The Ol’ College Cry: Dealing with Student Stress

Final exams. Groups projects. *Tuition.* Oof. As good as college can be, it’s also a season of unique stress. Maybe you’re on your own for the first time, navigating roommate politics while pulling all-nighters and surviving on a diet of ramen and cafeteria pizza.

Yep, college can be stressful for everyone. But unhealthy, sky-high stress might mean it’s time to make changes or seek outside help.

We spoke with two university psychologists (aka, psy-college-ists) to get the 411 on what unhealthy student stress looks like and how to deal with it. Let’s dive in.

young woman eating a sandwich and studying
Ana Luz Crespi/Stocksy United

Signs of stress in students

“When students describe what it feels like to be stressed, responses range from ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘stretched too thin’ to ‘angry,’ ‘tense,’ ‘jittery,’ and ‘sleep-deprived,’” says Dr. Brenda Whitehead, psychologist and founder of Prof Chat Plus.

Dr. Jessica Kovler, a psychologist at Well By Messer and psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, describes a few clear signs of high stress:

  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • appetite and diet changes
  • irritability with yourself and others
  • decreased motivation
  • increased emotional expression (like crying more than usual)
  • neglecting self-care routines (like bathing)

“The same level of stress can look different for different students,” says Whitehead. “Some may express it more emotionally or verbally, while others may not realize they are stressed until they notice physiological dysregulation like a racing heart, irregular sleep, digestive issues, or even skin rashes.”

Causes of student stress

What can we blame for all this stress? So many things, according to Kovler.

Some possible causes:

Regardless of your specific trigger, Whitehead says stress becomes problematic when it lasts too long. That’s because of a little hormone called cortisol. Being stressed out *and* staying up late spikes cortisol levels, according to Kovler. And when cortisol stays high indefinitely, it wreaks havoc on our health.

“Our physiological stress response (including cortisol) is most adaptive in situations when the stressor lasts moments — think running from a bear,” explains Whitehead. “But our bodies and brains don’t do well when that same physiological stress response is engaged for long-term stressors like a college degree or a toxic relationship. It can damage our immune function, disrupt our digestive systems, and hamper our mental health.”

Bottom line: *Chronic* stress causes mental and physical wear and tear that can lead to chronic illness, depression, anxiety, and more.

Tips for managing stress

Kovler offers these tips for reducing student stress:

  • Build self-care into your schedule: Add workouts, journaling, social outings, and fun activities into your planner along with your class schedule.
  • Connect with others: “Socialize,” she says, “even if you want to isolate.” Connection with family and friends is vital to helping you recenter and de-stress.
  • Track your mood: Kovler recommends using the Calm app or something similar to track your daily mood and stress levels. Knowledge is power!
  • Limit caffeine: Too much caffeine can increase your heart rate and anxiety levels, which messes with precious sleep. Drinking more than 400 mg of caffeine (4–5 cups of coffee) per day may be more harmful than helpful, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Whitehead also offers helpful advice for developing your own coping strategies. She says there are two main ways to cope with stress:

  • Problem-focused coping: With this method, you take direct action against the *source* of stress. Maybe you create a study plan for an upcoming exam, choose to rent a copy of the pricy textbook you can’t afford to buy, or find a new roommate.
  • Emotion-focused coping: Unfortunately, you can’t take direct action against the death of a pet, a devastating breakup, or feeling homesick. “Emotion-focused coping … is where we target our RESPONSE to the situation, rather than targeting the stressor itself,” explains Whitehead. This might include exercise, meditation, prayer, social support, or gratitude journaling.

Your best bet, according to Whitehead, is to combine problem-focused and emotion-focused coping. Got a big exam coming up? Make a study plan *and* do a morning workout to relieve tension or try breathing exercises before heading to class.

Everyone’s coping strategies are different, but the key is to find which ones work for you.

“What we don’t want,” says Whitehead, “is to slide into denial (living as if the stressor isn’t real) or addictive coping behaviors that can mask the stress — like alcohol, drugs, or eating disorders — as those can have very dangerous long-term effects.”

When to get help and treatment options

If stress is overwhelming you, consider seeking help. Here are some signs that it’s time to find outside support:

  • no motivation to get out of bed in the morning
  • lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • inability to focus
  • trouble falling asleep
  • family or friends expressing concern about your mental health

Whitehead recommends starting with your university’s counseling center. “They are staffed with experts who help students navigate college stressors every day. And most of the time, it’s free to visit!” she says.

The pros at your university counseling center can also refer you to outside doctors or psychologists when needed.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” adds Kovler, “Your counselors, professors, and wellness staff want to see you succeed. Come talk to us. We’ve all been there, and your wellness is a top priority.”

Bottom line

  • College can be a joyride of fun and adventure or a train wreck of insomnia and anxiety. For many, it’s a bit of both.
  • Start actively developing healthy coping strategies if you’re overwhelmed with the stress of academics or rocky relationships.
  • The best stress management strategies involve directly addressing the stressor *and* calming your emotional response to the stressor.
  • If DIY coping strategies don’t help, seek outside help. Your university’s counseling center is the best (and most wallet-friendly) place to start.

Kovler’s statement to all her students: “Yes, we have class deadlines. But I need you feeling well enough to do your work in the first place. Your first assignment is ensuring you are well.”

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