Students are exposed to a barrage of stressors during the college experience, from growing pains associated with adjusting to college to everyday factors like social pressures and work responsibilities. A 2016 poll conducted by the American College Health Association found that 34.4% of college students reported that stress had negatively impacted their academic performance over the past 12 months. Stress was the single most common inhibitor on academic performance reported by students, followed by depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties.
These increased stress levels come with some dire consequences. College students exposed to chronic stress can suffer from several long-term side effects, including developing insulin-dependent diabetes. Additionally, 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.
The number of college students who suffer from stress-related ailments appears to be on the rise. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased 11% from 1991–2001 and another 32% from 2001–2011. What's more, survey data from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors suggests that many large institutions have not attained pre-2008 recession budgets. The cards are stacked against counseling centers that have lower budgets and fewer resources that must help more students than in the past.
Occasional stress is an unavoidable part of everyday life. Small amounts of stress can even have a positive effect, allowing us to push ourselves when we encounter a difficult task. 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. This makes it all the more important to learn how to manage your stress before you suffer any adverse effects. The following guide will introduce you to potential stress risks, stress management techniques, and resources that are available to all college students.
What Is Stress?
According to Psychology Today, there are two different meanings for stress: the abstract psychological perception of pressure and the body's response to stressors. When your body experiences stress, hormonal signals trigger the body's automatic response system, the fight-or-flight response. This is the body's way of preparing to meet a challenge head-on or to flee from it. The fight-or-flight response floods your body with hormones that increase heart rate and the circulation of blood, designed to allow the body to get a quick burst of energy, focus attention, and more.
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 part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for processing memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The amygdala alerts the hypothalamus, which triggers a rush of epinephrine and cortisol:
- 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.
The Effects of Stress
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:
The body reacts to stressful situations with a unique type of sweat. You are likely familiar with the watery sweat produced by the eccrine glands, which occurs during exercise and warm weather. Your body also has apocrine sweat glands that immediately respond to stressors and produce a sweat that is full of proteins and lipids. The result is a more pungent sweat that is believed to have developed to alert others of danger and increase 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
When you encounter a stressful situation, your body will surge with hormones. This surge temporarily increases blood pressure by narrowing your blood vessels and causing your heart to beat faster. This 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.
- Muscle Tension
Your muscles contract when stress hormones trigger your sympathetic nervous system. This occurs because contracted muscles are more resilient to attack.
Tension headaches can be triggered by tightened shoulders and neck muscles.
- Stomach Aches
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 stressor triggers your fight-or-flight instincts, you might begin to perceive other stimuli as potential stressors as well. People sometimes lash out with frustration or irritability in order 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 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. Studies have found that animals can become conditioned to take no 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. This is just one reason why so 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 is flooded 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 are getting. This can start a vicious cycle where being exhausted from a lack of sleep causes additional stress, which makes sleeping hard, which makes you more exhausted, and so on.
- Memory Loss
According to a study out of the University of Iowa, 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 responsible for short-term memory. Additionally, if you aren't getting enough sleep because of stress as described above, you may experience difficulty with memory.
- Loss of Concentration
Research has found that stress can impair the short-term learning and concentration sections of the brain.
- 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 yourself through stressful challenges.
Clinical depression is marked by chemical imbalances that can be triggered by stressful life events. It's possible that 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 that can develop due to chronic stress, according to the American Psychological Association. This ailment is characterized by visible physical symptoms, such as muscle tension and shaking.
- Sleep Disorders
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.
- Substance Abuse
Some students attempt to take the edge off their hectic lives by turning to alcohol or illicit drugs. 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.
Causes of Stress In College
Students all respond to stressors in different ways and not all students will find the same situation to be stressful. However, there are several common situations that tend to stress anyone out. Here are some common stressors that college are exposed to regularly:
Students often work while attending college in order to keep up with high tuition and housing costs. However, many student jobs only earn 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.
- New Levels of Independence
On top of classes and 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.
