A Student’s Guide to Balancing Stress

A poll conducted by the Associated Press and MTVu in 2008 and 2009 describes how multiple stressors work together to impact college students’ lives. The economy appears to be an influential stressor; students polled were twice as likely to drop out of college if one of their parents lost a job. The poll goes on to report that 57% of students fear they won’t find a job after graduating. When it comes to overall stress levels, 85% describe daily stress in college in 2009, a 5 percent uptick from the 80% reported in 2008.

It seems today’s college students experience far more stress than students in previous decades, and the numbers keep getting higher. Surveys conducted by Kansas State University reveal a 58% increase in stress-related mental health issues reported to campus counselors between 1988 and 2001. These increased stress loads come with some dire consequences. Suicide rates amongst college-aged students are three times higher than they were in 1950, as described by American College Health Association statistics published in Psychology Today.

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Occasional stress is a part of everyday academic life. It can even have a positive effect, challenging you to meet new goals. However, high levels of stress over a prolonged period of time are linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, and other potentially life-threatening issues. The following guide will acquaint you with potential stress risks, management techniques, and student resources.

You’re rushing from one end of campus to the other, trying to make your next class on time. Since your classes are scheduled back-to-back, you haven’t had time to eat. It’s three o’clock and you’re extremely hungry. This week, you’ve got three midterms to study for, a work-study job to hold down and a backlog of 300 pages to read. You’re meeting with a chemistry group tonight to finish work on a rushed research presentation. Too bad you’ve also got three other assignments due tomorrow, so it looks like you won’t be getting much sleep tonight. You’ll need to grab some energy drinks on the way home.

Did you tense up just reading that? Chances are, you’ve had similar hectic experiences as a student. You might feel lost, overwhelmed, frozen, or unable to cope when confronted with so many tasks. Busy schedules crammed with work, study, and extracurricular activities can take a toll on your physical and mental health, especially if you’re not eating or sleeping properly. If untreated, these stressors can compound over time, leading to even greater levels of stress.

The Clinical Definition of Stress

Stress is an elusive term that encompasses many different symptoms and contributes to a wide range of health disorders. The American Institute of Stress explains that “stress is not a useful term for scientists because it is a highly subjective phenomenon that defies definition.” It’s true; people respond in a variety of ways to stress. However, the National Institutes of Health strives to define the umbrella term of stress as “a feeling of emotion or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.”

Evolution of Stress

Some researchers believe humans evolved to have a stress response during fight-or-flight scenarios. The physical and cognitive changes we go through once we perceive a threat could potentially aid us in survival. Research published by Harvard Medical School describes how “the near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening.” Harvard researchers trace the beginning of the stress response to the amygdala part of the brain. It alerts the hypothalamus, which triggers a rush of hormones.

Hormones Released in Your Body During Stress

  • Epinephrine: Most people recognize this hormone as “adrenaline.” Epinephrine triggers increased lung and heart activity. The increased blood flow to your brain can make you feel more awake and aware.
  • Cortisol: This hormone changes the way you metabolize glucose and regulate blood pressure. During stressful situations, Cortisol gives your body the burst of energy characteristic in a fight or flight response.

It seems plausible that the increased heart rate, tunnel vision, and jitteriness that come with stress could have helped our ancestors when wild animals confronted them. However, students also feel the burden of stress when they encounter routine stressors, such as intimidating workloads, tests, and financial burdens. Constant exposure to these stressors can cause chronic stress. Mayo Clinic warns that prolonged exposure to stress hormones can take a significant toll on your mental and physical health; we’ll explore the symptoms and extent of that toll in greater detail below.

Causes of Stress in College

Students respond to stressors differently. Some students confronted by certain obstacles might be motivated to excel, while others might freeze up and panic. However, we all have certain combinations of stressors that have the potential to affect us negatively. Here are some common stressors students are exposed to in college:

  • New levels of independence
  • Extended commute times
  • Living among strangers
  • Roommate negotiations and mediation
  • Unfamiliar environments and climates
  • Heavy course loads
  • Exams
  • Financial commitments such as tuition, rent, books, and fees
  • Grade performance
  • Family turmoil or loss back home
  • Work schedules
  • Social obligations
  • Romantic relationships
When a person is exposed to stressors, or stimuli that provoke stress, we experience an array of physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive reactions. Two people might experience stress in very different ways. Here are just some of the symptoms that can occur when you experience stress:

Physical

Sweating

It might sound strange, but some researchers believe humans evolved to release sweat with odors that communicate fear and danger. Studies described by the Wall Street Journal reveals that subjects exposed to other peoples’ stress sweat increases alertness.

