A Student’s Guide to Managing Stress
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Reviewed by Rayelle Davis, M.S.Ed., NCC, LCPC
- Stress is common among students, and it can cause adverse mental and physical side effects if left unaddressed.
- Stress has many identifiable symptoms that can affect academic performance.
- Colleges and universities provide learners with online and in-person mental health resources.
- If a school does not have the resources you need, it can direct you to outside services.
Stress is just one of the many hurdles that college students experience. Short-term stress can help learners raise a grade, polish an essay, or pursue a coveted career opportunity. However, long-term stress, if not addressed, can have detrimental side effects. More than half of degree-seekers report that stress impacts their schoolwork, and unchecked stress can lead to physical side effects like a weakened immune system.
In addition to the negative side effects that stress brings, more college students than ever report feeling it for extended periods. Although the majority of this stress often stems from coursework, other factors, such as family, friends, and work, can also increase stress and lead to undesirable academic and personal outcomes.
Colleges provide ample resources and opportunities for learners to address stress positively. Continue reading to learn more about different types of stress, possible solutions, and answers to frequently asked questions.
Frequently Asked Questions
College students may experience stress from the moment they apply to a school. For example, some learners harbor a competitive nature that can lead to sleepless nights studying. Students also face a new social environment in a college setting -- one where making new friends can sometimes prove challenging.
Stress in college students, if left unaddressed, can lead to depression and anxiety. These conditions can result in worsening grades and the loss of friendships. Adopting a stress management regiment can help avoid and ameliorate these problems.
Financial issues can lead to stress, as college tuition continues to rise. College students may also graduate in a time of economic uncertainty, hampering their job search. Parents and family members can cause additional stress by putting unrealistic expectations or pressure on a learner.
Learners can manage stress in many healthy ways, including pursuing a new hobby, finding a support system, and working on time management skills. Other stress management resources include keeping a journal and reaching out to a doctor. Unfortunately, many degree-seekers manage stress in unhealthy ways, including drug and alcohol abuse.
Stress affects college students in different ways depending on the individual. However, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 70% of degree-seekers with stress report a reduction in sleep quality. Reduced sleep can also have a detrimental effect on mood -- stressed students may become angry much more easily than unstressed learners.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a physical reaction to a person's emotions. Both positive events (e.g., an upcoming wedding) and negative events (e.g., the loss of a loved one) can cause stress. When you feel an emotion that triggers stress, your adrenal gland releases cortisol -- the hormone responsible for the 'flight-or-fight' response. In a dangerous situation, this response can save your life. However, too much cortisol can have a long-term, negative impact on your metabolic rate, memory formation, and blood sugar regulation.
Stress can take one of three forms. Continue reading to learn more about each.
As the most common stress form, acute stress occurs due to day-to-day stressors, such as waking up late, running to class, or receiving a bad grade. Fortunately, most acute stress fades quickly and has little mental or physical impact.
As its name suggests, episodic acute stress develops when someone experiences acute stress multiple times over an extended period. Common symptoms that college students experience include migraines and tension headaches.
Chronic acute stress happens when someone cannot avoid a long-term stressful situation. For example, degree-seekers struggling academically in a course that their major requires for graduation. This stress can lead to weight gain, sleep deprivation, and anxiety in college students.
The Effects of Stress
When people are exposed to stressors (stimuli that provoke stress), they experience an array of physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive reactions. Two people might experience stress in very different ways. Read on to learn about some of the symptoms that can occur when you experience stress.
The body reacts to stressful situations with a unique type of sweat. Most people are likely familiar with the watery sweat produced by the eccrine glands, which occurs during exercise and warm weather. The human body also has apocrine sweat glands, which immediately respond to stressors and produce a sweat that is full of proteins and lipids. The result is a more pungent sweat that the body originally developed to alert others of danger and increase alertness.
Increased Heart Rate
When your brain releases epinephrine, your heart rate increases, preparing your body to fight or flee.
Increased Blood Pressure
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body surges with hormones. This surge temporarily increases blood pressure by narrowing your blood vessels and causing your heart to beat faster. This is a short-term effect, and there is currently no evidence that suggests that stress can lead to long-term high blood pressure on its own.
Your muscles contract when stress hormones trigger your sympathetic nervous system. This occurs because contracted muscles are more resilient to attack.
Tightened shoulders and neck muscles can trigger tension headaches.
The muscle tension, dietary changes, and hormonal shifts that occur as a result of chronic stress can lead to abdominal pain.
The fight-or-flight response floods your body with hormones that make you feel temporarily alert. However, this effect eventually fades, causing your body to crash after prolonged periods of stress.
Once a stimulus triggers your fight-or-flight instincts, you might begin to perceive other stimuli as potential stressors. People sometimes lash out with frustration or irritability to defend themselves. Fatigue brought on by prolonged stress can have the same effect.
