By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- List common causes of stress for college students.
- Describe some of the effects of stress.
- List healthy ways college students can manage or cope with stress.
- Identify the causes and effects of your own stressors.
- Develop a personal plan for managing the stress in your life.
Stress is a natural response of the body and mind to a demand or challenge. The thing that causes stress, called a stressor, captures our attention and causes both physical and emotional reactions. Stressors include physical threats, such as a car we suddenly see coming at us too fast, and the physical stress reaction likely includes moving out of the way and our heart beating fast. Most of our stressors are not physical threats but situations or events like an upcoming test or an emotional break-up. Stressors also include long-lasting emotional and mental concerns, such as worries about money or finding a job. Take the Stress Self-Assessment below to begin thinking about stressors in your life.
Check the appropriate boxes.
|I feel mild stress that does not disrupt my everyday life.|
|I am sometimes so stressed out that I have trouble with my routine activities.|
|I find myself eating or drinking just because I’m feeling stressed.|
|I have lain awake at night unable to sleep because I was feeling stressed.|
|Stress has affected my relationships with other people.|
What is the number one cause of stress in your life?
What else causes you stress?
What effect does stress have on your studies and academic performance?
Regardless of the sources of your own stress, what do you think you can do to better cope with the stress you can’t avoid?
What Causes Stress?
Not all stressors are bad things. Exciting, positive things also cause a type of stress, called eustress. Falling in love, getting an unexpected sum of money, acing an exam are all positive things that affect the body and mind in ways similar to negative stress: you can’t help thinking about it, you may lose your appetite and lie awake at night, and your routine life may be momentarily disrupted.
The kind of stress that causes the most trouble results from negative stressors. The life events on the following list usually cause significant stress:
- Serious illness or injury
- Serious illness, injury, or death of a family member or loved one
- Losing a job or sudden financial catastrophe
- Unwanted pregnancy
- Divorce or ending a long-term relationship (including parents’ divorce)
- Being arrested or convicted of a crime
- Being put on academic probation or suspension
The stress from these kinds of life events may begin suddenly and disrupt one’s life in many ways. Fortunately, these stressors do not occur every day and eventually end. Other major life stresses, such as having a parent or family member with a serious illness, can last a long time and may require professional help to cope with them.
Everyday kinds of stressors are far more common but can add up and produce as much stress as a major life event:
- Anxiety about not having enough time for classes, job, studies, and social life
- Worries about grades, an upcoming test, or an assignment
- Money concerns
- Conflict with a roommate, someone at work, or family member
- Anxiety or doubts about one’s future or difficulty choosing a major or career
- Frequent colds, allergy attacks, other continuing health issues
- Concerns about one’s appearance, weight, eating habits, and so on.
- Relationship tensions, poor social life, loneliness
- Time-consuming hassles such as a broken-down car or the need to find a new apartment
Take a moment and reflect on the list above. How many of these stressors have you experienced in the last month? The last year? Circle all the ones that you have experienced. Now go back to your Stress Self-Assessment and look at what you wrote there for causes of your stress. Note any additional things that cause you stress.
How many stressors have you circled and written in? There is no magic number of stressors that an “average” or “normal” college student experiences because everyone is unique. In addition, stressors come and go: the stress caused by a midterm exam tomorrow morning may be gone by noon, replaced by feeling good about how you did. Still, most college students are likely to circle about half the items on this list.
It’s not the number of stressors that counts; rather, it’s our reactions that matter. A person might have circled only one item on that list, but it could produce so much stress that he or she is just as stressed out as someone else who circled all of them. The idea is to understand what causes our own stress and use that as a basis for learning what to do about it.
What’s Wrong with Stress?
Some stress in our lives is a positive thing. Physically, stress prepares us for action. Our heart is pumping fast, and we’re breathing faster to supply the muscles with energy to fight or flee. Nonphysical stressors, such as worrying about grades or money, motivate us to take action, for example, studying, working or saving.
Stress itself is not negative, but unresolved or persistent stress can have unhealthy effects. Chronic, or long-term, stress is associated with many physical changes and illnesses, including the following:
- Weakened immune system, which increases the likelihood of catching a cold and suffering from any illness longer
- More frequent digestive system problems, including constipation or diarrhea, ulcers, and indigestion
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Muscle and back pain
- More frequent headaches, fatigue, and insomnia
- Greater risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems
Chronic or acute, also known as intense short-term, stress also affects our minds and emotions in many ways:
- Difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating
- Poor memory
- More frequent negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, frustration, powerlessness, resentment, or nervousness and a general negative outlook on life
- Greater difficulty dealing with others because of irritability, anger, or avoidance
Unhealthy Responses to Stress
Consider what you have typically done in the past when you felt most stressed; use the Past Stress-Reduction Habits Self-Assessment.
Past Stress-Reduction Habits Self-Assessment
On a scale of 1 to 5, rate each of the following behaviors for how often you have experienced it because of high stress levels.
|1. Drinking alcohol||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|2. Drinking lots of coffee||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|3. Sleeping a lot||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|4. Eating too much||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|5. Eating too little||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|6. Smoking or drugs||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|7. Having arguments||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|8. Sitting around depressed||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|9. Watching television or surfing the web||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|10. Complaining to friends||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|11. Exercising, jogging, biking||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|12. Practicing yoga or tai chi||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|14. Using relaxation techniques||0||1||2||3||4||5|
|15. Talking with an instructor or counselor||0||1||2||3||4||5|
Total your scores for questions 1–10: _______________
Total your scores for questions 11–15: _______________
Subtract the second number from the first: _______________
Interpretation: If the subtraction of the score for questions 11 to 15 from the first score is a positive number, then your past coping methods for dealing with stress have not been as healthy and productive as they could be. Items 1 to 10 are generally not effective ways of dealing with stress and may even contribute to additional stress while items 11 to 15 usually are better choices.