Increased Heart Rate

When your brain releases epinephrine, your heart rate increases to get your body ready to fight or flee.

Increased Blood Pressure

Stress hormones also cause your blood vessels to constrict.

Muscle Tension

Your muscles activate when stress hormones trigger your sympathetic nervous system. This can cause you to tense up in a seated position during class or repeatedly flex certain muscles until they begin to ache.

Headaches

Stress headaches can be triggered by tightened shoulders and neck muscles.

Stomach Aches

The muscle tension, dietary changes, and hormonal shifts that occur during stress can lead to abdominal pain.

Fatigue

The fight-or-flight response floods you with hormones that make you feel temporarily alert. However, this effect eventually fades, causing your body to crash after prolonged periods of stress.

Emotional

Hostility

Once a stressor triggers your fight-or-flight instincts, you might begin to perceive other stimuli as potential stressors. People sometimes lash out with frustration or irritability in order to defend themselves.

Helplessness

Students exposed to a constant deluge of stressful events, environments, and obligations might feel they can’t do anything to remedy the situation. In fact, a significant amount of research has been conducted on the risks of “learned helplessness” in animals and humans who become conditioned to take no action even when given the chance to escape from stressful stimuli.

Unhappiness

When students continuously meet stressors, it can be easy to slip into a negative outlook.

Loneliness

Isolation and stress can become a vicious cycle, with one feeding the other. Research published in the British Medical Journal describes how stress and social isolation are tied to increased mortality rates.

Behavioral

Binge or Reduced Eating

Stress hormones can temporarily halt your appetite. However, long term exposure to cortisol can lead to cravings, according to the Harvard Medical School. This is why so many students celebrate with chips, pizza, and ice cream after finals week.

Drug or Alcohol Abuse

Students might turn to alcohol or drugs to escape from the effects of chronic stress.

Decreased Sex Drive

During the fight-or-flight response, your brain and body get prepared to respond to emergency situations, which can cause your libido to decrease.

Erratic Sleep Habits

Students suffering from stress might swing between exhaustion and fatigue from hormonal overloads. Or you might experience sleep disruption, which can lead to a cycle of increased stress and insomnia.

Cognitive

Memory Loss

While short bursts of stress can help you remember events and details with clarity, chronic stress can actually impair your ability to retain information, according to researchers working with the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University. This is bad news for students who might fruitlessly struggle to remember information during high-stress cram sessions, only to find they’ve retained very little.

Loss of Concentration

It can be difficult to focus on your studies if your brain is buzzing with anxiety about the many tasks you have to complete.

Negative Outlook

Stress can feed a negative outlook, which can in turn feed the cycle of stress. Mayo Clinic suggests breaking this cognitive feedback loop by practicing positive self-talk to pull you through stressful challenges.

Stress Disorders

Depression

Clinical depression is marked by chemical imbalances that can be triggered by stressful life events. It’s possible floods of stress hormones can make people more susceptible to becoming depressed. In Medlineplus magazine, Dr. Esther Sternberg encourages people to seek professional help if they are unable to control stress levels, because they might have clinical depression.

General Anxiety Disorder

This is just one of many anxiety disorders one can develop due to chronic stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). This ailment is characterized by visible physical symptoms, such as muscle tension and shaking.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep problems and anxiety issues seem to be intertwined. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America explains that sleep disorders can cause anxiety disorders and vice versa. Patients often seek cognitive-behavior therapy to break these feedback loops.

Substance Abuse

Some students might attempt to take the edge off their hectic lives by turning to alcohol or illicit drugs. Unfortunately, these dangerous coping attempts can lead to even larger problems of substance addiction and abuse. A Columbia University study revealed that 22% of college students compulsively use drugs or alcohol, markedly higher than the 8% of non-student populations exhibiting dependence.

Chronic Muscle Pain

Students might discover that their chronic neck aches, backaches, stomach aches, or headaches aren’t the result of pulled muscles or physical injuries, they could actually be symptoms of stress. The National Institutes of Health recommends yoga and meditation to relax your body and release muscular tension.

School Stress

Tardiness

You might find it difficult to get to classes on time, especially if you’re not a morning person. Tardiness can affect your overall grades and result in incredibly tense commutes. Alleviate this stress by regulating your sleep schedule, getting up with ample time to prepare for class, and leaving your place by a set time. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep before class, try relaxing activities such as meditation or gradual muscle relaxation before sleeping.

