Anxiety, eating disorders on the rise

Statistics show 51 per cent of university students between the ages 18-25 reported binge eating due to academic stress

Dr. Mike Condra Director of HCDS says the university environment can often cause stress and anxiety.
Dr. Mike Condra Director of HCDS says the university environment can often cause stress and anxiety.

Anxiety-related disorders and eating disorders remain prevalent in Canadian university students. According to data published by University of Alberta Student Counseling Services, more than 20 per cent of students in post-secondary education felt moving away from home and managing their time effectively caused stress-related concerns that hindered their academics.

The same study reported that 33 per cent of female university students between the ages of 18 and 25 reported to be binge eating at the beginning and end of their first year and over 51 per cent of students reported to binge eating due to stress and pressure to academically succeed. It has also been reported that bulimia nervosa amongst females enrolled post-secondary institutions has been as high as two per cent.

Queen’s University Health Counselling Disability Services (HCDS) Director Dr. Mike Condra said he’s seen an increase over the years of students diagnosed with eating disorders and anxiety disorders.

“There’s been a significant increase in pretty much everywhere in the world, specifically in Western culture in anorexia and eating disorders,” he said, adding the increase in cases has been accompanied by an increase in academic research on these topics.

“I think that eating disorders [are due to] a lot of pressure on young people to have the perfect body and the perfect shape,” he said.

“[There’s] a lot of general pressure on young people for careers and to be successful in ways that didn’t exist forty years ago. You have a lot more choices now and along with choices you have more indecision,” he said.

While pressure to maintain a certain body weight for athletic reasons can add to stress, Condra said negative self-body image and a desire to maintain their body weight is often a factor in causing an eating disorder.

“The fairly competitive nature of universities, the need for students to be focused, to be high-achieving … being academically involved, extracurricular, sports, student government—all of these are factors that can increase the stress and they are consistent in being a factor in developing an eating disorder,” he said.

According to the Ontario Community Outreach Program for Eating Disorders (OCOP), one in four adolescent females in Ontario (13-18 years) is reported as engaging in at least one symptom of an eating disorder.

Oftentimes drastic visible changes in a person’s appearance are an indicator when a person is developing an eating disorder.

“When a person develops an eating disorder there are a number of things that become noticeable, they tend to become more preoccupied with their weight and shape,” he said.

Although in our culture it isn’t uncommon for young women to be concerned with their weight, in this case they’re more preoccupied, Condra said, adding that a sudden loss in weight or frequent visits to the washroom after a meal may be an indicator to friends.

“Sometimes there is often a strong scent of vomit after they have used the bathroom, if they are purging. One of the other things is that as their weight gets lower and they are becoming distinctively thin … they may wear lots of heavy and bulky clothes that may seem to hide their body.” Condra said the stress of daily pressures can manifest itself in an eating disorder but it can also manifest as an anxiety disorder.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, anxiety disorders affect approximately 12 per cent of the Canadian population.

There are several types of anxiety disorders some of which are Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Childhood Anxiety and Specific Phobias.

Condra said anxiety is one of the most common problems amongst student in universities.

“It’s a fairly high-pressure situation, in some cases very high pressure,” he said, adding that students are often put in the situation of having a larger workload in universities, which often leads to higher expectations.

“Students are anxious about lots of things, exams, careers … frosh are anxious about settling in, finding a niche and those are all often factors,” he said“[A] person may become irritable, they may show signs of having difficulty in concentrating, they may show signs to becoming preoccupied.” Condra said although during examination period most students are preoccupied and show signs of anxiety it’s not necessarily an anxiety disorder.

“They know that around the corner somewhere they will be okay,” he said.” Here we are talking about a situation where it is much more difficult to let it go. They consistently feel stressed.” Condra said many students who have come to the HCDS with anxiety problems have been very successful at getting better.

“We teach them relaxation, how to stay calm, how to talk to themselves to stay calm instead of paying attention to ‘oh my throat is getting dry, or oh I feel a little twinge on my chest,’ ” he said.

Call Health Counselling and Disability Services at 613-533-6000 x 78264 for one-on-one counselling.

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