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The Effects of Anxiety and Depression on Learning

Thursday, 26 July 2018 12:53  by Courtney B.

Each year, millions of Americans struggle with mental health issues. Among the vast spectrum of challenging health conditions, depression and anxiety are two common struggles that impact the day-to-day quality of life for young adults. Anxiety affects over 40 million people over the age of 18. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for someone who has an anxiety disorder to also face depression and vice versa. These commonly co-occurring disorders often influence one another and create more hurdles for those afflicted to overcome.

One quarter of teens show symptoms of depression

Adolescents are especially at risk for developing these disorders. Nearly one-quarter of teens will show symptoms of depression by the age of 18. This depression during teenage years can carry on to college years if not addressed.

Depressed college students are twice as likely to drop out of school as their peers. The fact is that many universities and collegiate facilities are recognizing that the effects of depression and anxiety have a negative impact on academic performance.

Can Depression and Anxiety Affect Academic Performance?

Depression and anxiety can impact any aspect of a person's life including their academic performance. The number of college students seeking help for their mental health afflictions hitting record highs. Students seeking out counselling centers have dramatically increased over the last decade and is exponentially higher than the rate of increases in enrollment. Students surveyed said that their depressive symptoms made it hard to function and reported feeling overwhelming anxiety. Many of these students are also more likely to harm themselves or attempt suicide.

Mental health disorders aren't simply changes in emotional states. The varying, ongoing symptoms of each unique disorder directly affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Factors like inherited traits, environmental exposures before birth and brain chemistry can contribute to these illnesses. Additional risk factors could increase the likelihood that these conditions may develop. These include having a family history of mental health issues, undergoing a stressful or traumatic experience, substance abuse, lacking social bonds or other chronic medical conditions, and can cause significant complications throughout all aspects of your life.

Transition from highschool

Although these conditions can appear at any age throughout a person's life, the fact is that young adults are vulnerable to developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The transition from high school to college forces many students to face challenges, pressures and conflicts that they may have never been confronted with at home. These new social, academic and financial struggles can trigger or reveal depression and anxiety in some young adults. Some can overcome these symptoms on their own. Others require professional intervention.

The symptoms of mental health disorders do more than merely distract a student from focusing on their studies. Psychological disorders can disrupt cognitive functioning and reduce intellectual performance. Cognitive dysfunction is believed to have a strong correlation with mental health diagnoses like depression and anxiety. These conditions can significantly alter cognitive functioning, particularly memory retention and the absorption of knowledge. With such a profound influence, it's no surprise that these disorders negatively impact the academic performance of college students. Depression and anxiety directly impact the ability to learn.

How Depression and Anxiety Affect Your Ability to Learn

Studies have shown that there is a link between depression, anxiety and lower academic performance. Mental health conditions can affect college students at any level. In assessing groups of students in varying years, first-year students reported increased instances of self-harm and suicide consideration while upperclassmen reported more significant impacts on their academic performance due to their mental health afflictions. Students, educators and mental health professionals agree that there is a concerning prevalence of mental health issues that impact the lives and academic performance of college-aged individuals.

Mental health issues impact learning

Though some may be quick to categorize depression and anxiety as emotional afflictions, it should not be ignored that these two conditions have a profound impact on cognitive functioning. Research shows that emotion and motivation create two psychological processes that have dramatic influence over cognition and behavior. More specifically, when emotion and cognition interact negatively, this can increase the likelihood of the manifestation of anxiety and depression-related symptoms. These conditions are also associated with deficits in executive function like memory retention, focus and adjusting behavior based on environment.

How Anxiety Impacts Academic Performance

Stress is a common feeling many people experience when faced with a range of situations. This biological response can be positive or negative and typically is experienced for a short period. In an academic context, the stress experienced when studying for a test may help an individual enhance their focus and achieve a higher test score. In contrast, negative stress can cause an individual to have an upset stomach before an exam because they are worried about their performance.

Anxiety may have similar symptoms, however, these symptoms are often enhanced and continue for long periods of time. While stress can motivate a person to overcome a challenge, anxiety is an intense and sometimes irrational feeling of worry that can become debilitating. Anxiety can cause an individual to become physically sick or severely distraught at the thought of taking a test, giving a presentation or other academic activities. Instead of triggering a biological response that can enhance academic performance, anxiety causes physical and mental symptoms that can dramatically inhibit cognitive functioning.