Pressing Deadlines

Procrastination can lead to intense periods of stress as you struggle to keep up with due dates. If your schedule permits, complete your assignments early so you can stay ahead of due dates and get some time to wind down.

Packed Schedule

Students often feel overwhelmed with the sheer number of commitments they’ve made. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to some unnecessary commitments to clear your schedule and relax. Make sure to give yourself buffers between tasks to eat, unwind, and take care of your health.

Family Stress

Parent or Guardian Expectations

If you’re living with family, you might find that their concerns feel a bit overbearing. If they’re hanging over your shoulder, sit down and have a respectful conversation about your new responsibilities as a college student. If your family can’t manage to give you space, consider moving to a less stressful environment, such as a dorm or off-campus apartment.

Loss of Loved Ones

NPR reveals that the death of a loved one is the second highest cause of stress amongst U.S. adults after illness concerns. A death in the family is often an extremely traumatic life event for students. Speak to a college advisor to get time off from classes to attend a funeral and spend time with your family. Explore bereavement counseling or support groups in your area for additional support.

Relationship Stress

Scheduling Issues

Students with packed schedules often have to tell their friends and loved ones, “Sorry, I can’t make it out tonight.” This can strain relationships. Be honest about your commitments, but also make an effort to meet with friends and loved ones. Socializing can reduce stress and help you cope better with responsibilities.

Conflict

Stress can cause people to lash out aggressively. Students who are continually in conflict with roommates or significant others should pursue conflict mediation with campus counselors.

Loneliness

Students new to campus often feel isolated, especially if their dorms, city, or state are wholly unfamiliar. Make an effort to connect with your community by participating in residence hall programs and joining extracurriculars.

Work Stress

Earnings

Students often work while attending college in order to keep up with high tuition and housing costs. However, many student jobs come with entry-level wages. If you’re struggling economically, speak to your financial aid office to see if you qualify for grants, loans, or federal work-study.

Work Hours

A survey conducted by Citibank and Seventeen magazine reveals that 4 out of 5 students work while attending college; time spent at work averages out to 19 hours a week. Avoid overloading your work schedule, because it can take a toll on your academic performance and wellbeing. Make sure your employer can completely accommodate your course schedule. If not, consider finding a new job, as class attendance takes precedence.

stress_guide_smallStress can compound to dangerous levels, threatening your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. When it does, feelings of isolation and helplessness can be amplified to heights you may have never experienced before. In such a scenario, outreach, whatever form it takes, has to be your anchor. Here are some emergency symptoms to watch out for, all of which might suggest an intense level of stress that requires an intervention of some kind. From there, we explore the organizations and people you can turn to in order to receive support and treatment when you need it.

Emergency Symptoms

  • Suicidal ideations
  • Compulsive drug or alcohol abuse
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Physically violent outbursts
  • Uncontrollable crying or emotional outbursts
  • Panic attacks
  • Chest pain

Who to Contact

There are a number of resources for students struggling with stress and stress-related disorders. If it seems too scary to contact an organization, start by asking a trusted friend, advisor, instructor, or family member for help. Here are some stress management options to explore:

  • Campus counseling services
  • College clinic
  • Substance abuse prevention hotlines
  • Academic advisors
  • Residence hall staff
  • Suicide prevention hotline
  • Your physician

For students, stress can be a double-edged sword. Some types of short-term stress can give you the energy and focus to help you pass finals, adjust to unexpected assignments, and tackle new challenges. However, long-term stress can be detrimental to your health, even deadly. Be proactive about reducing stress in your life by carefully managing your school and work schedules. Allow time for socializing, meditation, extracurriculars, exercise, and sleep. If you feel you aren’t able to manage stress alone, seek help through a variety of local and campus-based resources. There are many trained professionals committed to student succeed and, in turn, helping you overcome stress.

  • The American Institute of Stress: This nonprofit educates the public about stress management through research and professional training.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): This 24-hour treatment referral line can help you take control of compulsive substance abuse. The operators at SAMHSA can refer you to nearby prevention and recovery assistance.
  • Veterans Crisis Line: Military service comes with its own stressors, and it’s important for veterans to connect with support systems who understand their situations. You can get help right away via chat, phone, or text message.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, don’t hesitate to call this national support line. Operators provide callers with emotional support and resource information for local crisis centers.
  • GriefShare: If you need to talk after losing a friend or loved one, search for a nearby support GriefShare support group on this national database dedicated to the bereavement process.