-Chapel Hill or returning from a summer away, but either way you can’t wait to jump into all of the exciting opportunities, classes, clubs, organizations, and events this campus has to offer. The sheer number of opportunities is one of the reasons this school is so great. There is such a range of interests, from clubs focusing on academics and future professions, to music and theater, to Greek life, to politics, to sports, and to so much more. But before you sign up for all 15 activities that have peaked your interest, it’s important to make sure that you have enough time to devote to everything you sign up for. Getting good grades, trying to stay involved on campus, while maintaining a social life can put students at risk of using stimulants, or “study drugs” to help them keep up.

What are people’s reasons for using Study Drugs?

Drugs including Adderall, Vyvanse, and Ritalin are prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). However, a black market for these drugs has grown on college campuses in recent years, including at UNC. Some students are turning to these “study drugs” under the mistaken belief that these drugs will provide a magic fix that will help them stay focused, improve efficiency, and better their grades during periods of high stress.

 

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Photo by Joshua Brown, Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Why does it seem like everyone is doing it?

While it may feel like you constantly hear stories about friends and classmates utilizing these study drugs, the rates of misuse are not as high as they may seem. According to a study conducted by The Coalition to Prevent ADHD Medication Misuse, 75% of students believe that some of their peers have illegally used ADHD prescription stimulant medication. However, a recent survey conducted at the University of Texas found that 87% of students do not use study drugs. While high rates of illegal drug use for academic purposes are untrue, that does not mean that a problem does not exist. In 2011, the National Institute for Drug Abuse found the 9.8% of college students had illegally used Adderall and the rates have continued to increase, especially at universities with competitive academics and admissions processes.

I need to focus, why should I NOT use Study Drugs?

Stimulant medications such as amphetamines (e.g., Adderall and Vyvanse) and methylphenidate (e.g., Ritalin) are prescribed to treat ADD and ADHD. People with ADHD have difficulty paying attention and staying focused and are more hyperactive or impulsive than their peers. These stimulants increase dopamine in the brain, which creates calming and focusing effects on individuals with ADHD. People who take these drugs who do not have ADD or ADHD can suffer from dangerous medical side effects, such as restlessness, hallucinations, and irregular heartbeat, among others. Long term misuse of study drugs can even cause addiction and withdrawal symptoms like fatigue, depression, and disturbed sleep.

Beyond dangerous physical side effects, there may be academic and legal consequences of the misuse of study drugs as well. Misusing study drugs violates UNC’s drug and alcohol policy (link this), as well as the law. Those who are caught misusing study drugs can be subjected to suspension, fines, or even jail time.

While study drugs can improve focus and motivation to study, a study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that students who abuse prescription stimulants actually have lower GPAs in high school and college than those who don’t.

What can I do to increase concentration and focus without using study drugs?

  •         Get enough sleep – your brain cannot retain the information you are studying if you are tired. Try to get at least 6-7 hours a night during high stress times and 8 hours on other nights. Power naps are another great way to revitalize your brain. A 20 minute nap boosts alertness and motor learning skills like typing. Naps of 30-60 minutes are good for decision-making skills, memorization, and recall. 60-90 minute naps help to make new connections in your brain and to solve creative problems.
  •         Create a To-Do list and a schedule – this helps you to remember what/how much work you have to do and is a good reminder when you want to take a break or get on Facebook to manage your time efficiently
  •         Take breaks when you need it! While a break may seem counterintuitive when you have an insane amount of work, you will be more productive and more efficient if you let your mind rest every once in awhile. Use these breaks to practice other healthy and self-care behaviors such as going to the gym, eating a well-balanced meal/snack, practicing mindfulness or meditation, or another activity that distracts you from the information you are studying. Breaks, of an hour or even just 5 minutes, will promote good studying and information retention.
  •         Make use of The Center for Student Success and Academic Counseling located in SASB North, Room 2203 (919-966-2143). This office offers services including peer mentoring, The Learning Center, The Writing Center, and Men of Color Engagement.
  •        The Learning Center offers peer tutoring, academic coaching, reading skills help, study groups, test prep resources, skill-building workshops, and other services for students. They also offer support for students with ADHD and other learning disabilities.
  •         If the stress is becoming too much, Counseling and Psychological services (CAPS), is located within Campus Health, and offers counseling services where you can discuss your stress and develop strategies and plans to healthily combat it

