The Psychological and Social Effects of Generalized Anxiety on Students

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In 2012, symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder were recorded by 2.4 million Canadians (Statistic Canada, 2015). Stress is present in most individuals’ daily lives, and it can have negative effects on one’s life if ignored. This paper focuses on Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in college students and its effects on behaviour. Generalized Anxiety Disorder is defined as “a clinical anxiety disorder that is centrally characterized by excessive, pervasive, and chronic worry” (Treanor and Roemer, 2010, p.1). To be diagnosed with this disorder, one has to experience at least 6 months of excessive worry and stress. Students need to be informed in the many ways they can reduce or manage their anxiety towards events and issues they face daily.


Generalized Anxiety Disorder can be associated with Richard Lazarus’ Cognitive Appraisal Theory. The purpose of this research is to analyze generalized anxiety in students and its effect on behaviour. This will be analyzed by examining the environment, the effects anxiety can have on behaviour, as well as finding solutions to better control emotions. When it comes to anxiety and stress, I do have a bias. Being a college student myself, I experience periods of stress. In addition, I am frequently in contact with other students, who themselves, also carry their fair loads of anxiety. These factors will be evaluated using a western social scientific perspective, with the use of psychology and sociology disciplines.

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Historical Context

The origin of the word stress is dated from the seventeenth century and meant ‘hardship’ (Hinkle, 1973). Towards the end of the seventeenth century, “the word assumed a more technical importance (Lazarus, 1993) through the writing of Robert Hooke” (Cooper, Dewe, & Dewe, 2004, p.3). Robert Hooke’s work is significant in regards to the history of stress, as he compared it to engineering. He was “concerned with how man-made structures (e.g. bridges) could be made to withstand heavy loads without collapsing (Engel, 1985; Hinkle, 1973; Lazarus, 1999)” (Cooper et al., 2004, p.3). This engineering analogy can be compared to human stress whereas the human is the man-made structure and stress is referred to as the heavy loads. Hooke’s Law of Elasticity carried three different concepts, “load, stress, and strain” (Lazarus, 2006, p.31). Load was external factors, stress supported the load, and strain was referred to as deformation due to the combination of load and stress. Robert Hooke’s Engineering Analogy is still revenant in modern days wherein “the idea that stress is an external demand placed on a bio-social-psychological system” (Lazarus, 2006, p.3).

In the 1950’s, “‘stress as a legitimate subject of academic study had arrived’ (Newton, 1995, p.31)” (Cooper et al., 2004, p. 40). This meant that the study of stress was now part of psychology education. On account of the idea of stress being quite new, there were concerns about whether or not it was simply a trend.

In the 1960s, stress presented researchers with two challenges, “the causal relationship between life events and illness … and the role of individual difference and personality variables in illness (Lipowski, 1986c)” (Cooper et al., 2004, p. 41). In other words, the external and the internal factors that contributed to the illness. These two issues are factors contributing to the history of stress and they manifest the new era of research it was about to enter.

Moreover, the anxiety college students are facing today is more severe than college students before the 21st century. After the 1980s, college students “were more likely to report feeling overwhelmed and to believe they were below average in mental and physical health” (Twenge, 2015, par. 1). This new generation of extreme stress can be explained by the excessive use of social media and cell phones. Over the past decade, “the rapid development of social networking sites (SNSs) … has caused several profound changes in the way people communicate and interact” (Pantic, 2014, par. 2). In 2012, 86% of college students owned laptops, while 62% of them owned cellphones, and 33% owned computers at home, and finally, 15% of students owned a tablet (Mastrodicasa & Metellus, 2013, p. 21). This can be compared to the end of the 20th century when electronic devices were not as commonly used on a daily basis. The severe use of social media can pressure students into having to dress, act, and look a certain way. This urge to fit in and be accepted creates unnecessary stress. Henry (2012), found that “when students were procrastinating or wasting time using technology or social media, they showed higher measures of loneliness, depression, shyness, and social anxiety” (Mastrodicasa & Metellus, 2013, p. 24). Before the 21st century, resources were not as accessible as they are today. Student’s found their books in libraries instead of online and usually met friends in social settings.