Students exposed to a constant deluge of stressful events, environments, and obligations might feel they cannot remedy the situation. Research conducted on the risks of learned helplessness shows that animals can become conditioned to avoid action, even when given the chance to escape from stressful stimuli.
Isolation and stress can become a vicious cycle, each feeding on the other. Research published in the British Medical Journal describes how stress and social isolation are tied to increased mortality rates.
Binge or Reduced Eating
Stress hormones can temporarily halt your appetite. However, according to the Harvard Medical School, long-term exposure to cortisol can also lead to cravings. As such, many students celebrate the end of finals week with chips, pizza, and ice cream.
Drug or Alcohol Abuse
Students might turn to alcohol or drugs to escape from the effects of chronic stress.
Decreased Sex Drive
As noted above, cortisol is one of the hormones that floods into your system during the fight-or-flight response. Sustained high levels of cortisol can cause a lack of sex drive.
Erratic Sleep Habits
Stress can keep you from getting enough sleep and decrease the quality of the sleep you do get, starting a vicious cycle in which being exhausted from a lack of sleep causes additional stress. This stress makes sleeping difficult, which makes you more exhausted, and so on.
According to a University of Iowa study, increased levels of cortisol can result in memory lapses as we grow older. The study found a link between high cortisol levels and the gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area responsible for short-term memory. Lack of sleep can also lead to memory loss.
Loss of Concentration
Stress can impair the short-term learning and concentration sections of the brain.
Stress can feed a negative outlook, which can in turn feed the cycle of stress. The Mayo Clinic suggests breaking this cognitive feedback loop by practicing positive self-talk to pull yourself through stressful challenges.
Clinical depression is a complex disorder often caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and/or environmental triggers. Additionally, floods of stress hormones can make people more susceptible to becoming depressed. In MedlinePlus, Dr. Esther Sternberg encourages people to seek professional help if they are unable to control stress levels, as they might suffer from clinical depression.
General Anxiety Disorder
This is just one of many anxiety disorders that can develop due to chronic stress, according to the American Psychological Association. This ailment may be characterized by visible physical symptoms, such as muscle tension and shaking, as well as by racing thoughts, feeling of impending doom, fear, excess worry, and irritability.
Sleep problems and anxiety issues appear to be intertwined. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America explains that sleep disorders can cause anxiety disorders and vice versa.
Some students turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with their stress. Unfortunately, these dangerous coping mechanisms can lead to substance addiction and abuse. A 2018 study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 28% of college students had engaged in binge drinking within the last two weeks. Process addictions, as well addictions to things like food, sex, shopping, and gambling, can also turn into major problems.
Chronic Muscle Pain
Students might discover that their chronic neck aches, backaches, stomachaches, or headaches are symptoms of stress. The National Institutes of Health recommends yoga and meditation to relax your body and release muscular tension.
Causes of Stress In College
Students all respond to stressors in different ways, and not all learners find the same situations stressful. However, some situations are almost always stressful. Read on to learn about common stressors for college learners.
Students often work while attending college to keep up with high tuition and housing costs. However, many student jobs only pay entry-level wages. If you are struggling economically, speak to your financial aid office to see if you qualify for grants, loans, or a federal work-study program.
On top of classes/exams and meeting new people, students also have to deal with growing up. Out-of-state students may be living away from their home for the first time in their lives, which can easily become a source of constant stress.
Students new to campus life often feel isolated, especially if they are adapting to an unfamiliar city or state. Some students are naturally shy and have difficulties making new friends.
Many students may not be accustomed to sharing a room with someone else -- especially if their roommate is someone they hardly know. This situation can compound the normal stress of college life.
Students are often overwhelmed by the increased workload associated with college courses. This realization can blindside students and create a lot of stress and academic anxiety. In many college courses, exams make up a large percentage of a student's grade, which can make finals week even more stressful than normal.
An NPR study revealed that the death of a loved one is the second-highest cause of stress amongst U.S. adults. A death in the family can be extremely traumatic for students, especially if they live far from home and cannot afford to step away from their classes.
A survey conducted by Citibank and Seventeen magazine revealed that four out of five students work while attending college, with the average students spending 19 hours each week at work. Many students try to find a job that can accommodate the scheduling concerns associated with full-time college studies.
On top of trying to be a good student, college places a lot of pressure on individuals to make new friends, seek out new experiences, and have a lot of fun. Peer pressure and societal expectations can prove stressful for new learners.
Romantic relationships take work. When you and your significant other both experience the stresses of college life, the pressure can seem even greater.
Managing Your Stress
Diagnosing which situations are likely stressors is only half the battle. Luckily, there are several ways that you can avoid getting stressed out, reduce the amount of stress you feel from certain situations, and increase your ability to cope with and eliminate stress altogether.
