How to Deal with Stress in College

Practice Mindfulness

A stressed cartoon student with her head in her hands sitting next to a laptop in front of a background with scribbles, papers, chat bubbles and musical notes.

Everyone deals with stress, and college students are no exception. In fact, going to college can present unique stressors that make it vitally important to recognize when your stress level is increasing, what the harmful effects of chronic stress are and techniques you can use to mitigate them. By recognizing the effects of stress and having coping mechanisms at the ready, it is possible to avoid college burnout.

Stress in College Students

In 2018, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment report found that more than 45% of college students surveyed reported feeling more stress than average, and nearly 13% felt “tremendous stress.” (ACHA PDF source).

A study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital researcher Dr. Cindy Liu found high stress rates among more than 67,000 students at more than 100 colleges and universities. Mental health diagnoses and risk of suicidal thoughts were reported by all students, especially those in racial, ethnic and gender minorities, according to the study published in the journal “Depression & Anxiety.”

“Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. But for others, a plan should be in place for family, friends and colleges to provide support,” Liu said in a release from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Our study highlights an urgent need to help students reduce their experience of overwhelming levels of stress during college."

Dr. Darleen Dempster with the text Dr. Darleen DempsterDr. Darleen Dempster, a licensed professional counselor and a faculty member of Southern New Hampshire University’s clinical mental health counseling program, said college students could face unique stressors ranging from difficulties managing their time and balancing relationships to determining a career path.

“College students are just like any other people, except that they have the added concerns of balancing academics on top of regular life,” Dempster said. She said as a college counselor, she would see students who were stressed over academic struggles, but also many high achieving students sacrificing sleep or social connections to succeed in the classroom.

What Can College Stress Lead To?

You feel stress because it is your body’s natural reaction to a threat - or perceived threat. According to the Mayo Clinic, a threat can cause your body to produce a surge of two hormones - cortisol and adrenaline, which increase your heart rate and blood pressure, among other effects. When the threat is over, those hormones return to normal levels. But what if you are always feeling those stressors? 

“The long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

If the stress you are feeling is from worry about failing to achieve academically, for instance, your body’s hormonal response to a perceived threat is ineffective. “The problem in most situations for college students is that what they are perceiving as dangerous … is not actually a threat to them,” Dempster said. “It has been shown that operating with the body and mind on high alert over a long period of time is draining.”

There are dozens of ways stress can negatively impact your mental and physical health, as well as your behavior. Some of those symptoms include:

  • Physical symptoms including headache, muscle pain, fatigue, and stomach and sleep problems.
  • Mood symptoms including anxiety, irritability or anger, depression, lack of motivation and feeling overwhelmed.
  • Behavioral symptoms including over- or under-eating, drug or alcohol abuse, social isolation and angry outbursts.

A complicating factor is the negative coping mechanisms some people turn to when stressed, Dempster said, including substance abuse, eating disorders and other addictive behaviors that further impact health.

How to Deal with College Stress

Experiencing the beginnings of college burnout doesn't mean that you won't be successful in your studies. The key to managing college stress as a student is similar to anyone else. There are specific steps you can take to be less stressed and feel better.

The National Institute of Mental Health recommends 5 initial strategies:

  • Listen to Your Body – Be aware when you are showing signs of being stressed, such as difficulty sleeping, increased agitation or feeling depressed.
  • Get Moving – Exercise can improve your mood and overall health and serve as an outlet for the stress you are feeling.
  • Slow Down – Find a relaxing activity you enjoy, whether it’s meditation, mindful breathing exercises or a work-sponsored wellness program.
  • Prioritize – If you’re feeling overwhelmed, determine what you must accomplish now and what has to wait. At the end of the day, try to emphasize tasks you have checked off your to-do list rather than what is left to do.
  • Lean on Your Friends – Staying socially connected, especially with friends and family who are your support system, can help reduce stress. Getting involved in extracurricular activities can help you meet people and learn new things about what might be an unfamiliar environment. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Juggling all of the things that life throws at you, in addition to your coursework, means that time management strategies become critical in college. Dempster said it’s important to maintain a balance.

Going to college doesn’t mean all the things you used to do to be a healthy, balanced person become any less important. “A healthy balance throughout school requires adequate sleep, rest, exercise and nutrition,” she said. “Social connection is also important, both to provide support and also for healthy emotional development and a sense of fun. Life is not all work, after all.”

More Resources

Even armed with all of the ways you can try to control your stress, there may be times that it is overwhelming. Thankfully there are many people and organizations you can reach out to for help.

A first step for students, Dempster said, is to reach out to family or friends about troublesome issues. You can also turn to a faculty member or any support services your school offers. “As a college counselor, I would often tell students to take advantage of those services that their tuition dollars are paying for,” Dempster said.

It’s possible that talking to a doctor or counselor will be able to help you develop coping techniques that reduce the stress you are under. The National Institute of Mental Health also has a comprehensive set of resources from emergency chat and text hotlines to advice on finding a healthcare provider.

Positivity, Dempster said, can be essential.

“One thing that I would often share with students who were working hard to manage stress or other mental health concerns is to look at the treatment of these issues as a step-by-step process,” she said. “Even if the only change that a person can make is small and incremental, that person is moving in the right direction. With this, over time, many small changes add up. This could eventually lead to a happier, healthier and more well-balanced life.”

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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