A college student’s environment, goals, development, socio-economic status, gender, and use of social media are factors contributing to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. College is a critical period wherein individuals explore their identity, sexuality, and find themselves creating a career path. Their environment, friends, and life goals are very important aspects that will help shape these years and their future. Furthermore, the way in which they develop psychosocially is also very important in determining their future. Finally, their gender and the extent and reasons as to which they use social media can come into conflict with their levels of anxiety and loneliness.


The transition between two environments can create a sense of uncertainty and stress. During the transition from high school to college, most students did not yet experience “the developmental tasks indicative of a transition into adulthood such as marriage, parenting, or occupational stability, yet these topics are the focus areas for the transitions that will occur during this period” (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 3). This transition period focuses mainly on self-discovery, exploring career choices, and creating new relationships. Many changes occur within a student during this period, and “Pascarella and Terenzini (2005) identify areas of student change, such as psychosocial and cognitive-structural, that occur within the transition to college” (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 3). Richard Lazarus’ Cognitive Appraisal Theory “emphasizes the way in which ideas, memories, beliefs and expectations influence the interpretation of events and hence our emotional response to those events” (Forsythe, 2006, p.1). The way one feels they have control over a situation determines their emotional response to the event. This theory involves a two-stage process, “physiological arousal in response to an event or situation, followed by the interpretation and labeling of the physiological experience (Schachter and Singer 1962)” (Forsythe, 2006, p.1). Lazarus indicates stress as an association between an individual and the environment. In other words, the uncertainty someone feels toward a situation will determine their levels of anxiety. Moreover, students go from a familiar high-school environment to an unknown college environment where they are now obliged to take responsibility and follow their educational goals. Some students must move to another city to attend college, therefore changing their habitual setting completely. Therefore, moving away from home, from friends they’ve known their whole life, and from their family, as well as having entire new responsibilities and choices to make, undoubtedly comes with a load of stress.

Psychosocial Development

College years and stress are associated with psychosocial development in order to achieve secure identities. Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and offered eight stages of development experienced by individuals. There stages were created to “offer insight into the typical interpersonal conflicts and important life events during each period” (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 5). During the sixth stage, intimacy versus isolation, adolescents seek to become adults. This period is important for individuals to explore and form meaningful relationships, however, “conflict can arise when students are unable to concurrently balance their connection to their social network and their romantic partner or when they seek to find stability during this period of transition by coupling” (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 5). Erikson’s model for his stages of development is important for college student development because of the connection between identity and intimacy. If one has “a sense of identity [they] can have real intimacy with the other sex” (Bae, 1999, p.17). In like manner, if college students explore themselves and come to realize who they are, it can create a sense of confidence and autonomy, therefore leading to physical contact and experiences with partners.

Socioeconomic Status

A student’s socioeconomic status can also be a factor of anxiety. Whether a student comes from a high-income or a low-income household will affect their educational path and their stress levels. Evidence illustrates a correlation between higher socioeconomic status and “academic graduation, literacy, and time spent on homework (McBride Murry et al., 2011)” (Devenish, Hooley, and Mellor, 2017, p. 1). In fact, several research demonstrate an association between adolescents coming from a lower socioeconomic household and the “increased risk for poor mental health outcomes and decreased psychological well-being (McBride Murry, Berkel, Gaylord-Harden, Copeland-Linder & Nation, 2011; Quon & McGrath, 2014)” (Devenish et al., 2017, p.1). Thus, students coming from low socioeconomic statuses may not be able to afford education or may lack the self-confidence to push themselves to reach higher goals, and this can result in feelings of failure.

