You’ve got to get to the library on the other side of campus, print off your ten page paper, and then get to class in five minutes. As you are weaving through the crowd you start to feel light-headed. You are currently running on four hours of sleep and an empty stomach, but you have no time to stop for a break, and probably won’t for quite some time. After all, you have to go straight from class to a four hour work shift, and then jump straight into another five page paper due tomorrow morning. Not to mention, the three chapters you have to read, two study guides you have to fill out, and group presentation that must be completed by the next sunrise. You know you’ll need at least four energy drinks and a cup of coffee to get yourself through the rest of the day. If only you had time to stop and pick them up from the store.
Unfortunately situations like this are too common for college students today. With a constant chain of classes, work, projects, tests, and let’s not forget the all important social life, it is no wonder that students are feeling overwhelmed. In fact, according to the American College Health Association over 85% of college students in 2015 felt overwhelmed by all they had to do over the course of the year. Over 81% of students felt mentally exhausted at least once in the past 12 months.
Though stress is not always detrimental to health and, in some cases, may actually work as positive motivation to succeed academically, stress must be monitored, managed, and minimized where possible.
What is Stress?
Stress is hard to define absolutely because of its individualistic and subjective nature. However, the National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “the brain’s response to any demand.” Psychological Today’s definition consists of “a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium.” It is a mental reaction with tangible and intangible side effects.
Stress was a response originally intended to react to immediate threats. The Mayo Clinic explains the process starts with a threat. Once a threat has been detected and recognized, the hypothalamus at the base of the brain sounds an alarm to the adrenal gland. The adrenal gland then releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to increase alertness, elevate blood pressure, and send a burst of energy throughout the body. This alarm signal also communicates to the mood and fear parts of the brain.
Two Types of Stress
- Acute Stress – This is an immediate, short-term response to a specific stimuli that is perceived as dangerous, new, or exciting. Acute stress might look like your heart rate increasing after slamming the brakes in your car or increased sweating before a final class presentation.
- Chronic Stress – This is a more subtle, long-term form of stress that can last a few weeks, or even months. The stimuli at the base of chronic stress are usually more complex such as financial worries or a faltering relationship. If exposed to chronic stress for a long period of time, you may no longer recognize the problem.
An important note: If you experience excessive worry or anxiety with no definable issue or over multiple issues for a prolonged time period, you may have anxiety. This intense unease will persist longer than 6 months and a doctor can diagnose these cases.
- Cortisol – When exposed to stressors for excessive periods of time, the body is subjected to hormones like cortisol that can disrupt normal bodily functions. Cortisol suppresses the digestive and reproductive systems, lowers the immune system, and stunts the growth process.
- Sweat – Though it is not entirely clear the purpose of stress sweat, it is unique from heat relieving sweat. Stress sweat has a distinct odor that, according to the Wall Street Journal makes peers interpret social stimuli negatively and puts others on edge.
- Sleeplessness – In a study conducted by NPR, the top response to excessive stress was sleeping less than usual. The release of adrenaline increases alertness and makes it difficult for the brain to relax in order to sleep.
- Bowel irritation – Stress can affect how quickly food moves through your digestive tract, causing diarrhea or constipation.
- Headaches – Stress can trigger muscle tension in the shoulders and neck which can lead to headaches or even migraines.
- Increased blood pressure – The hormones released from stress can contract blood vessels, causing high blood pressure.
- Helplessness – Nearly half of college students report feeling a sense of hopelessness. They can convince themselves there is nothing to be done to remedy the overwhelming stress and thus remain in stressful situations even when given the chance to escape.
- Binge or reduced consumption – Ever wonder why food parties or binges are so popular after midterms and finals? Cortisol affects the digestive system and drastically changes usual appetites or increases cravings.
- Sexual problems – Cortisol also shuts down certain systems not necessary for flight-or-fight, including the reproductive system. This can lead to irregular periods for women or erectile dysfunction for men.
Recognizing and Coping
Any source of mental disruption or demand is known as a stressor. Stressors may vary from student to student or from semester to semester. Some stress can push students to work harder and succeed, while other forms of stress may cause panic or acute distress. It is important to be aware of and recognize potential stressors in the college atmosphere. Here are some common sources:
- Coping with roommates
- A new living situation
- Increased independence
- Family distance
- Financial strain
- Health issues
- Body image issues
- Academic load
- Family/friend loss
- Romantic relationships
- Attendance – Some classes weigh attendance as an important part of the overall grade. Minimize skipping and tardiness in order to relieve unnecessary academic stress.
- Commuting – Give yourself plenty of time to get to class. Account for possible traffic and delays that may arise and slow your travel.
- Scheduling – Where possible, give yourself a buffer between classes and activities to allow for eating and relaxation. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to turn down some activities in order to avoid overscheduling yourself. If waking up in the morning is hard for you, avoid registering for early morning classes.
- Procrastination – Make sure to be very observant of deadlines and due dates. Starting projects early minimizes the need to stay up late and increases the overall quality of your work. Procrastination often leads to acute stress.
- Transitions – Transitioning into college or even simply a new semester can trigger stress. Keeping in contact with loved ones, making new friends, and arranging social outings are a good way to feel connected.
- Loss of loved one – NPR has revealed the number two cause of stress across the United States is loss of a loved one. If you experience a loss, talk to a guidance counselor or college advisor immediately. They can assist you with class arrangements and direct you to grief counseling.
- Social outings – It can be easy to brush off social plans with friends or loved ones in order to finish a project. Though you should always prioritize your tasks and honor your commitments, social outings are a good way to reduce tension and take your mind off stressors.
- Roommates – Roommates may be messier, lazier, or more talkative than you. This can cause stress and conflict. If you are experiencing repetitive clashes with your roommate, seek conflict mediation through the school or a third party.
- Work – working is very common amongst college students. Find a job that accommodates your schedule and avoid overloading yourself where possible with school work and a job. If you are experiencing job related stress, consider finding a new job or reducing the amount of current hours you are working.
The Harvard Business Review has found nine ways that successful people cope with high stress environments. Some of these coping methods include:
- Be self-compassionate – It is important to recognize your own imperfections. You are a human and will make mistakes just like everyone else. Cut yourself some slack!
- Look at the big picture – Take a moment to link the small tasks to an overall goal. This will help you put things in perspective and give jobs new value.
- Take a five minute break – Take a five minute break to do something you find intriguing. It will rest your mind and replenish your energy for upcoming tasks.
- Recognize progress – We can maintain mental stamina by focusing on the progress we have made in our work. Looking at the gap to the finish line as being close is a way to reorient yourself from the stressful to the hopeful.
If you are experiencing:
- Violent outbursts
- Suicidal thoughts or actions
- Panic attacks
- Compulsive drug abuse
Report immediately to an advisor, campus counselor, friend, family member, suicide hotline, or residential/hall assistant. There are many resources meant to aide and assist students experiencing stress. Make sure to check your own school’s website to find nearby resources.
You are responsible for your own well being. Be proactive about your health. Acute stress is often not harmful and can be remedied quickly. However chronic stress is dangerous and can lead to further negative repercussions. Manage your academics, socializing, work, and sleep as much as possible to reduce unnecessary stress. Be aware of the stressors in your life and how you react to them. Should stress become overwhelming, seek a trained professional to regain balance.