Anxiety's impact on learning activities

Physiological symptoms among students experiencing anxiety include:

  • Feeling cold or chills
  • Increased nervousness or panicking
  • Sweaty palms
  • Stomach pain or discomfort
  • Significantly increased heart rate
  • Quickened breathing

Psychological symptoms among students experiencing anxiety include:

  • An absence of interest in an area of academia which they perceive as difficult
  • Increased nervousness before engaging in formal academic classes
  • Experiencing significant panic
  • Going "blank" while taking examinations
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless when completing assignments

How Depression Impacts School Performance

There are many periods in life during which a person will feel sadness. For college-aged adolescents, sadness may be triggered by homesickness, academic failures, the death of a loved one or the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Those who experience sadness are typically able to still function normally in their daily lives. This sadness usually lasts for a short period and is accepted, reconciled and moved on from. 

Like anxiety, depression is a common mental health disorder that takes on many forms with varying severities. Unlike sadness, depression significantly alters parts of the brain. Though sadness can be felt during depression, some may not feel it at all. Instead, they may experience other symptoms that interfere with their daily lives on a long-term basis. This illness can present a range of physical and mental symptoms and is a prevalent condition among college-aged students.

Physiological symptoms among college students experiencing depression may include:

  • Abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Drastic changes in appetite or weight
  • Physical pain like muscular discomfort or headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping, insomnia or oversleeping

Psychological symptoms among college students experiencing depression may include:

  • Loss of interest in hobbies, activities or social engagements
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Engaging in self-harm or attempting suicide
  • Difficulty concentrating on homework assignments or in class
  • Difficulty retaining information read in textbooks or learned in class
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism about academic future
  • Feelings of isolation or helplessness

The Impact of Depression and Anxiety Disorders on Cognition

Depression and anxiety alone or as co-occurring disorders can dramatically affect an individual's academic performance. These diseases can hinder the brain's ability to think, understand, learn and remember information. Studies show that stress, depression and anxiety experienced by college students of varying years have had a negative impact on their academic success.

Negative impact on college performance

Areas in which these mental health conditions can negatively affect cognition include:

  • Memory retention
  • Memory retrieval
  • Problem-solving abilities
  • Ability to learn

Impaired Memory Retention and Retrieval From Depression and Anxiety

Both anxiety and depression can lead to problems with memory. Research suggests that while those with depression might be able to retain memories, they may find it difficult to discern specific identifiable details. For instance, though they may be able to determine whether or not they had seen a set of objects before, they may be unable to distinguish one set of objects from another set that possesses similar identifying features. This may be because those with depression have a smaller hippocampus, the memory processor of the brain.

Though it is suggested that anxiety in certain contexts can help an individual remember a situation with greater detail, too much anxiety can have the opposite effect. High anxiety can cause an individual to lose focus on their surroundings and shut out all external observations. It can also influence the perception and memory of events in a negative way. For example, because an individual is in a negative state of mind they may internalize neutral stimuli with a negative bias.

Chronic stress and anxiety may also cause brain inflammation that results in short-term memory loss. In a study, mice exposed to long-term stress had inflamed hippocampus regions that created memory loss. These stresses parallel the traumatic anxieties that some individuals feel. If a college student is constantly in a state of high anxiety or panic, it may cause them to compromise their short-term memory even after brain inflammation has subsided. This could cause weeks' worth of behavior and memory problems for those facing pressures of collegiate academia.

Short-term memory loss

Anxiety and Depression's Influence on Problem-Solving and Learning Abilities

Both problem-solving skills and the general absorption of knowledge are affected by anxiety through the ineffectiveness of working memory. The working memory is the brain's short-term memory system that enables an individual to retain information while actively solving a problem. When debilitating amounts of anxiety force this system to operate inefficiently, working memory capacity suffers. Without a reliable working memory, an individual will find it difficult to successfully accomplish a task. This anxiety could cause an individual to be unable to use complex problem-solving skills in school and life.

Though many people have learning disabilities, there are a substantial number of people who have legitimate mathematic anxieties. By actively avoiding the emotional strife that occurs when trying to accomplish mathematical tasks, an individual can overload and disrupt their working memory. Mathematics anxiety is considered separate from test or generalized anxiety, though it may have some correlation. This anxiety interferes with the ability to solve mathematical problems in academia and real-life applications.

Depression can cause individuals to experience increased risks of academic underachievement. Studies have shown that depression in adolescents can lead to cognitive impairment and social dysfunction which directly impacts academic performance. Symptoms like fatigue, hopelessness, stress and physical pains can make it difficult for an individual to function in an academic environment, decreasing their ability to successfully learn. Depression and anxiety have caused many college students to drop out, withdraw or shift to a part-time schedule which negatively extends their academic careers.

