For many people, college can be a notably stressful time. What you may not realize, though, is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Earning your bachelor’s degree can be a rewarding, exciting period where you see progress in both your professional and academic life. In fact, college can include some of the best years of your life.
The key to ensuring that you get the best experience out of your college education is to understand the kinds of stress you might face in college, their causes, and stress management strategies you can deploy to make yourself more comfortable and at ease.
What Is Stress?
Scientifically, stress is characterized by a biological and psychological response to challenging situations that we encounter in our lives. We’ve all experienced that feeling of anxiety, that sense of an impending deadline that causes our thinking to narrow and our heart rate to increase.
Sometimes stress can be a good thing; it helps us to focus and really get things done under pressure. However, if we’re stressed too often, the biological response starts to take a toll on our bodies. Meanwhile, chronic stress can make us more vulnerable to psychological conditions such as anxiety disorders or depression.
Types of Stress
It’s important to understand that not all stress is the same. Knowing about the different types of stress can help you understand when it can help you through your college career, and when it could be hurting you. The American Psychological Association identifies three kinds of stress:
Typically when we think of stress or stressful situations, we’re thinking of acute stress. Acute stress happens when we find ourselves in a demanding situation, such as the day before an important paper is due or during final exam week. In small doses, it can help us focus and push through to the other side of them, where our stress will be relieved.
Chronic stress is the kind of stress that we all worry about having. While people with acute stress feel it in relatively short bursts, and that feeling can help them to focus on an issue or work hard on a challenging problem, chronic stress grinds down on people with problems that have no quick endings. If unresolved, chronic stress can lead to death through suicide, heart attack, or other illnesses. Chronic stress might be experienced by a student who faces financial problems in school, with no real end in sight.
Similar to acute stress, episodic stress crops up in response to particularly tense situations. However, unlike people who suffer from acute stress, those who feel episodic stress seem to face these stressful situations frequently, running into one episode of stress after another. While someone who periodically faces a difficult academic challenge might be said to experience acute stress, someone who is constantly putting off assignments to the last minute or consistently failing to study for tests will probably experience episodic stress.
Although most of us know stress as a kind of feeling that we get in certain situations, it actually manifests in a variety of symptoms across the body and mind.
Physical Symptoms of Stress
- Digestive issues
- Trouble sleeping
- Pain in your chest
- Muscle pain or tension
Emotional Symptoms of Stress
- Depression or sadness
Behavioral Symptoms of Stress
- Emotional outbursts
- Decreased social activity
- Using drugs or drinking
- Eating too much or too little
- Getting less physical activity
Cognitive Symptoms of Stress
- Inability to focus
- Feeling worried constantly
- Losing sense of organization
- Constantly wakeful and alert, even when tired
Causes of Stress in College Students
For college students, stress can crop up in a number of unique situations. It’s important to know when you may begin to feel stressed so you can avoid these kinds of situations, know the kinds of stress you’re likely to face, and take steps to ensure that you have a healthier and happier college experience.
Grades are a source of stress for many college students, whether you’re worried about maintaining good grades or improving poor ones.
Fear of Missing Out
There is plenty of information in popular culture about what a college experience should be. As a result, the average college student may believe that the typical college lifestyle includes going to lots of parties, having numerous friends, playing on a sports team, never having financial problems, and still getting great grades. These unrealistic expectations for college life can start to stress you out if you apply them to your own experience.
Lack of Sleep
The thought of not getting enough sleep by itself might not really stress you out, but sleeping less than seven hours a night can contribute to stress in other areas of your life before you even realize it. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t have enough energy to keep up with a busy class schedule, all while making time for a robust social life and after-hours studying.
It can be embarrassing to admit to your peers, but it’s perfectly normal to miss home if you’re a college student. In fact, according to NBC News, 69% of freshman students feel homesick. Being away from home for the first time can be stressful for many people, especially when you’re surrounded by other pressures of college life.
Minorities may have specific life experiences that also bring on significant stress or depression, such as exposure to racism and stereotyping. As a result, navigating social situations may be difficult for minorities, or make them feel they are excluded from college life. This sense of exclusion can make it harder for those students to make friends at school and succeed in their classes.
It’s not news that college is becoming more expensive than ever. Coupled with concerns like health insurance for students, it’s no wonder that finances are a big source of stress for college students. Financial stress is often a form of chronic stress, so it’s important to identify it early so you can figure out strategies to deal with it.
