Contrary to popular understanding, there are different kinds of stress, and they aren’t all bad. Eustress is “good” stress that propels us through something important. However, distress is when we feel overwhelmed and unhappy. During college, both good and bad stress affect you—sometimes every day, and learning to deal with daily stressors is key to your survival both in college, and in life.
With the changes in your living situation, social norms, dietary patterns, and academic rigor, it’s normal to feel stress. How you manage it becomes top priority so that you can maintain your mental health and well-being while juggling your demanding schedule. Keep reading to learn about stress triggers, how to recognize them, and strategies to manage both good and bad levels of stress.
What Are the Most Common Stressors in College?
While the experience of post-secondary education varies globally, in the U.S. students typically begin college after graduating from high school at or around age 18. One of the best elements of college is getting to explore adulthood with others your age who share your interests and passions. At the same time, you may be living away from home for the first time, undertaking debt to pursue your studies, being held to a higher academic rigor than in high school, and trying to figure out your life trajectory. Yikes!
Among other challenges, it’s very normal to experience stress related to the following:
By the time you graduate from high school, you typically have a good sense of the standards and how much effort is required to achieve your desired result. However college is a whole new game, with different professors and classes and more complex concepts and content. Couple that with a new grading system and more competition to get top grades, and academic stress can be an exhausting experience.
Finances or Debt
The affordability of college has been the subject of much discussion. Many students take on considerable debt to pursue a higher education that will ultimately increase their lifetime earnings. It’s stressful to sign a promissory note for thousands of dollars without knowing what your salary will be once you graduate.
Every student’s life is different as they enter college. Many students continue to have family responsibilities, particularly if they live at home or are pursuing college as a nontraditional student with a partner or children. Family responsibilities tend to require time, and so do academics—a difficult balance, for sure.
Many students need to work to support themselves while in college to pay for incidental or living expenses outside of their loan or scholarship funding. While some of these jobs are built into a financial aid package in the form of work-study, other students pursue full or part-time work in the community. Dividing your time between academics and working to pay the bills can bring stress.
Many pursue more serious romantic relationships in college. Whether you meet on campus or remain connected with someone from your hometown, these relationships are often very meaningful and can provide a great deal of support during stressful times. However if the road in a relationship becomes rocky, it can be destabilizing for both partners, particularly if you are new to handling conflict in a serious relationship.
When you’re up to your ears in assignments and deadlines, you may ask yourself, “Is this all going to be worth it?” Is the academic pressure, financial strain, demands on your time, and overall stress a good trade-off for the long-term benefits? No one can predict the future; we can only make the best decisions based on the information we have at the time. As a young adult and college student, you’ll make lots of future-oriented decisions, which can be stressful and anxiety-provoking.
How Does Stress Manifest in the Body?
Once you know the sources of stress, the next step is to notice when stress affects you. The human body is an extraordinary machine that is amazingly resilient, but we also know that stress affects the body; there are even grading systems for predicting your health outcomes as a consequence of your current stressors. It’s valuable to break down the forces in the body to notice where you experience stress and what the symptoms or signs may be that you or your loved one’s notice.
If you’re stressed, your mind may feel like a computer that’s running too many programs at once; eventually freezes and can’t compute any more. For the human brain, this might include being easily distracted, having trouble concentrating, or forgetting tasks, facts, or commitments. This frazzled state makes it harder for your brain to do its job and regulate your body. If you notice that your mind feels like it’s in overdrive, check in with your stress levels to see what you can downgrade.
Our emotions are often an extension of our minds and exist to tell us something. When we experience an appropriate amount of anxiety, our emotions help prepare us for the important task ahead as we study for a test or rehearse a presentation. However, when we’re too stressed, our emotions stay keyed up, even after the stressor passes. Feeling irritable, particularly with loved ones, or experiencing a low mood and losing interest in things you usually enjoy is a sure sign that stress has you in its grip. If you notice that your emotions are off kilter more often, tune in to your stress levels to see what you might be able to shift.
