To Northwestern students, stress and anxiety are familiar – though unwanted – friends. The breakneck pace of the quarter system ensures that there is always at least one deadline looming over our heads, if not more. The long and cold winters take their toll too. As a result, stress and anxiety are joined by depression (often of the seasonal variety), eating disorders, and self-esteem issues, in the student body here at Northwestern. Groups such as Active Minds, NUListens, and MENtal Health are working toward improving mental health awareness on campus, in conjunction with CAPS.
It starts at Wildcat Welcome with the mental health ENU. For many, myself included, this is the first time we’ve participated in an open and frank conversation on mental health and how to manage it. This continues through assorted campus programming: the STIGMA panel, the ‘Send Silence Packing’ exhibit on Deering, articles in student-run publications, regular workshops at CAPS, and the ‘Let’s Talk’ program that specifically targets international students and minorities.
In spite of this, at the academic task force forum earlier this quarter, students repeatedly brought up access to mental health resources, with both the wait time for appointments and the limit of 12 therapy sessions per degree facing heavy criticism. Both of these are barriers for students who seek mental health care but are unable to pay to see a community practitioner.
However, what students — and many others, for that matter — often overlook, is that maintaining their mental health goes far beyond regular visits to the psychiatrist. Unfortunately, key components of mental health such as sleep, diet and physical activity are often left by the wayside. To this end, the free athletics and fitness resources on campus are overlooked opportunities for mental health improvement. SPAC, Blom, Patten, and IM sports are just a few of the options.
SPAC, in addition to the plethora of cardio and weightlifting equipment, has squash/tennis courts, an indoor track, a spin room, and the Norris Aquatics Center. The gym also offers a range of free exercise classes throughout the week, ranging from weightlifting (Kettlebell Training, Bodypump) to dance (WERQ) to various forms of yoga.
When dealing with anxiety or depression, students may find exercise unimportant. However, it can – and should – be harnessed to manage mental disorders and stress. While the physical benefits of exercise are well known, exercise has a large number of psychological benefits that can reduce anxiety levels, improve your mood, and even prevent relapses of depressive episodes. Exercise releases neurochemicals (neurotransmitters, endorphins, and endocannabinoids) that create a “feel-good” sensation, helping to counter depression and anxiety. They stem the release of some immune system chemicals that exacerbate depression, raising the core body temperature, leading to a calming effect. As you get more in shape, exercise also improves self-image and self-esteem and is a healthier way to manage eating disorders. It works as a more sustainable distraction than alcohol abuse or self-harm can. Because of this, exercise is a great way to supplement addiction therapy. In addition to keeping your mind preoccupied, it elevates dopamine levels, which is what substance abusers seek. It is fairly hard to deny that deadlifting 300 lbs and feeling the reverberations of the barbell’s impact on the ground provokes a somewhat primal ecstasy – particularly when imagining piles of homework being crushed by the weight. Regular physical activity could be the way to getting that elusive A in a weed-out class. Exercise boosts neurogenesis and elevates levels of a protein called BDNF that help with decision-making, learning and high-order thinking. It helps tire us out, and reset our circadian rhythm. This both improves and increases our quality and quantity of sleep respectively, key for recalling and processing information.
‘Exercise out of Depression,’ an online community and movement that has sprung from this belief of mental wellness through exercise, has many self-reported successes, all of which provide anecdotal evidence to go with the scientific studies. Even if CAPS is unable to change its 12 sessions per degree policy on counseling, exercise is a great tool for managing mental wellness. We should take advantage of our free access to the gyms and athletic facilities on campus, and capitalize on their benefits.