Coursework and Exams
Finishing assignments on-time and doing well on exams are critical parts of the college experience, especially for classes where your grade is determined by just a few papers and exams. A single exam or paper can cause acute stress, which can actually help you complete the assignment or finish your studying. For students pursuing a master’s degree or earning a doctorate degree, anticipating a thesis or capstone project can have a similar anxiety-inducing effect. However, if you constantly find yourself getting swamped by coursework, then you may be suffering from episodic stress.
As we noted earlier, college is getting more expensive, so many students are finding that they need to take on at least one job during the school year to help pay the bills. However, these additional responsibilities can quickly begin to pile up, causing you to have less time for your school work, social life, and sleeping schedule.
College isn’t all paying bills and writing papers. It’s important and healthy for you to make new friends and maintain a healthy social life. However, if you don’t manage your social obligations and other responsibilities as a student, you may find yourself in stressful situations.
College is a great time to find romance, but keep in mind that romantic relationships can also prove stressful if they interfere with your other obligations, or don’t turn out as well as you’d like. Romantic relationships can be healthy, but it’s important to learn your limits and know what is and is not a good idea for you when it comes to romance.
How to Prevent Stress in College
We’ll discuss several strategies for managing stress as a college student. However, the best way to deal with stress is often to avoid it completely. If you understand the triggers for stress in your life and how to avoid them or mitigate their effects, then you are well on your way to preventing it.
You don’t have to deal with stressful situations on your own. A good support system of family, friends, and even understanding professors can help you to put an end to your stress before it becomes problematic.
Understand Your Triggers
Stress doesn’t happen for no reason. Think carefully about what might be causing stress in your life and what your options are for avoiding these situations. For example, if you’re stressed out by the idea of writing a paper just hours before the deadline, then it may be wise to work on your paper-writing strategies. Find ways to do the bulk of the work long before assignments are due so you are less stressed when it’s time to turn them in.
Manage Your Time
Time management is an essential skill in college. By managing your time well and leaving enough time to study and finish assignments, all while leaving room for a social life and sleep, you can avoid stressful situations before they crop up. Keep in mind that many of these situations are caused by not having enough time to keep up with all of your obligations.
Learn to Say “No”
One facet of time management is knowing when to say no to an obligation. This can be a social function, additional class, or even a romantic opportunity. It’s important to recognize when you simply don’t have time to fit in additional responsibilities. By saying no, you can avoid potentially stressful obligations.
Managing Stress in College
Sometimes stressful situations are unavoidable. However, this doesn’t mean that stress has to take over your life. There are things you can do to manage your stress and ensure that it doesn’t get out-of-control.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for your emotional well-being. By getting enough sleep (at least seven hours a night for adults), you can actually improve your mental health. More sleep can give you more energy, which could allow you to make it through stressful situations more easily.
Similar to getting enough sleep, a healthy diet can also have far-reaching effects on your outlook and energy levels. Like sleep, a good diet may improve your mental health, potentially making it easier to deal with stressful situations in your life.
Many students have access to a campus recreation center, where they can exercise while at school. Students who go to school online can find gyms and other recreation centers in their own communities, or try workouts that can be done in the home. By finding time in your daily routine to get some exercise, you can make your body healthier and give yourself more tools to fight stress. Eating well and getting enough physical activity are both essential for staying healthy in college and managing stress.
Find a Stress Outlet
Even if you have stress in your life, you don’t have to let it control your behavior all of the time. By finding hobbies to distract yourself from stress or let out stressful feelings, you can help manage the impact that it has on your day-to-day life. Some good hobbies might include sports that you can play with others, video games that help to distract you, or reading a good book.
Join a Support Group
Managing stress alone can be difficult. Joining a support group can allow you to openly communicate, process your emotions, and alleviate stress in a safe area free of judgement. With communication and encouragement at its core, support groups also provide accountability, teach coping mechanisms, and build friendships for those who participate.
Volunteer Your Time
Volunteering can be positively impactful for those you serve as well your own personal health. Research has shown that volunteering lowers depression, reduces stress, and stimulates physical and mental activity. It’s also a creative way to meet like-minded individuals in a positive environment.