Coping with Stress
Look back at your list of stressors you circled earlier. For each, consider whether it is external, such as bad job hours or not having enough money, or internal, originating in your attitudes and thoughts. Mark each item with an E (external) or an I (internal).
You may be able to eliminate many external stressors. If you have money problems, work on a budget you can live with, look for a new job, or reduce your expenses by finding a cheaper apartment or by selling your car and using public transportation. If you are taking so many classes that you don’t have the time to study for all of them, you could keep working on your time management skills or take fewer classes next semester.
Internal stressors, however, are often not easily resolved, but it is possible to change your attitude and reactions, perhaps by reframing negative beliefs and practicing good physical and mental self-care. For both kinds of stress consider all your options, and don’t hesitate to talk things over with a college counselor.
While we can’t make all stressors go away, we can learn how to cope with them and avoid many of the physical and emotional effects discussed above. It is possible to control the stress in our lives by finding healthy coping strategies.
Get Some Exercise
Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, is a great way to reduce stress. Exercise increases the production of certain hormones, which lead to a better mood and counters depression and anxiety. Exercise helps you feel more energetic and focused so that you are more productive in your work and studies and thus less likely to feel stressed. Regular exercise also helps you sleep better, which further reduces stress.
Get More Sleep
When sleep deprived, you feel more stress and are less able to concentrate on your work or studies. Many people drink more coffee or other caffeinated beverages when feeling sleepy, and caffeine contributes further to stress-related emotions such as anxiety and nervousness.
Manage Your Money
Worrying about money is one of the leading causes of stress.
Adjust Your Attitude
People who are pessimistic and see the glass as half empty tend to feel more stress than optimists who see the glass as half full. To reduce the effects of stress, strive for a growth mindset and try to think more positively.
Other ways to adjust your attitude are taking a fun elective course, playing an intramural sport, or taking a brisk walk every morning to feel more alert and stimulated. Listening to some great music may brighten your day, or maybe calling up a friend to study together will make studying more fun.
No one answer works for everyone; you have to look at your life, be honest with yourself about what affects your daily attitude, and then look for ways to make changes.
Learn a Relaxation Technique
The following are a few tried-and-tested ways to relax when stress seems overwhelming.
- Deep breathing Sit in a comfortable position, and breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, filling your lungs completely. Exhale slowly and smoothly through your mouth. Concentrate on your breathing and feel your chest expanding and relaxing. After five to ten minutes, you will feel calmer and more focused.
- Progressive muscle relaxation With this technique, you slowly tense and then relax the body’s major muscle groups. The sensations and mental concentration produce a calming state.
- Meditation Taking many forms, meditation may involve focusing on your breathing, a specific visual image, or a certain thought while clearing the mind of negative energy. Many options are available to help you find the form of meditation that works best for you.
- Yoga or tai chi Yoga, tai chi, and other exercises that focus on body position and slow, gradual movements are popular techniques for relaxation and stress reduction. You can learn these techniques through a class, from a DVD or online.
- Music and relaxation CDs and MP3s Many different relaxation techniques have been developed for audio training. Simply play the recording and relax as you are guided through the techniques.
- Massage Regular massages relax both body and mind. If you can’t afford a weekly massage but enjoy its effects, a local massage therapy school may offer more affordable massage from students and beginning practitioners.
If stress is seriously disrupting your studies or your life regardless of what you do to try to reduce it, you may need help. There’s no shame in admitting you’re struggling, and college counselors and health professionals are there to help.
Tips for Successfully Managing Stress
- Pay attention to, rather than ignore, things that cause you stress and change what you can.
- Accept what you can’t change and resolve to make new habits to help you cope.
- Get regular exercise and enough sleep.
- Evaluate your priorities, work on managing your time, and schedule restful activities in your daily life.
- Slow down and focus on one thing at a time.
- Break old habits involving caffeine, alcohol, and other substances.
- Remember your long-range goals.
- Make time to enjoy being with friends.
- Explore new activities and hobbies.
- Find relaxation techniques that work for you and practice regularly.
- Get help if you’re having a hard time coping with emotional stress.
All college students feel some stress. The amount of stress you feel depends on many factors, including sleeping habits, exercise and activity levels, your use of substances, time management and study skills, attitude, and other factors. As you look at your present life and how much stress you’re feeling, what short-term changes can you start making in the next week or two to feel less stressed and more in control? By the end of the semester, how would you ideally like your life to be different and how can you best accomplish that change?
- Everyone feels stress, and many of the things that cause stress won’t go away regardless of what we do. What we can do is examine our lives, figure out what causes most of our stress, and learn to do something about it.
- Stress leads to a lot of different unhealthy responses that actually increase our stress over the long term, but once we understand how stress affects us, we can begin to take steps to cope in healthier ways.
1. Why shouldn’t your goal be to eliminate stress from your life completely?
2. List three or more ways stress can negatively impact health and wellness.
3. Name at least two common external stressors you may be able to eliminate from your life.
4. Name at least two common internal stressors you may feel you need to learn to cope with because you can’t eliminate them.
5. List at least three ways you can minimize the stress you feel.