Stress is unavoidable. Whether induced by academic work, social problems, uncertainty of future plans or just living in a new environment, stress is a mainstay on college campuses.

"The overriding thing that we deal with, with students, is more anxiety-related conditions," said Director of the Counseling Service and Wellness Program Bernie Hershberger. "Stress and anxiety easily consume about 60 percent of issues and concerns that we help students with."

Hershberger's comments follow a January 26 New York Times article that reported the emotional health of college freshmen has declined to the lowest recorded level in 25 years.

The article cited a survey of over 200,000 incoming college freshmen nationwide that found that increasing pressures from high school and the economic recession partially explain the trend toward increased stress levels. The article also mentioned that pressure students put on themselves, and students' inability to adequately measure mental health factored into the results.

In response to the article, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster said, "I was disappointed that there was not some more talk that there is some type of stress that is healthy stress."

"The general notion is that all stress is bad, and I am against that," he added.

Foster said that 'good' stress motivates students, while 'bad' stress tends to produce, as he said, "unnecessary and unproductive anxiety." The nationwide trend toward higher stress levels among college freshmen has been widely attributed to the negative form of stress.

Hershberger mentioned that stress comes from a variety of sources at Bowdoin. Family troubles and relationship issues play a role, but students also can feel a culture shock at arriving at a tightly knit community in Maine, a state that is rural, cold and predominantly racially homogenous.

"Academic stress is always at the top of the list," said Hershberger. "At a school like Bowdoin I think one of the big challenges both have to keep up and do something really significant in the world and if you don't you feel like you haven't lived up to some expectation... Perfectionism at Bowdoin is a form of anxiety."

Bowdoin is not a school that endorses outward competition among students. Though discussions of grades are generally subdued across campus, the College draws in driven students with high expectations.

"We attract students who are very bright, accomplished, high performing and probably carry a greater amount of perfectionist tendencies than the broader world," said Foster.

Foster commented that students run into problems when they become, as he stated, "compulsively engaged doing those things you are supposed to do," rather than "vitally engaged," doing those things your are passionate about.

While acknowledging that academics are a critical source of student stress, Foster said, "I don't think of the workload as being overly demanding." He referenced a 2010 survey in which 75 percent of seniors reported spending 16 hours or less per week on academic work outside of class.

Foster emphasized that stressors are individual and vary among students. For some, financial concerns top the list, while for others, concerns over personal health may be the primary cause. Foster mentioned that Bowdoin's decision in 2008 to replace student loans with grants alleviated the stress of some students by allowing them to graduate from college without debt.

"I don't think Bowdoin students worry quite so much about getting the job," said Hershberger. "But I think Bowdoin students are always worried about 'How do I achieve with this degree in some level that will both make me satisfied and won't let down family, friends and community?'"

Hershberger did not isolate first years as being especially vulnerable to high stress levels. He mentioned that each class has its own stress-inducing factors, whether it be first years adjusting to college, sophomores choosing a major, or juniors and seniors making post-graduate plans.

"We never seem to consistently have one class that utilizes more services than another, he said. "Maybe with the exception of juniors, and I think that is because of study away. Honestly, I think study away is a great de-stresser."

At Bowdoin, faculty and staff seek to implement a unique blend of stress-reducing strategies to alleviate unhealthy amounts of stress.

Counseling sessions have increased in recent years. In the fall of 2008, the counseling center saw 202 students over 1149 sessions; in the fall of 2009 266 students over 1439 sessions, and in the fall of 2010, 269 students over 1402 sessions.

The increase in counseling sessions does not necessarily indicate an increased level of student stress on campus.

Dean Foster mentioned that a larger number of students matriculating at the College in recent years have pre-existing conditions which, through advanced medicine and other practices, have been able to keep from impacting their academic success.

Dean Foster mentioned that while he was unsure if student stress had increased during his 14-year tenure at the College, he could easily point to the rise of technology as having an important factor.

"The pace of life has definitely quickened," he said. "There is not downtime in the way that students even a decade ago had. The opportunity for reflection [is] lost. People are just constantly connected."

Hershberger mentioned that men often find it especially difficult to identify the warning signs of stress. He cited cultural norms that dissuade men from seeking out help, and backed it up with the statistic that approximately 66 to 67 percent of students who visit the counseling center are female.

"We [as a culture] are definitely not good at picking up signs and signals of stress," said Hershberger.

Hershberger serves as the adviser for a new campus club called Active Minds, formed this semester to help combat social stigmas about mental health.

Active Minds co-founder Matt Silton '13 said, "Mental health issues often come out in the college years, so we felt it was important to educate people about mental health."

Fellow co-founder Jacob Blum '13 mentioned that the group is hoping to screen movies and invite psychologists and mental health experts to address issues pertinent to college students. The club also hopes to branch out through cooperative ventures with other campus groups such as the Bowdoin Outing Club.

"It's about taking things that already exist on campus and bringing in a mental health dynamic to them," said club treasurer Michael Ben-Zvi '13.

The club's focus on increasing awareness of mental health is in line with the type of techniques that the Counseling Center uses to approach problems with stress.

Hershberger mentioned that wellness classes such as yoga, t'ai chi, and qigong are useful in helping students learn how to be at ease and manage their unhealthy stress before it becomes a serious problem. Additional treatments utilized by the counseling center include hypnosis and biofeedback. Most students come to Hershberger hoping to cope with their stress issues using techniques focusing on mind and body before turning to pharmaceutical drugs.

"We know students that come here are smart and we know they'll leave smart," said Hershberger. "What we would like [for] them is to leave feeling that they have learned skills to be wise and grow their emotional intelligence."

Bowdoin also is unique among colleges in that it has facilities for massage and acupuncture treatments, but has yet to utilize them due to high operating costs and the recent economic recession. Hershberger said that the services would likely go unused by students unless an alumnus creates a special fund for the necessary staff.

To combat unhealthy stress, both Hershberger and Foster highlighted the importance of ensuring that students maintain a balanced lifestyle, an approach not unlike the approach to a liberal arts education.

"It's all about balance," said Foster. "Your experience [at Bowdoin] is definitely not defined by a single dimension....The nature of the program brings a certain balance."

Foster acknowledged that some students become too absorbed in a single event or activity, citing students that overwhelm themselves with too many laboratory classes. Both Hershberger and Foster emphasized their efforts to ensure that Bowdoin promotes an environment in which students can manage their stress while pursuing an array of activities that excites their intellect and promotes their interests.

"I don't think of Bowdoin as a place where you try to survive the experience. Most Bowdoin students are thriving, [but] that doesn't mean there aren't challenges along the way," said Foster.