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Social, stressed, and sleepless: is your social life affecting sleep?

This is an excerpt from Fitness and Wellness in Canada With Web Study Guide-Loose-Leaf Edition by Sarah J. Woodruff Atkinson,Carol K. Armbruster,Ellen M. Evans & Catherine M. Sherwood-Laughlin.

The university and college years, especially the early ones, can be stressful, which affects sleep quality. Also, due to the new relationships and environment of campus, your social life can gear up significantly. You may find that the three factors of social life, stress, and sleep are intertwined. Social lives can cause stress, but social support is also very important for stress management. If you give more hours to your social life, you will have less time for academic work and sleep. Being pressed for time and underslept can also cause stress. Learning to balance the competing demands of all that you have to do and all that you want to do is a challenge that you will likely have for all of your working years. Learning this balance will serve you well, both now and in the future. Two important keys are keeping the positive energy and getting professional help if needed.

Keeping the Positive Energy: Habitual Movement Is Key

Of all of the stress-management strategies outlined in this chapter, a relatively high level of exercise and physical activity is one of the most important. Being regularly physically active at a moderate to vigorous intensity, especially the cardiorespiratory and resistance training modes, can help manage stress and reduce the risks for anxiety disorders and mild depression. This level of activity is also linked with improved sleep quality (Office of Disease Prevention and Health 2008). Finally, regular activity can also help you maintain mental and physical energy (Puetz, O'Connor, and Dishman 2006), which can help you accomplish the have to do and the want to do tasks on your list. In this way, your daily movement is the cornerstone of your plan to keep you spiraling up instead of down in your sleep behaviour and stress responses.

Know When to Get Help

Triggering your stress response can be unpleasant, which is why most people define stress in a negative way. Triggering your stress response now and again is not a problem for most of us. But for some people, repeated or sustained stress-response activation can lead to more serious mental health challenges, including anxiety disorders and depression.

Anxiety Disorders

Chronic stress can progress to an anxiety disorder (National Institute of Mental Health 2016a). For example, generalized anxiety disorder is a condition where a person displays excessive anxiety and worry for months, with several relatively intense symptoms that do not go away and can get worse with time. Panic disorder presents with recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that might include heart pounding (palpitations), sweating, trembling, sensations of choking, shortness of breath, and sometimes a feeling of impending doom. People with social anxiety disorder have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to be embarrassed, judged, or rejected, triggering a stress response. Anxiety disorders can greatly reduce quality of life, causing great distress, straining class or work performance, and hindering relationships

Depression

Also related to stress and a close cousin to anxiety disorders is depression. Many different types of depression exist, and the most concerning type is major depressive disorder, or clinical depression. Symptoms include persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, changes in sleep patterns (difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping), changes in appetite or weight, decreased energy, and aches and pains that occur for at least two weeks (National Institute of Mental Health 2016b). This is not a mild case of the blues in response to a temporary event. A defining feature of depression is loss of pleasure. Along with major depression, great grief and guilt also occur; these can be incapacitating. Unfortunately, depression is highly linked to suicide.

Professional Help

When you experience a “warning light” with respect to sustained stress symptoms, try to manage your stress response through the strategies described in this chapter. If you find that after a few weeks you are unable to do so, get some help to prevent longer-term health issues. Sometimes, there are medical reasons for anxiety or depression. For example, some medications have side effects that can mimic anxiety disorders or depressive symptoms. Low blood sugar can also cause feelings of anxiety. Seeing a health care professional can help you sort through the various physiological, situational, or emotional reasons for your current struggle. Nearly all universities and colleges have a student health centre that offers services for both medical and psychological challenges that students routinely face. Know your resources, and get help sooner rather than later.