The Student’s Guide to Managing Stress in College

portrait of Thomas Broderick
by Thomas Broderick
Published on October 22, 2021
Reviewed by Rayelle Davis, M.Ed., LCPC, NCC, and Karen Luu, MSN, PMHNP-BC

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Edited by Hannah Muniz
The Student’s Guide to Managing Stress in College


Stress is just one of the many hurdles college students face. Short-term stress can help learners raise a grade, polish an essay, or pursue a coveted career opportunity. But long-term stress, if left unaddressed, can have detrimental side effects.

According to the American Institute of Stress, 4 in 5 college students experience frequent stress. Unchecked stress can lead to physical side effects like trouble concentrating, irritability, a lack of energy, appetite changes, a weakened immune system, and trouble sleeping.

In addition to the negative side effects 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 increase stress and contribute to undesirable academic and personal outcomes.

To address this issue, many colleges provide ample resources and opportunities for students to deal with stress positively. Keep reading to learn more about the different types of stress and solutions for managing it.

What Is Stress and How Does It Affect College Students?

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 epinephrine — the hormone responsible for the flight-or-fight response — and then cortisol. In dangerous situations, this response can save your life. Too much cortisol, however, can have a long-term, negative impact on your metabolic rate, memory formation, and blood sugar regulation.

Stress can take one of three forms:

  • Acute Stress: The most common form of stress, acute stress is the result of 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.
  • Episodic Acute Stress: As its name suggests, episodic acute stress develops when a student experiences acute stress multiple times over an extended period. Common symptoms include migraines and tension headaches.
  • Chronic Acute Stress: Chronic acute stress happens when someone can't avoid a long-term stressful situation. For example, students struggling academically in a major course may develop chronic acute stress, which can lead to weight gain, sleep deprivation, and anxiety.

What Are the Symptoms of Stress in College Students?

When people are exposed to stressors or stimuli that provoke stress, they experience an array of physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive reactions. As such, two students might experience stress in very different ways.

Below are some of the various ways stress can manifest in people.

Physical Symptoms

Emotional Symptoms

Behavioral Symptoms

Cognitive Symptoms

What Are the Causes of Stress in College Students?

College students respond to stressors in different ways, but some situations are almost always stressful. Here are some of the most common stressors for students.

Finances

Many students work while in school to afford high tuition and housing costs. Unfortunately, part-time jobs typically pay just minimum wage. If you're struggling economically, speak to your financial aid office to see whether you qualify for grants, loans, or work-study.

Homesickness and New Levels of Independence

On top of classes, exams, and meeting people, many students have to deal with growing up. Out-of-state students may be living away from their homes for the first time in their lives, which can easily become a source of constant stress.

Living Among Strangers

Students new to campus life often feel isolated, especially if they're in an unfamiliar city or state. Some students are naturally shy and may find it difficult to make friends.

Cohabitating With Roommates

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.

Coursework and Exams

Students often feel overwhelmed by the increased workload associated with college-level coursework. This realization can blindside students and contribute to stress and anxiety. In many classes, exams make up a large percentage of students' grades, causing midterms and finals to be more stressful than normal.

Family Turmoil or Loss Back Home

A 2014 NPR study found 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 college students, especially if they live away from home and can't afford to take a break from classes.

Work Schedules

According to a 2013 survey by Citibank and Seventeen Magazine, 4 in 5 students work while attending college. The average student works 19 hours a week. Many learners try to find a job that can accommodate the scheduling concerns associated with full-time education.

Social Obligations

In addition to academic pressures, college introduces plenty of social pressures, such as the idea that you must make tons of friends and party every weekend. Peer pressure and societal expectations can exacerbate stress, especially for first-year students.

Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships take work. When you and your partner face the stresses of college life, the pressure can feel even greater. Additionally, many students may be in the process of questioning their sexuality and/or gender identity, which can impact dating and relationships.

Can College Stress Lead to Other Health Conditions?

Research shows that stress can lead to the development of many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. It can also introduce physical conditions like chronic pain.

How to Manage Stress in College: 7 Key Tips

Figuring out what situations might cause stress is only half the battle for college students. Fortunately, there are several tricks you can use to help you avoid getting stressed out, reduce how much stress you feel, and improve your ability to cope with and ultimately eliminate stress.