Some students drink coffee to help them get enough energy for their days. However, research has found a link between caffeine consumption and stress levels, suggesting that drinking a lot of coffee to help you make it through the day may actually be related to elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Skip the coffee and opt for a healthy diet, with plenty of sleep and good physical activity, to get more energy to power through the day.
Set Realistic Expectations
Taking an overload of credits each semester and acing every class isn’t realistic. It’s important to balance your expectations for school. Set goals for yourself, but make sure your goals are attainable and can be reasonably achieved. This is especially important for nontraditional students, who may have more responsibilities outside of their schoolwork.
Learn Relaxation Techniques
Techniques like meditation can help you lessen the impact of stress on your mind and your behavior. Next time you feel stressed, just try taking deep breaths and telling yourself to relax. By calming your mind, you can work to manage your stress and make sure it doesn’t control you.
One of the easiest ways to get behind on coursework is to become disorganized. Instead of letting deadlines and exam dates creep up on you, find a way to organize yourself more effectively. By using a planner or online calendar, for example, you can keep track of all of your responsibilities in one place, helping you to make sure you won’t miss anything. If you’re more organized, then you’ll be able to deal more proactively with stressful situations that may crop up.
Stress Disorders: Extreme Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
We’ve talked about how stress can be healthy for some people some of the time. However, there are also many ways for stress to manifest in unhealthy disorders. Being aware of the potential stress disorders can help you spot the difference between instances of healthy stress and dangerous stress-related conditions.
Acute Stress Disorder and PTSD
Acute stress disorder (ASD) and PTSD are both stress disorders that can occur after a traumatic event. If you have ASD or PTSD, then you may experience dissociation from your daily life, re-experience the traumatic event that’s causing your stress disorder, feel tense or on edge constantly, and have trouble sleeping. You may be at risk for ASD or PTSD following a traumatic event, such as harassment or sexual assault, at your school or outside of it.
Stress vs. Anxiety: Recognizing Anxiety Disorders
In addition to stress disorders, anxiety disorders can also make schoolwork difficult and have a negative impact on your mental and physical health. While stress is a response to challenging situations we face, anxiety describes a precise set of physical and emotional symptoms, including restlessness, an increased heart rate, hyperventilation, a feeling of weakness, and sleeping problems.
Anxiety disorders are typically triggered by certain events or situations. It’s important to know what kinds of anxiety disorders there are so you can identify them in yourself or in your peers. If you believe that you have an anxiety disorder, then you should seek treatment from a medical professional. Many schools also grant access to special mental health resources for students with any kind of stress, anxiety, or depression-related disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder is a mental health condition where a person feels an ongoing sense of anxiety about everyday activities or events. This anxiety is often not proportional to the demands of the activity that’s making them anxious.
People with a social anxiety disorder feel a great deal of anxiety at the prospect of social interaction or being placed in social situations. People with a social anxiety disorder may try to avoid any social contact to manage their anxiety, which can hurt performance in school as they cut themselves off from their peers and stop attending classes.
Stress and Depression
While stress can be helpful in short bursts by encouraging you to focus on an important task or giving you the motivation to push toward a challenging deadline, chronic stress over a long period of time can lead to depression. Depression is often characterized by a sense of hopelessness, loss of interest in one’s hobbies or goals, trouble sleeping, a severe lack of energy, and a loss of self-worth.
College students are exposed to many stressors which can lead to depression, including stress over grades, financial worries, or even the fallout of a severed romantic relationship. By being on the lookout for depression in yourself and in your peers, you can identify it and seek treatment with a mental health professional before depression can hurt your grades or your college experience.
Panic Attacks and Disorders
Unlike an anxiety disorder, which is often triggered by a certain event or activity, panic attacks have no underlying trigger, making them difficult to predict. Panic attacks can come on suddenly, causing a feeling of terror, chest pain, dizziness, and nausea. For students who have panic attacks, help from a medical professional may be necessary to continue functioning well at school.
How to Get Help with Stress, Depression, or Anxiety
If you’re suffering from stress, depression, or anxiety, your first stop should be to see a medical professional or mental health professional to help you understand what you’re facing and the options available to treat it. Even if you believe that your issues with stress aren’t as serious as those other people face, a mental health professional can still give you resources and techniques for managing stress and organizing yourself and your school activities.
- Medical or mental health professionals in your area
- Mental health resources and services provided by your school
- Community leaders such as church leaders or teachers
- Friends a family who can support you and help you manage your stress