Causes of Stress

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify sources and signs of stress, particularly for college students

As a student, you’re probably plenty familiar with the experience of stress—a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension. What you may not know is that it’s a natural response of the mind and body to a situation in which a person feels threatened or anxious. Stress can be positive (e.g., preparing for a wedding) or negative (e.g., dealing with a natural disaster).

Man lies on his back while talking on the phoneStress can hit you when you least expect it—before a test, after losing a job, or during conflict in a relationship. If you’re a college student, it may feel like stress is a persistent fact of life. While everyone experiences stress at times, a prolonged bout of it can affect your health and ability to cope with life. That’s why social support and self-care are important. They can help you see your problems in perspective . . . and the stressful feelings may ease up.

Stress levels were particularly high during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research on stress by the American Psychological Association (APA) during 2021 showed the impact of the crisis on the health of those surveyed. Americans reported unwanted changes in weight (gain or loss), increased drinking, and disrupted sleep. Mental health concerns were exacerbated amongst parents of children under 18 and essential workers. People of color were more likely to report concerns regarding physical health (sleep, weight, and activity levels). Additionally Black Americans reported worrying the most about the future.[1]

Sometimes stress can be good. For instance, it can help you develop skills needed to manage potentially challenging or threatening situations in life. However, stress can be harmful when it is severe enough to make you feel overwhelmed and out of control.

Strong emotions like fear, sadness, or other symptoms of depression are normal, as long as they are temporary and don’t interfere with daily activities. If these emotions last too long or cause other problems, it’s a different story.

Signs and Effects of Stress

Physical or emotional tension are often signs of stress. They can be reactions to a situation that causes you to feel threatened or anxious. The following are all common symptoms of stress:

  • disbelief and shock
  • tension and irritability
  • fear and anxiety about the future
  • difficulty making decisions
  • being numb to one’s feelings
  • loss of interest in normal activities
  • loss of appetite (or increased appetite)
  • nightmares and recurring thoughts about an event
  • anger
  • increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • sadness and other symptoms of depression
  • feeling powerless
  • crying
  • sleep problems
  • headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
  • trouble concentrating.

It’s not only unpleasant to live with the tension and symptoms of ongoing stress; it’s actually harmful to your body, too. Chronic stress can impair your immune system and disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, leading to increased risk of numerous health problems, including the following:[2]

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • digestive problems
  • heart disease
  • sleep problems
  • weight gain
  • memory and concentration impairment

These problems are why it’s so important to learn healthy ways of coping with the stressors in your life.

Try It


stress: a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension in response to a situation in which one feels threatened or anxious

  1. "One Year On: Unhealthy Weight Gains, Increased Drinking Reported by Americans Coping with Pandemic Stress." American Psychological Association, 11 Mar. 2021,
  2. "Stress Management." Mayo Clinic, 2016,