1. Get Enough Sleep

Getting both quality sleep and enough sleep offers a variety of health benefits, including reducing stress and improving your mood. What's more, students who sleep well are less likely to get sick, have better memory recall, and enjoy a clearer mind.

2. Eat Well

Make an effort to eat nutritious meals and avoid eating on the run so you can avoid indigestion. You may also look for foods that are known to combat stress and boost your mood.

3. Exercise Regularly

In addition to keeping your body healthy, regular exercise releases endorphins and improves your overall cognitive abilities. Exercise can even help you fall asleep, thereby reducing stress. Keep in mind that exercise doesn't need to be strenuous — yoga, short walks, and stretching can all lead to immense mental health benefits and help relieve tension.

4. Don't Rely on Stimulants

Drinking coffee and energy drinks to fuel your late-night study sessions will inevitably lead to a crash later on. These stimulants boost cortisol levels in the body, increasing the physical effects of stress.

5. Set Realistic Expectations

Consistently having too much on your plate can lead to a lot of stress. Try to manage your workload by setting realistic expectations and picking a class schedule that gives you plenty of time to study and relax.

Communication with professors is key — if you're swamped with work, you might be able to get an extension on an assignment by simply asking and explaining your situation.

6. Avoid Procrastinating

Procrastination might feel good in the moment, but it often leads to stress. By managing your time wisely, you can avoid spending all night catching up on coursework. Additionally, habitual procrastination may be a sign of ADHD or anxiety.

7. Identify a Stress Outlet

Stress can never be completely avoided; however, finding a healthy way to reduce stress can go a long way toward keeping it from overwhelming you. Common stress outlets include exercise, spending time with friends and family, and getting massages.

You can also try relaxation techniques such as deep abdominal breathing, concentrating on a soothing word (like "peace" or "calm"), doing yoga or tai chi, and visualizing tranquil scenes.

Where Can Students Go for Help With Managing Stress?

Stress can rise to dangerous levels, threatening students' physical, emotional, and mental health. But nobody has to face stress alone. Here are some organizations and resources you can contact to receive treatment and support for managing stress in college.

On-Campus Mental Health Services

Most colleges offer on-campus (and sometimes virtual) mental health services to students. You can usually find out more about a school's services by going online to its official website.

If you need immediate assistance, contact your school's student services. This department can direct you to appropriate resources, such as mental health clinics, online screening, and individual or group counseling. Taking advantage of these services can improve your mental health, allowing you to thrive academically and socially.

Off-Campus Centers and Hotlines

Schools that can't provide appropriate stress management resources will direct students to use an outside service, such as a local counseling or therapy center.

Other external resources include 24/7 hotlines. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 gives students space to talk with trained professionals about suicide ideation and conditions such as severe stress, depression, and anxiety.

Similarly, The Trevor Project offers many support services, including a 24/7 crisis counseling center and hotline, for LGBTQ+ students experiencing stress and other mental health challenges. For help, text START to 678678.

Once these professionals identify the underlying issue, they connect students with a long-term solution, such as a psychiatrist or substance misuse prevention group.

Frequently Asked Questions About Managing Stress in College

Why is stress management important for college students? true

If left unaddressed, stress can lead to depression and anxiety in students. This can, in turn, negatively impact school and work performance and personal relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and peers.

Adopting a stress-management regimen is one of the best ways to avoid and ameliorate problems related to stress. Students may want to practice yoga, meditation, and/or mindfulness on a regular basis.

Why are stress levels in college students so high? true

Many factors contribute to rising stress levels in college students. For one, college continues to grow more and more expensive, which can pose financial obstacles to students and lead to stress and anxiety. Other common causes of college stress include challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, rigor of coursework, struggles making friends, homesickness, and housing and food insecurity.

How can college students effectively manage stress? true

Students can manage stress in many healthy ways, such as by pursuing a new hobby, building a support system, and working on time-management skills. Other stress-management techniques include journaling and seeking counseling or medical help. Students should refrain from using drugs and alcohol to manage stress.

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.


Feature Image: g-stockstudio / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Many college students are struggling in school due to the coronavirus. These expert tips explain how to improve mental health and pandemic-related stress. College can be stressful, making it important to practice self-care. Follow these tips to reduce anxiety and improve your mental health. College students can find ways to increase their productivity and enhance their decision-making skills while reducing stress with these six essential tips.