Why Therapy Is Not For Me (but actually might be)

1. I want to get through it on my own.

We live in a society that places a lot of value on independence, but in truth, we are interdependent. Each of us does need other people to some degree. Participating in therapy is not a passive process. You are not “attending therapy”, or “getting therapy”.  Therapists are not administering something to you. Therapy is an active, collaborative process of figuring out life. Therapists do have some specialized knowledge about mental health, but we act as guides, not fixers. In fact, but of the unique aspects of therapy is that therapists act as guides, not as fixers.

2. If my friends and family can’t help me, how will someone I don’t even know help me?

Friends and family play extremely vital roles in our lives, and there is no substitute for those types of relationships. Often the people in our life have a vested interest in what we choose to do or in what direction we move. The role of a therapist is very different. When you go to therapy, the first task is for the therapist to be able to understand your hopes and goals, because your agenda is our agenda. Sometimes family and friends have the tendency to try to make things better for you. Therapists are trained to help you find the tools to make things better for yourself.

3. It’s not that bad. I’m not crazy. Therapy is a last resort for me.

People participate in therapy for a wide variety of reasons.

Sometimes things in their lives are pretty bad when they initiate therapy.

Sometimes they start treatment because they aren’t feeling fulfilled, or because something in life feels “off”. They want to not simply get through each day, but instead want to thrive. Sometimes students come to therapy because they are aware that academic stress is unavoidable and they want to learn strategies to manage it before it starts to create problems. At UNC Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), we work with people throughout the whole spectrum, between preventing problems before they start and treating issues before they begin.

Mental Health is similar to physical health in that it is often a quicker, easier process if you take a proactive approach. I often hear from students who have recurrent depression that the first episode was the worst, in part because they didn’t know to take action until things felt completely unmanageable.

Stigma is real. Often times we are socialized to have some negative feelings towards individuals with mental health disorders and towards seeking mental health treatment. Where have you heard some of those messages? What do you believe? How might you overcome the stigma associated with seeking services?

4. Therapy is too _____________________ (Expensive, Time Consuming)

There is no arguing with that. Participating in therapy definitely takes time (typically 45-60 minutes weekly). It also may require a financial investment. Although CAPS brief therapy services are free, there are times when students may start off with or transition to a community provider, where there will likely be a copay.

Often when I meet with students, their symptoms are impacting their ability to be as successful as they could be academically. Their friendships or relationships with loved ones may be impacted. Anxiety, for example, could make it extremely difficult for a person to concentrate and learn new material, and to seek frequent reassurance from friends, or to avoid social situations altogether.  Also, some of the symptoms they are experiencing are painful. They are in real distress. Can you relate to this? How are the issues you are having impacting your quality of life?

If one part of the equation is the cost/time/effort, please remember to include the other side of the equation- the impact the symptoms are having on your well-being.

In Conclusion

Therapy is not for everyone. But therapy is helpful for some people, and it just may be that it could be helpful to you. But don’t take my word for it! See if therapy can help you. The best way to get something out of therapy:

  • Come in with some goals in mind.
  • Ask your therapist questions.
  • If you don’t feel as if the first person you see is a good fit, work with someone else.
  • Monitor your symptoms and your progress toward your goals, and work with your therapist to get the most out of your time together.
  • Be open with your therapist about any concerns you have about the therapy process.

If you would like to initiate therapy or simply talk with a clinician more about your options for mental health services, please walk in to CAPS between the hours of 9*-12 and 1-4 M-F (8-5 if you have urgent concerns). *Friday morning initial appointments begin at 9:30 a.m. 

 

Originally posted August 6, 2013. Revised and updated 2016.