- Living Among Strangers
Students new to campus life often feel isolated, especially if they are in a wholly unfamiliar city or state. What's more, some students are naturally shy and have difficulties making new friends. This is made even more difficult in an unfamiliar and stressful setting.
- Living With Roommates
Many students may not be accustomed to sharing a room with a roommate, especially someone they hardly know. This stressor can easily compound with the normal stresses of college life.
- Coursework and Exams
Students are often overwhelmed by the increased workload associated with college courses and have a hard time adjusting to having less accountability to complete assignments. This realization can blindside students and create a lot of stress and academic anxiety. There are also several courses where exams make up a large percentage of a student's grade, which can make finals week even more stressful than normal.
- Family Turmoil or Loss Back Home
An NPR study reveals that the death of a loved one is the second highest cause of stress amongst U.S. adults after illness and disease concerns. A death in the family is often an extremely traumatic life event for students, especially if they study away from home and cannot afford to step away from their classes.
- Work Schedules
A survey conducted by Citibank and Seventeen magazine reveals that 4 out of 5 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.
- Social Obligations
On top of being a good student, college places a lot of pressure on students to make new friends, seek out new experiences, and have a lot of fun. Don't give into peer pressure or societal expectations if they are going to stress you out.
- Romantic Relationships
Romantic relationships take work, period. But when you and your significant other are both under the stresses of college life, the pressure can seem even greater.
Managing Your Stress
Diagnosing which situation are likely stressors is only half the battle. Luckily, there are quite a few ways that you can avoid getting stressed out, reducing the amount of stress you feel from certain situations, and to increase your ability to cope with and eliminate stress altogether. Here are a few ways that you can cope with college stress:
- Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough quality sleep can have a variety of health benefits, including reducing stress and improving mood. You'll also be less likely to get sick, have better memory recall, and generally enjoy a clear mind.
- Eat Well
Your body can better handle stress when you are as healthy as possible and eating well is a great place to start. Make an effort to eat nutritious meals and avoid eating on the run so that you don't get indigestion. You can also try seeking out foods that combat stress.
Not only will regular exercise help keep you healthy, but the act of exercising releases endorphins and improves overall cognitive ability. Exercise can also help you fall asleep, which itself can help reduce stress.
- Don't Depend on Stimulants
Drinking coffee and energy drinks to fuel your late-night study binges will inevitably lead to a crash later on. These stimulants increase cortisol levels in the body, increasing the effects of stress on the body.
- Set Realistic Expectations
A hectic schedule is one stressor that can breed several others. Consistently having too much on your plate can easily lead to a great deal of stress. Luckily, a busy schedule can often be easily dealt with. Try managing your workload and setting realistic expectation so that you don't overwork or overcommit yourself.
- Don't Procrastinate
While many college students swear by waiting until the last minute to write a paper or cram for an exam, this inevitably leads to stress. Avoiding procrastination and managing your time wisely can keep you from having to spend all night catching up on coursework.
- Find a Stress Outlet
Realistically, stress can't be completely avoided. Finding some way to reduce your stress will go a long way towards keeping it from overwhelming you. Common stress outlets include exercise, comfort food, spending time with friends and loved ones, getting a massage, and more.
Getting Help for Stress
Stress can compound to dangerous levels, threatening your physical, emotional, and mental health. Luckily, you don't have to face these symptoms alone. Below are some emergency symptoms to watch out for, all of which might suggest an intense level of stress that requires intervention of some kind. We will also note some 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
Who to Contact
There are a number of resources for students struggling with stress and stress-related disorders. If you can't or don't want to contact an organization, start by asking a trusted friend, advisor, or family member for assistance. 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
- Physician or therapist
- 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 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 understands 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: If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, don't hesitate to call this national support line. Operators provide callers with emotional support and information about local crisis centers.
- GriefShare: GriefShare is a national database dedicated to the bereavement process. If you or someone you know needs to talk with someone after losing a friend or loved one, GriefShare can help find a local support group.