Study after study has shown that stress has a palpable impact on our physical health. Stress strains the body and depletes the resources that otherwise would give you energy, help you concentrate, or generally provide a zest for life. You might notice a change in your energy levels, an increase or decrease in body tension, a feeling of restlessness, sweating, headaches, changes in appetite or sleep, or being more easily startled. If you are experiencing two or more of these symptoms for more than half the days during a couple of weeks, reach out for help or assessment for your health.
When we feel overwhelmed, we may inadvertently shut down to cope with the strain on our respective systems. Outwardly, this may look like wanting to be alone, having trouble completing work or school tasks, being more reactive than usual to an undesired outcome, or even being more argumentative. If your loved ones point out any of these behaviors, take the time to hear their concern for you and see if you can address any of your active stressors.
Stress Prevention & Management in College
Understanding the causes and manifestations of stress is a helpful starting point, but this begs the question of, “What next?” Stress management has two approaches, each of which will be crucial at some point in your life or academic career. Proactive stress prevention means trying to head off stress before it occurs. Symptom management means dealing with the manifestations of stress once they do occur. Let’s look at proven strategies to help with both of these.
Eat nutritious food and exercise regularly: Consider food and exercise as the fuel that propels your machine. Prioritize nutrient dense foods in your diet, in addition to occasionally indulging in treats you enjoy, while moving your body in a way that feels empowering. These two practices are two essential building blocks for personal success.
Get enough sleep: Think of it this way, either you make time for rest or your body will do it for you. Sleep should be your first priority; none of the other prevention measures here should supersede your need to rest and recharge your body. Sleep isn’t a reward for a job well done or only something to indulge in after finishing a task, it’s an essential body function that we all need.
Create a consistent routine that includes time for self-care: One of the best ways to be proactive about stress is to have a consistent routine. Choose the type of routine that works for you. Some people like to set their schedules down to the half hour, while others like to have larger blocks of time to devote to priorities. Either way, consistency is key, meaning you want this routine to be something you can stick with even when the waters get a little choppy.
Set realistic goals: Focus on setting SMART goals, which are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Using these guidelines, your goals become more grounded and you’re better able to allocate your resources to reaching your goals.
Learn good organization and time-management skills: The key here is to learn the organization and time-management skills that work for you. You can follow all kinds of efficiency experts and influencers, but everyone’s brain categorizes and organizes information differently. Come up with a system that helps you instead of hindering you.
Lean on your support system: Human connection is one of the best protections we have against stress. Spending time with loved ones lifts our mood, helps us feel connected, and lowers stress. Leaning on your support system by scheduling meals together, planning study groups, or going on a weekend excursion are all ways to give yourself something positive to look toward and help manage your stress.
Focus on what you can control: Take a hard look to see what in your life you can influence and what you have very little or no control over. For the things you can influence, look at how you might be as proactive as possible. For things outside your control, practicing mindfulness can help with accepting circumstances you cannot change.
Give yourself grace; stress is often self-imposed: While we all grapple with deadlines and expectations, most of the expectations that lead to stress are internal. Typically others are far more forgiving than we are of ourselves. Think of how you would speak to a friend who was telling you about how stressed they are and try to reflect that same language to yourself.
Make time to relax: You may have realized too late that you’ve been cutting corners on rest. If that happens, look at your schedule and be aggressive in carving out time for yourself to relax. For some, scheduling relaxation time in your daily or weekly calendar is a good tactic.
Figure out what needs to change and take action to change it: Think of this like a project. First you need to identify the goal of the project (in this case, managing your stress), look at barriers, and identify action steps to work toward your stress-management goal.
See the tips listed above for stress prevention and begin to implement them: It sometimes only takes one or two brushes with intense stress before we realize the importance of implementing stress-management tools in your life and routine. Even if you only pick one or two tips, they’ll be more helpful than taking no action.
Decrease activities that don’t help you, cause more anxiety or stress, or aren’t considered self-care (ex. mindless doom-scrolling): These activities are like an endless hamster wheel: We think they’re helpful, but actually we’re stuck and can’t get out, no matter how hard we try. They are prime candidates for the sunk-cost fallacy, which is the idea that if you’ve already devoted time to something you’ll be hesitant to abandon it, even if all signs point to this being a better move. Instead, focus on things that you know will help you feel better.
