There is no denying that college is fun. It is filled with new life experiences, new friends, and plenty of new lessons. College holds singular experiences for everyone because for many students, it is the first time they are truly independent, making their own decisions and living their life without supervision of parents. For many students, this means that no one is over their shoulder guiding them on how to spend money, reminding them that they need to study for a test, or complete homework on time. No matter how independent or much discipline you have, the pressures of managing your own finances, wanting to perform well academically, and trying to find new friends can be overwhelming, making students feel anxious and run down.
Stress and anxiety are a part of life and can be good for us to some extent. The right kind of stress can encourage us to change and grow, but too much stress, or stress experienced for long periods of time can become a burden and even a health risk. For students who are tasked with the new challenge of juggling social pressures, academic pressures, and personal pressures, the stress can sometimes be too much to handle. Keep reading to learn more about how to manage your stress and anxiety as you go through college.
Stress is the body’s way of reacting to a challenge. It is often perceived as a bad thing, but it can be good in certain circumstances, and certainly to an extent. The right kind of stress can sharpen the mind and the reflexes, helping the body perform better and even helping you escape a dangerous situation. Stress does this by producing a physiological reaction in your body in which hormones are released, resulting in physical manifestations of stress.
These physical manifestations are characterized by accelerated breathing and heart rate, flushed skin, and tunnel vision. This process is referred to as the “fight or flight” response, which is exactly what it sounds like: our bodies either run away from the stressor or fight it. You may have had this feeling while trying to finish a paper, wanting nothing more than to shut your laptop and lie down, but forced yourself to sit down and fight through it.
According to the American Psychological Association, there are three types of stress: acute, episodic, and chronic. Acute stress is the most common form of stress and is the result of recent or anticipated stressors, like expecting an upcoming test, presentation, and even a fun event like a house party. As long as the stress isn’t prolonged or occurs too frequently and passes with time, it isn’t something to be worried about.
Episodic acute stress can be described as stress that continuously emerges, sometimes in a pattern. This kind of stress is accompanied by worry and angst about things that are happening to you or around you. This type of stress occurs over and over.
The last type of stress is known as chronic acute stress, and can be characterized as never-ending stress that relentlessly wears away at you. If you are faced with a challenge or obstacle and cannot see any end in sight with no way out, you may be suffering from chronic stress. This eventually begins to affect your health, leading to heart problems, strokes, and even cancer, among many other issues created from prolonged stress.
What We Know About Anxiety in College
While stress and anxiety may seem the same at first glance because they can both signal the body to be on alert, anxiety has the additional element of fear, and sometimes a feeling of doom. Furthermore, anxiety is a reaction to stress that can affect a student’s physical well-being, emotions, how they think, and how they behave.
Anxiety is common in college — very common as a matter of fact. According to the American College Health Association Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment, 63% of college students in the U.S. felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year, and 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year. Students will often experience a sharp increase in stress and anxiety transitioning into college, and these feelings remain elevated throughout the second semester as well. It is not simply just the academic pressures that students face responsible for the sharp spike in stress and anxiety, it can include sleeping disruption and loneliness.
College students today appear to be more stressed and anxious than ever before, and there are a number of factors that contribute to this, one of them being time spent on electronic communication. But the biggest reasons that college students are affected by anxiety is not surprising; students have to manage heavy loads of coursework while also finding time to participate in extracurricular activities, and in some cases, holding part-time or full-time jobs. Students also need to cope with the stress of choosing a new career based on their education goals, so it is no wonder why this major transitional period in student’s lives takes such a toll on their mental health.
Managing Stress and Anxiety in College
College students are uniquely vulnerable to stress and anxiety, so it is important that students not only have access to university resources and programs, but are aware of coping methods themselves. Even with the growing awareness of how detrimental the impacts of anxiety are, college students may find that peers and instructors do not take their battle with anxiety seriously. It is a widespread mental health condition that is misunderstood, so showing support for students who suffer from anxiety is essential.
Noticing the Signs
One of the best ways to help peers manage or overcome their anxiety is by letting them know that they are being taken seriously and providing them with support. It is also crucial to take note of the signs and symptoms associated with stress and anxiety. Things like:
- Procrastination and avoidance
- Changes in sleep habits
- Changes in eating habits
- Physical symptoms
- Social Isolation
- Loss of pleasure
- Emotional outbursts
- Dependence on drugs or alcohol
- Fatigue and sleepiness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Stomach aches/digestion issues
- Headaches and lightheadedness
- Muscle tension
For Students – Coping with Anxiety
For students with a busy life that includes work and family obligations, college classes and studying with the occasional sprinkle of exams, budgeting, and other interests, not to mention social life expectations, it can sometimes seem like the last thing they have time for is self care and emotional health. But, there are ways that students can incorporate stress management skills into their daily lives to alleviate stress, succeed in college, and live healthy, balanced lives.
You’ve probably heard this before, but a healthy diet can have dramatic improvements on your mental health. An unhealthy diet increases your stress levels, not to mention it can hurt you in the long-run. Junk food can seem especially tempting when you have a busy schedule and you need something quick to eat, but proper eating habits can not only help you maintain a healthy body, but can help you maintain brain health and put you in the right mindset to tackle your daily schedule. Take it easy on the caffeine, no matter how much you think it helps you study, as it can exacerbate the physical symptoms of test anxiety.
Exercise is truly one of the best things you can do to reduce stress. Exercise produces endorphins, which are natural feel-good chemicals that act as natural painkillers, improving sleep, reducing stress, and helping us get a clear perspective on issues in our life.
Get Plenty of Rest
It may seem counterintuitive that resting more can help improve your academic performance because this is valuable time that could be spent studying. Sleep deprivation has become a part of the education experience, including long hours of study, demanding assignments, and a challenging work schedule. But this could not be further from a productive way to pursue education. Sleep loss adds up much quicker than you think, leading to real mental health consequences like depression and ADHD. Research clearly shows that not getting enough sleep can impair one’s memory and reasoning abilities, so the more clear-headed you are, the less anxious you feel.
Create, or Find an Outlet
An outlet that not only allows you to get away from your stressors but actively soothes you can be imperative for your mental health. This outlet could be an intramural team, a new hobby, or a social gathering. Since anxiety is filled with tension and fear, relaxation is the perfect way to tackle these feelings. Do things you enjoy in your spare time, no matter how simple, and let yourself unwind from your fast-paced college life.
Approach the Problem, Never Avoid It
We all know that when we avoid a task or an obstacle, it usually tends to make anxiety worse over time. Instead, try taking small steps to approach anxiety-provoking situations. If you are struggling in class, instead of ditching class and staying in bed all day, email the professor and ask for help. If you are feeling lonely, introduce yourself to someone in your hall. At some point, not doing anything will be worse than actually doing it!
There are even more ways you can battle your stress and anxiety, like on-campus resources such as academic advising, study support, and peer counseling. If you feel as if you are struggling to cope with your stress or anxiety, there are people who want to help you. Speak with your college administrators to learn more about the support they offer, and do some research to find stress-reducing methods that work best for you.