Last school year, I polled a small group of college students about what made them feel the most stressed in college. Mostly juniors, their answers varied but were all explicitly related to insufficient time to do everything required. Why did these students not elaborate with reports of disparaging feelings of overwhelm, doom, or stress? Did they know what stress looked like on themselves?
It turns out these kids are not only academically involved but heavily socially involved through teams, Greek life, study groups, clubs, and volunteering. As if fifteen or eighteen credit hours are not enough, you would expect these college students to express feelings of overload and burnout and to be concerned about their mental health and overall well-being. Still, a certain observation led me to understand why these students did not allow stress to register as overwhelm or anxiety.
To them, stress was an integral part of their existence. It was analogous to being a college student. They accepted the possibility that stress was present and tolerated its existence. They formed a vision of stress and its glory and used this visual to help them regulate the negative impact of stress.
This was more than a forced positive attitude about stress. This was tapping into their mental and emotional resources to cope. They became familiar with how pressure felt on them, how it looked, and how to wear it successfully by staying busy, committing, and forming meaningful relationships.
Even more remarkable? Not one of the ten students was willing to scale back on obligations despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed. They could not visualize their lives differently. They existed in this kind of whirlwind where stress became the energy behind the spin (eustress.)
Did they mention some healthy and not-so-healthy ways in which they distressed? Of course. Did they look sleep deprived? Yes. Were they craving a home-cooked meal because they were tired of fast food? You bet, but these college students seemed inherently calm when discussing missing a deadline, accomplishing less than expected, and having to say “no.”
They seemed to be masters at planning, communicating needs, asking for support, and adapting. They had no issue asking for extensions, payment plans, or even alternative options for attending a meeting or class. They met with professors, arranged coffee with a friend, and even skipped meetings when needing to collect themselves mentally. They displayed little fear of over-involvement, failure, burnout, or success. It was apparent that being involved proved to be the most effective stress management.
Aside from this (maybe) unusual group, every college student perceives stress and being overwhelmed differently. While academic pressures impact one student, another student feels isolated by social and emotional stressors. Finances worry certain students, while fear of failure halts others. In addition, many factors play into how well a person senses, responds, and maneuvers through stress. Personality, genetics, life experiences, and practice determine how well one copes with stress or succumbs to its adverse effects. Some people have to learn to manage stress, while others have the inherent ability.
20 Ways College Students Can Cope With Stress
1. Embrace the idea that stress is normal. Get comfortable with it being a part of daily life.
2. Visualize life in its enormity. College is only four years. It is a microcosm of your existence.
3. Know that stress is different from anxiety and anxiety disorders.
4. Start to understand and befriend the thoughts you have during moments of anxiety. No need to run from them. They are normal.
5. Breathe. Oxygen is the best calming agent for our bodies when anxious.
6. Find an action that satisfies the feelings of “flight.” Some people wiggle change in their pockets. Some keep a soft tissue in their reach to rub. Any soothing action can bring calm to most situations.
7. Find that place on campus you can go and collect the chaos in your mind.
8. Convince yourself that any risk you take to pull your mind out of the tumbling thoughts will bring reward. Keep the mind occupied. Remember that good stress is motivation.
9. Interrupt negative thinking processes with a visual, a mind’s eye of calm – may be a nature scene, a memory of security, or a family picture.
10. Do a body scan to release tension from where it resides. Stretch it out.
11. If you are not good at multi-tasking, then STOP trying — practice planning and accomplishing one small goal at a time.
12. Find nature. Green slows down your mind.
13. Seek support through friends, professors, wellness centers, groups, classmates, or a pastor.
14. Volunteer! Studies show that helping others occupies an anxious mind.
15. Smile when you pass other students on campus. On the days you cannot muster a smile, force it!
16. Join one group at a time on campus. Gradually add another activity when you know you can handle your current obligations.
17. Pay close attention to sleep, eating, and exercising. We can’t exist without tending to these three essential components of wellness.
18. Call someone on the phone. Hear a voice of compassion.
19. Sit on a bench, and watch others. Converse with them. They will NOT think you are strange. Secretly, they want a friend, too.
20. Repeat number 2.
Just as many students walk through each day on campus emotionally fragile, inexperienced, and heavily impacted by life’s stressors. Not having enough time to do everything leaves them feeling exhausted, impaired with anxiety, and unable to push forward. There is no internal regulation device and minimal emotional and mental resources to cope.
With these students, accepting stress, as usual, is as complex as asking for help, seeking professional guidance, or using available resources. Daily stressors become most challenging and often paralyzing. The unfortunate result of not being unable to regulate stress appropriately is that the stress can turn into anxiety, two very different things.
To be clear, anxiety means: sleeping through classes, isolating, skipping meals, lacking proper personal hygiene, experiencing panic, using substances and food to self-soothe, and experiencing sleep disturbances that affect mood and performance. As anxiety manifests differently in everyone, it prevents the movement and motion needed to get through four college years.
During actual anxiety, the prefrontal cortex is put on hold while the emotional brain dominates, so logical thinking is halted. Negative, irrational thoughts prevent the needed action from persevering. If you cannot break this thinking with “mind training” exercises, your physical and emotional feelings surface and can become unmanageable.
For some, simply surviving a day presents a real challenge because every sensation registers as a threat – “the stress response is hardwired into our nervous system as a protective mechanism devised to enact the Flight or Fight reaction to threats,” according to Renee Jain, an expert in the field of Positive Psychology. Once that false alarm is set off, chemicals flow, and thinking becomes skewed. The body is simply responding to the mind.
From this discussion with college students, it is evident that the ability to accept stress as a regular part of college life helps manage and regulate its impact of it. The students who are better at handling the demands of daily life had the foresight to not only expect stress but to weave it into their psyche. If there were negative thought processes, these students were able to interrupt them and channel their energies into actions: participating, volunteering, exercising, socializing, and persevering.
This is insightful knowledge that college kids need to know. Being emotionally and mentally ready to accept stress as usual, eliminating fears, and being prepared to protect oneself from stress’s negative influences will determine if stress makes or breaks a person.