Practice mindfulness techniques like meditation, yoga, or any other relaxing activity that helps reduce stress: Look to activities that have been shown to improve relaxation. Turning your attention inward to your thoughts and the movement of your body can help you feel more connected with yourself and more equipped to handle life’s challenges.
Get additional help if needed. See resources below for some ideas for how: Needing help with managing stress is normal, particularly when you’re grappling with a new set of stressors and expectations. Whether it’s enlisting the support of loved ones, trying mindfulness or yoga, or working with a mental health professional, finding what helps will serve you well in the long run.
Benefits of Online College for Stress Reduction
As more aspects of society become available online, higher education has jumped on board too, realizing the many benefits of online learning. Students used to have to make tough decisions, often based on geography, about whether they could attend their dream school. Is it truly worth going to a school that is a $500+ flight away from home? With online programs, students can focus on the quality of their education and the offerings of the institution, completing their studies in a setting that makes the most sense for them logistically and financially. Consider these benefits of online learning:
Flexible Schedule = Set Your Own Study Hours
Asynchronous learning allows you to complete your coursework at the time that works best for you. Night owls and early birds alike can work with their natural circadian rhythms to optimize their studies. Online learning’s flexibility is also beneficial to students who have family and work responsibilities. In being able to complete work on the students’ own schedule rather than one established by the institution, everyone can meet their responsibilities.
If you live close enough to campus to commute, the pressure of getting stuck in traffic and fighting for parking can be exhausting. Take that stressor off your plate by commuting to your home office and enjoy the leisure of having the familiar pleasures of home close by. Economize further by saving on snacks, meals, and coffee on-the-go, too!
More Comfortable for Introverted Students
The traditional classroom format is one that many extroverts love and introverts dread. While a gifted faculty facilitator works to balance temperaments and foster participation, extroverted students often dominate the conversation. However, with online forums, everyone has a chance to express themselves, with the added benefit of being able to review your post before you submit it, further alleviating the foot-in-mouth anxiety of classroom-based seminars.
Accommodates a Larger Range of Learning Styles
Not all students learn the same way. Online learning affords more students with a wider variety of learning styles the ability to participate in the classroom conversation, not to mention making it more accessible to students with disabilities or other learning needs. Online learning might be the bridge between the challenges a student faced in traditional elementary and secondary education and the successful career they’ve always dreamed of.
Wider Range Class Structure Options
Online college can be structured a lot of different ways, which allows you to choose the best format for you. In traditional learning settings, the focus is on appealing to the majority-neurotypical population. However, online learning allows the content to be structured for all types of learners who may have previously struggled to keep pace or focus.
When the Stress Becomes Too Much: What to Look for and Where to Find Help
Sometimes when we experience excessive stress, we don’t realize how much it has built up and is now hampering our functioning. If you begin to notice the following signs, find out how to get extra help and get serious about managing stress.
Signs of More Serious Forms of Stress
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety, which is excessive worry, and depression, which is a prolonged experience of sad mood coupled with physiological symptoms, can cause serious impairment on your functioning and relationships.
How you interact with food during times of stress, either eating too much or too little, is a good indicator that you might be in a rough spot.
Carrying stress can cause literal strain on the body, and the system can only do so much. If you notice a tension headache, your efforts are likely imbalanced and need revision.
Insomnia or Sleep Issues
Sometimes when we‘re stressed or experiencing anxiety, we’re too keyed up to fall asleep or we may wake in a start during the night and aren’t able to fall back asleep. While this might be most common during a time of stress, if it’s more frequent consider asking for a referral for a sleep study.
When you just have that feeling that you can’t get going, no matter how much caffeine you drink or how many pep talks you give yourself, you may be struggling with fatigue. Beyond being tired, fatigue is more like being chronically drained or frayed, and typically indicates that you are struggling.
Stress greatly increases the experience of pain and discomfort. If you have a chronic condition, pay attention to whether you’re having more pain than in the past.
Digestive Issues or Ulcers
The tension we hold during times of stress affects our digestion, which can lead to heartburn, indigestion, or even ulcers.
