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.
- Increased heart rate or blood pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension
- Headaches and stomachaches
- Hostility, irritability, and other mood changes
- Increased worrying
- Binge or reduced eating
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Decreased sex drive
- Erratic sleep habits
- Memory loss
- Loss of concentration
- Negative outlook
- Dissociation (i.e., disconnection from your thoughts, feelings, and identity)
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.
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
Cohabitating With Roommates
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.
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.
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 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.
- DepressionDepression is a complex mental health condition often caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Floods of stress hormones can make people, including busy college students, more susceptible to depression.
- AnxietySevere anxiety can signal an anxiety disorder. This condition, which is especially common among college students, is characterized by physical symptoms, such as muscle tension and shaking, as well as by racing thoughts, feelings of impending doom, fear, excess worry, and irritability.
- Sleep DisordersSleep disturbances and anxiety often come hand in hand. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, sleep problems can cause or exacerbate anxiety, and vice versa.
- Substance MisuseSome students turn to alcohol or drugs to help manage their stress; however, these dangerous coping mechanisms can lead to substance misuse. A 2018 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 28% of college students had engaged in binge drinking in the two weeks before the survey was conducted.
- Chronic Muscle PainFor some students, stress can lead to ongoing physical conditions such as chronic neck aches, backaches, stomach aches, and headaches. The National Institutes of Health recommends practicing yoga and meditation to relax your body and release muscular tension.
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
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.
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.