Getting enough quality sleep can have a variety of health benefits, including reducing stress and improving your mood. Students who sleep well are also less likely to get sick, have better memory recall, and enjoy a clearer mind.
Make an effort to eat nutritious meals and avoid eating on the run so that you avoid indigestion. You can also seek out foods that combat stress.
Regular exercise not only keeps you healthy, but the act of exercising also releases endorphins and improves your overall cognitive ability. Exercise can also help you fall asleep, which itself can help reduce stress. Keep in mind that exercise doesn't need to be strenuous — yoga, short walks, and stretching can also lead to immense mental health benefits and help relieve tension.
Drinking coffee and energy drinks to fuel your late-night study binges will inevitably lead to a crash later on. These stimulants boost cortisol levels in the body, increasing the effects of stress on the body.
A hectic schedule is a stressor that can cause several others. Consistently having too much on your plate can easily lead to a great deal of stress. Try managing your workload and setting realistic expectations so that you avoid overworking or overcommitting yourself. Additionally, remember that communication with professors is key — if you're swamped, you might be able to get an extension on an assignment.
While many college students swear by waiting until the last minute to write a paper or cram for an exam, this often leads to stress. Avoiding procrastination and managing your time wisely can keep you from having to spend all night catching up on coursework. Additionally, habitual procrastination may be a sign of anxiety or ADHD.
Realistically, stress cannot be completely avoided. However, finding some way to reduce your stress can go a long way towards keeping it from overwhelming you. Common stress outlets include exercise, comfort food, spending time with friends and loved ones, and getting a massage.
Getting Help for Stress
Stress can compound to dangerous levels, threatening your physical, emotional, and mental health. You do not have to face stress alone. Below are some emergency symptoms to watch out for, all of which suggest an intense level of stress that requires intervention of some kind. Read on to learn more about organizations and people you can contact to receive support and treatment.
If you regularly experience these symptoms, then you should seek out treatment and support:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Compulsive drug or alcohol abuse
- Abnormal social withdrawal and isolation
- Physically violent outbursts
- Uncontrollable crying or emotional outbursts
- Panic attacks
- Chest pain
Campus Resources for Stress Management
If you experience long-term stress related to academic assignments or personal issues, your school can help. Your college likely has a website that covers mental health issues that affect college students. Looking at these resources can help you understand your mental health situation better.
If you need immediate help, contact your school's student services department. They can direct you to appropriate resources, which may include mental health clinics, online screening, and individual or small-group counseling. Using these services can improve your mental state and allow you to thrive academically and socially. However, if these stress management resources cannot meet your needs, you should explore off-campus services.
Additionally, bear in mind that it is not uncommon for ADHD symptoms to be missed in childhood. The relative lack of routine and structure built into college can provide an environment for ADHD symptoms to emerge or get worse. Untreated, these can cause immense stress leading to depression, anxiety, and feeling like maybe you're not meant for college.
Off-Campus Resources for Stress Management
When a school cannot provide the appropriate stress management resources, it directs students to use an outside service. For example, a 24/7 hotline is an effective outside service in which trained professionals talk with individuals with severe stress, depression, or suicidal ideation. A hotline can help degree-seekers in crisis. Once professionals identify the underlying issue, they can connect individuals with a long-term solution, such as a psychiatrist or substance abuse prevention group.
By using both on-campus and off-campus resources, students can find coping mechanisms to manage and reduce stress, succeed academically, and reengage socially.
The American Institute of Stress
nonprofit educates the public about stress management through research and professional training.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
24-hour treatment referral line can help you take control of compulsive substance abuse. The operators at SAMHSA refer callers to nearby prevention and recovery assistance facilities and resources.
Veterans Crisis Line
Military service comes with its own stressors, and it is important for veterans to connect with support systems that understand their situation. Veterans can receive help right away via chat, phone, or text message.
Tuck's Guide to Anxiety and Sleep
Tuck put together an in-depth guide to the most common types of anxieties and how to cope with them and improve sleeping habits.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
This national support line serves individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts. Operators provide callers with emotional support and information about local crisis centers.
GriefShare is a national database dedicated to the bereavement process. If you need to talk with someone after losing a friend or loved one, GriefShare can help find a local support group.
Individualized Self-Care Planning Tool
This self-assessment tool can be useful for stress management and prevention.
Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.
Rayelle Davis is a nationally board certified counselor and a licensed clinical professional counselor. As a nontraditional student, she earned her associate degree in psychology at Allegany College of Maryland. She went on to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology as an online student at the University of Maryland Global Campus.
Rayelle earned her master's degree in counseling education with a concentration in marriage, couples, and family therapy from Duquesne University. She has taught several undergraduate psychology courses. She is currently a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Duquesne University and practices psychotherapy in Maryland.
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