In times of stress, it’s normal to want to feel something, anything, other than what we’re feeling. This may take the form of celebrating excessively with drugs or alcohol after a deadline or avoiding your responsibilities in favor of an intoxicated state.
Where to Go for Help With Serious Stress
On-campus Support Groups and Mental Health Resources
Every campus has a counseling center for its students as well as a list of community referrals for other providers in your area. Your resident assistant, faculty advisor, or other campus wellness staff can point you in the right direction.
Online Support Groups, Hotlines, and Mental Health Resources
While less formal, some of these groups can be beneficial in a bind when you need help and support. Make sure you vet your groups or sources carefully to ensure that you’re receiving accurate, trustworthy information.
Lean on Friends and Family
Open up about your struggles to someone you trust. They can help you find the help you need and keep you accountable. Remember, those in your inner circle love you. We often forget that that love doesn’t disappear in times when we’re not at our best, including times of stress. You’re not a burden on your loved ones if you lean on them when you need help. Most people who love you will feel grateful to be able to support you when you’re in need.
Resources for Stress Management
If you’re noticing that your stress is mounting and you’d like some individualized and personal resources, consider using these tools to bolster your stress-management efforts. Whether you need help with mindfulness, time management, fitness, or focus, there’s a resource to help.
Your Institution’s Student Counseling Center
Contact your campus health center to be connected with the counseling center, which probably offers short-term counseling for students. For more long-term issues, they may be able to work with you or refer you to someone who can.
Your Institution’s Mindfulness Institute
Many institutions have a mindfulness institute where they offer staff trainings, courses, instructor trainings, and more! Consider this a great resource to learn more about mindfulness in a scholarly and practice-based way.
Check out AllTrails to find hiking trails in your area, whether you’re looking for a brief stroll through a meadow or a more challenging, altitude-changing hike in the woods. Remember, always practice hiking safety.
Use Calm for a variety of purposes, including guided meditations, soothing soundscapes, and more wherever and whenever you want.
More helpful than doom-scrolling, consider downloading Colorfy for those moments when you need to zone out. There are thousands of pages for artists of all levels!
Sign up for a free subscription to a huge library of streaming yoga classes, where you can search based on level, style, or length, and more.
For when you need a moment to watch the adorable giant pandas at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, tune in for the (mis)adventures of Tian, Mei Xiang, and Xiao Qi Ji.
Whether you’re reading on your own or as part of a book club, reading for pleasure is a great way to manage stress. Create an account to track the books you’ve read, set goals for the year (academic books count too), and find suggestions for your next read.
If you already use the Google suite, this app works with you to coordinate your email, calendar, work, and more.
In addition to mindfulness practice, people who engage in gratitude practices report higher satisfaction in life and relationships. This app is a great starter.
For those who are hoping to begin or augment mindfulness practice, Headspace is effective and user-friendly, helping users start small to stay consistent!
The former number has been replaced in favor of the user-friendly 988. Call if you are experiencing distress or need help for a loved one.
Even without Peloton’s signature equipment, you can subscribe to the app for a fee to have access to their enormous library of fitness classes, some of which don’t require any apparatus.
If you’re miles away from a rainy forest, Rainy Mood offers soundscapes for sleep and study.
Check out the national resource for mental health and substance abuse support for counseling in your area, support groups, and more.
Wake up to an alarm in a way you never thought possible! This app will change your relationship with sleep, using your sleep metrics to wake you up at the most suitable time for a warm transition into the day ahead.
Founded by a former collegiate cheerleader turned Pilates instructor, StudioLB has curated weekly schedules with workouts of varying lengths, from 5 minutes to full hour workouts, to target your desired results and blow off some steam. Prepare to sweat and enjoy Lauren’s bubbly personality!
If you’re focusing your efforts on organization, see if this app is a winner for help with streamlining tasks, projects, and workflows.
For newbies and experienced yogis alike, Adriene’s classes are specific in targeting a stated need, providing continuity through your journey.