Signs That Depression and Anxiety May Be Impacting Your School Performance

Those faced with depression and anxiety in their late adolescence may not realize that their symptoms are having a negative impact on their academic performance. During times of difficulty throughout our lives, we may feel overwhelmed with stress or burdened with sadness. The transition from early adolescence to adulthood is a significant milestone that can affect mental health, especially for those adjusting to life in college. Some individuals may not realize that negative changes in their mental health during this transition are actually symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Life changes can affect mental health

Many mental health disorders do not necessarily display overt physical signs or symptoms of affliction. Depression and anxiety, separately or together, may cause you to feel a variety of physical, emotional and mental symptoms. You may experience negative feelings or behave in new ways. Your symptoms of one mental health issue could actually be related to another and one individual may display symptoms that are different than another's.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you are unsure if depression and anxiety are impacting your academic performance:

  • • Are your grades dropping significantly because you are unable to focus on your schoolwork?
  • Are you feeling sad, empty or hopeless regularly?
  • Do you get very angry, frustrated or irritated for any reason, even small instances that shouldn't normally cause this turmoil?
  • Have you lost interest or enjoyment in the hobbies or activities that used to make you happy?
  • Are you sleeping too much, unable to fall asleep or experiencing nightmares or discomfort that constantly wakes you up?
  • Do you often feel exhausted or have a constant lack of energy that makes it difficult to complete even small daily tasks?
  • Has your appetite changed so drastically that you are either not hungry and losing weight or constantly hungry and gaining weight?
  • Do you feel overstressed, restless or agitated on a regular basis?
  • Do you find yourself acting, speaking or thinking slower than normal?
  • Are you experiencing headaches, backaches or other physical pain that you can't explain?
  • Do you sometimes feel that you're worthless, do you fixate on past failures or feel guilty about events that aren't your fault?
  • Do you have thoughts of death and suicide or have you considered or attempted suicide?

If you answered yes to all, some or even one of these questions, you may be unknowingly suffering from depression and anxiety. Even if you don't believe that your studies are the root of your issues, any mental affliction could cause you to underperform at school. Remember, depression and anxiety impact cognitive functioning which can create difficulty in all aspects of your life including memory retention, memory retrieval, problem-solving abilities and the ability to absorb information and learn.

Seeking Treatment for Depression and Anxiety Can Improve Performance

Depression and anxiety are serious mental health issues that present individuals with a number of physical, emotional and cognitive challenges which are often difficult to overcome. Thankfully, there are many forms of treatment available that cater to the many variations of depression and anxiety, both separately and together. Many of these psychotherapies involve talk-based therapy sessions in which an individual and their counselor discuss the struggles, feelings and thoughts that manifest during episodes of depression and panic. Therapy options for college students with depression and anxiety can range from one-on-one sessions to group therapy sessions.

Getting help for anxiety and depression

Cognitive behavioral therapy is regarded as one of the most effective treatment option for those suffering from generalized anxiety disorders. CBT seeks to help individuals become their own therapists by developing coping skills and learning to change their negative patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. Instead of focusing on past events, CBT addresses the current issues an individual is facing and focuses on helping them move forward via healthy coping strategies. The individual will ideally help themselves through their anxiety by applying these learned behaviors during stressful situations.

Medications may also be used in conjunction with therapies depending on the treatment plan outlined for each particular individual. A mental health professional can help to determine the best course of treatment based on the individual's needs.

These treatments may help them manage stress and cope with depression in healthy ways, regain their focus, compartmentalize their problems, increase their self-confidence when faced with adversity and improve their academic performance.

Overcoming Anxiety and Depression at Brookhaven Retreat for Women

Depression and anxiety are powerful mental afflictions that can negatively impact, disrupt and damage many facets of your life. Though stress and sadness are natural parts of life, anxiety and depression are medical illnesses that can severely harm your physical, mental and emotional health. Unfortunately, choosing to cope with these problems by self-medicating with alcohol, substance abuse, co-dependent relationships, isolation, anger or binge-eating is not an effective solution, but one that many college students turn to. To emotionally heal and move forward successfully, many people require compassionate support and professional treatment.

Brookhaven Retreat is a safe and caring facility where women can find serenity and support. As one of the most innovative mental health retreats for women in the country, we offer 90-day treatment programs that address issues with mental health, substance abuse and emotional strife. We provide comprehensive recovery for those who need assistance regaining control of their lives and rediscovering who they truly are.

If you're experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety as you continue your transition into college, know that you're not alone. The experts at Brookhaven Retreat are here to help you progress from adolescence to adulthood in healthy, positive ways that do not impede your academic performance. Call us today and let us help you resolve these issues so that you can progress forward into a life of happiness and success.

Contact Brookhaven Retreat for Help

Last modified on Friday, 28 September 2018 01:13

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