Social Media

In modern day, the use of social media can increase the risk of experiencing anxiety. Most students today have multiple social media applications on their smartphones, such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. These platforms can be very useful and positive in terms of self-expression and freedom. On the other hand, they can also lead to cyberbullying, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. When it comes to college students, 'research has shown that about a quarter of college students report being cyber-bullied at some point in their lives, and about 30% of those students said they were bullied for the first time in college (Held, 2011)” (Mastrodicasa & Metellus, 2013, p. 26). Cyberbullying increases the feelings of depression, and solitude in a victim, and therefore also increases the levels of stress. Another negative impact would be the use of social media for no purpose in general, for example, internet browsing, watching Youtube videos, or playing games, “those activities led to lower scores on the measures of psychosocial well-being and sense of community (Henry, 2010, 2012)” (Mastrodicasa & Metellus, 2013, p. 24). Indeed, using social media for solitary purposes, unlike meeting new people or chatting with friends, can lead to an increase in anxiety. In addition, in recent studies, researchers found a correlation between social media usage and “several psychiatric disorders, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, and low self-esteem” (Pantic, 2014, par. 3). The use of social networking in modern day can be very detrimental for college students’ mental state, most of them are exposed to different lifestyles and human diversity, which can lead to comparison. If not used appropriately and moderately, it can have negative impacts on one’s social life.


Gender differences can have an effect on levels of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In fact, “women are also approximately twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder [91] and score more highly on self-report scales measuring anxiety [55, 79]” (Leach, Christensen, Mackinnon, Windsor, & Butterworth, p. 983). These results are due to health and lifestyle status, socio-demographic, and social and relational factors (Leach, et al., 984-985). Also, in the area of psychological factors, “a meta-analysis [25] found that females were less assertive, had lower self-esteem, and higher levels of anxiety than males” (Leach, et al., 984). As a result, women tend to experience higher levels of anxiety over men.


Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has an evident effect on the behaviour of students. Some students might look at college as the best years of their lives, filled with new experiences, responsibilities, and relationships. On the other hand, some students might look at college as a time filled with stress, constant worry about academic achievement and demands, and a reexamination of their entire career goals. This period of stress does not necessarily lead to anxiety disorder, however, it may provoke the disorder if the person is predisposed.

Psychological and Physical Effects

Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects students psychologically as well as physically. The psychological symptoms of generalized anxiety disorders involve “excessive worry with symptoms of physiological arousal such as restlessness, insomnia, and muscle tension” (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 238). In order to be diagnosed with GAD, people need to be in a period of constant stress for at least 6 months. Furthermore, students who have this disorder have difficulty relaxing, sleeping, and concentrating. Also, they might come to realize that they are more irritable and impatient (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 238). In addition, physical symptoms of GAD “include sweating, an upset stomach, diarrhea, frequent urination, cold and clammy hands, a lump in the throat, a dry mouth, shortness of breath, headaches, and dizziness” (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013, p. 239). Overall, the physical and psychological symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder can be extremely unpleasant and deteriorating unless treated.

Social and Occupational Life

Generalized Anxiety Disorder can have long-term detrimental effects on social and occupational life. The physical symptoms of GAD are not lethal, but they can worsen and become quite challenging to endure. In fact, two studies were conducted, one by “Harvard Medical School and the Lown Cardiovascular Research Institute; the other, by several Canadian medical colleges” concluded that men and women diagnosed with heart diseases, in addition to having an anxiety disorder history, were twice as much likely to experience a heart attack ('Anxiety and physical illness”, 2018). Generalized Anxiety Disorder can also have negative impacts on an individual’s occupational life. Evidence shows that “persons with psychiatric disorders and perhaps especially social phobia are at increased risk for premature withdrawal from school [Am. J. Psychiatry 157 (2000) 1606]” (Van Ameringen, Mancini, & Farvolden, 2002, Abstract, para. 1). Living with an anxiety disorder can create isolation, and to refrain from having anxiety, people can cease their education. A study was conducted with a sample of 201 patients who met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and who suffered from anxiety disorder. The results suggest that 49% of the respondents left school prematurely and 24% of them reported the main reason for this was because of anxiety (Van Ameringen, et al., 2002, Abstract, para. 1). Several past research dated from the 1990s, “demonstrate the negative impact of childhood and adolescent anxiety on a broad range of psychosocial variables, including academic performance and social functioning” (Van Ameringen, et al., 2002, Introduction, para. 3). As expressed, anxiety that has been carried on from childhood all through adulthood without being resolved can affect the individual’s life in the long-term.

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The Psychological and Social Effects of Generalized Anxiety on Students. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 17, 2024, from
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