A Counselor Weighs In
We spoke with Antonia O’Planick, PsyD, a clinical health psychologist who specializes in treating mood disorders, eating disorders, and comorbid medical conditions. She has over 15 years’ experience in the mental health field, working in a variety of settings including large hospital systems, inpatient mental health treatment, specialized outpatient centers, and outpatient care. She currently operates a private practice, Align Psychological Health, in Montgomery County, PA.
Q: What are some things a student who is starting college can do to set good stress-management habits from the start?
A: It’s never a bad idea to be prepared—ideally before the stress starts! Even if school has been a manageable source of stress in the past, plan for a little difficulty as you start college. Think ahead to what you’ll do when you inevitably feel a little overwhelmed. Know what type of walk you’ll be taking, when you’ll have time to check-in with your family/friends, and how you’re going to prioritize sleep. Better yet, plan for a way to integrate those activities before things become overwhelming.
Q: What are some of the largest or most common stressors you’ve seen students struggle with in college?
A: The most common struggle I see is that students try to do everything 100%. This becomes much harder to do when the quantity of demands increases. It might be easy to be the best student, but when responsibilities start to increase it can be jarring. It’s a time when there are so many obligations to juggle: school, clubs, work, family/friends, personal lives. It can be hard to decide how much energy goes to any one thing. But knowing that you’re only one person who can only do so much can sometimes be helpful.
Q: If a student is struggling with stress or other mental health issues, what should their first step be?
A: I’m a big proponent of establishing some basics for self-care. There’s an acronym called “NESTS,” which stands for nutrition, exercise/movement, sleep, time for self, and social support. Whenever anyone is struggling, this is always the first place to start. More intensive interventions can be necessary (e.g., seeking professional support) but it’s always amazing how helpful these basics can be. Try to meet these basic needs first and then you’ll be in a better place to assess the situation and determine if you need something more. No one does well if they’re ignoring these basics.
Q: Online students may have fewer centralized campus resources available to them. Where would you suggest they begin their search for support in managing stress?
A: Right now there is a wealth of information available on the internet and social media. Of course, some of it is better and we can’t blindly follow everything we see. While I’m not suggesting that TikTok or Google have all the answers, I’ve gotten a lot of great ideas about how others cope with being overwhelmed and how other people decompress. It also makes sense use ANY resources offered by your school. A simple inquiry to student services can point you in the right direction.
Q: How can students best prepare for the increase in stress around exam times?
A: Again I think that planning is key. Know that exam time is especially stressful and obviously calls for more intentional time management. Plan how you’ll meet your academic obligations while not completely ignoring self-care or other aspects of your life. While exam times are important, recognize that there will be quite a few of them in your college career. Think of this as finding a good pace for the marathon of work.
Q: If a student has to pare back some of their extracurricular commitments because they’re over extended, what criteria would you suggest to make tough choices?
A: I think the idea of recalibration is really helpful. Recognize that allocating our resources and meeting demands is a constant recalibration. Sometimes one thing needs to be de-prioritized so that something more pressing can receive our attention. Know that the calibration will change again when demands and resources change. So it can be very helpful to have the flexibility to pull back on one demand knowing that it can have a greater priority at another time. It’s nearly impossible to do everything at 100% all the time. Some things need to get less of our energy and attention at times. That doesn’t mean it’s a permanent calibration.
Q: How can students offer support to a friend who may be in need?
A: The best support is always validation. People just want to be seen and understood. While offering solutions might be helpful in some situations, friends can offer a lot of help by just acknowledging that someone is rightfully struggling and isn’t alone. I’ve found that a lot of people are more than capable of solving most of their own problems if given the validation that what they are experiencing is tough.
Q: What is the best piece of advice you received/you wish you’d received as a college student?
A: I wish someone would have encouraged me to view things a little more broadly. College is an accumulation of experiences; a lot of them are academic and focused on building a career but there are also a lot of experiences that help us learn about ourselves as people—who we are, how we operate, how we cope with difficult things. The grade we receive on one exam is important, but it’s really only one data point in what is meant to be a portfolio of experiences. I think that mentality can help to relieve some stress. Not every situation must be viewed as a make-or-break moment.