College Stress: Why It's a Problem & What You Can Do About It
In college, stress is a normal part of the experience. After all, there are significantly more demands on you now than there were in high school. The work is more challenging, the pressure to perform is more intense, and there is no one hovering over you to make sure you get everything done.
But while the college years naturally involve increased stress levels, it's important to recognize when those levels get out of control. A little stress can actually be a good motivator; it pushes us to meet challenges and results in increased productivity. But persistent, excessive stress can wear down the body and lead to a variety of physical and emotional issues. In some cases, stressed-out students don't even realize they have a problem. They're so used to feeling that way that they figure life is just supposed to be like that.
It's essential to understand how stress affects college students so that you can tell if you're headed for trouble. The unfortunate truth is that people who suffer from stress often fail to recognize the symptoms until things get really bad. It's common for the people around you to notice before you do. But if you can identify college stressors and spot the signs of trouble, you can take steps to deal with the problem.
- Signs and symptoms of college stress
- Causes of stress in college students
- College stress statistics
- 13 stress relief tips for college students
Signs and Symptoms of College Stress
Stress is the body's response to a challenge. When you experience stress, your body releases hormones that cause your muscles to tense, your pulse to increase, and your brain to become more alert. This is the fight-or-flight response that allows you to deal with a perceived threat, and it's essential to human survival. The problem occurs when the body stays in this state even when there is no danger. Over time, that can lead to serious health problems.
There are physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral indications of how stress affects college students. Being aware of what to look for can help you take control of the problem before it takes over your life. The following list of questions can help you determine if you're experiencing stress:
- Are you having trouble concentrating?
- Do you worry more than you used to?
- Have you been missing classes?
- Do you find it hard to remember deadlines or finish assignments on time?
- Have there been any changes in your eating or sleeping habits?
- Do you get frequent headaches, muscle aches, nausea, or heartburn?
- Are you less patient than you used to be?
- Do you feel angry and irritable a lot?
- Have you been avoiding activities you used to enjoy?
- Do you often feel overwhelmed?
Answering yes to these questions doesn't necessarily mean you're headed for burnout. Everyone has stressful experiences from time to time. But if you're concerned about how you're coping with stress in college, it may be time to take action. Check out our tips for college stress management. And be sure to talk to a health care provider if you feel overwhelmed by stress or if your symptoms are making it hard for you to function in your day-to-day life.
Causes of Stress in College Students
Anything that alters your natural balance can be a source of stress. Of course, everyone reacts to things differently, so what sends you over the edge might not bother your neighbor at all. But the following are some common college stressors:
1. Living away from home
Most American college students move out to go to school. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 56 percent of students at public two-year colleges lived away from home in 2011-12. That figure rose to 68 percent for students at public four-year colleges.1
Being on their own for the first time can be a daunting experience for some students. For many, it's the first time they've had to be wholly responsible for themselves. They miss friends and family and may have trouble adjusting to roommates, unfamiliar food, and new social situations. This can cause a lot of stress in the first few months.
2. Academic anxiety
The increased academic requirements of college can be very stressful for some students. Even those who coasted through high school may not get the grades they expect at the post-secondary level. Research has shown that academic ability alone is not a predictor of success in college. In one study, students who were high achievers in high school—but who engaged in irresponsible behavior—tended to see their GPAs drop in their first semester at college.2
Many students also feel pressure to achieve certain results in order to maintain a scholarship or satisfy parental demands. In fact, a survey from 2011 showed that 64 percent of Americans believed parents did not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school, and that number was up from 56 percent in 2006.3 The resulting stress can take a heavy toll on students.
In 2015-16, 52 percent of students contributed their own income or savings to help pay for their college education.4 Trying to make sure they have the funds to cover their expenses can be a major source of stress for some students, especially if they aren't used to preparing or working within a budget. Money management can be a challenge for some students.
Plus, many students have to balance part-time jobs with classes and homework, which can leave very little time to unwind and relax. In fact, 43 percent of full-time undergraduates had jobs in 2015, and almost 27 percent of those students worked more than 20 hours a week.5 So concerns about cash flow can translate into a lot of stress.
The college social scene can be novel and exciting, but it can also cause a great deal of turmoil. Many students are still figuring out who they are and what they want, so personal conflicts are common. If an intimate relationship ends, it can leave students without crucial emotional support.
In one survey that asked students to identify issues they'd found traumatic or very difficult to handle, 30.5 percent cited intimate relationships, and 27.8 percent mentioned other social relationships.6 The stress that comes with an unsettled personal situation can make it hard to deal with everything else that goes along with college life.
5. Future plans
The question of what comes after college looms large in many students' minds. After years of structured study, some students find that facing an open (and uncertain) future can be overwhelming. One psychologist even coined the term "post-commencement stress disorder" to describe the anxiety that comes from choosing a career or life path outside the safe haven of a college campus, though he did admit the issue has not been sufficiently studied.7
Many students worry about not finding a job or getting stuck in a job they hate. Some also get concerned about having to pay back hefty student loans. So work stress can become a problem.
College Stress Statistics
The numbers tell an alarming story. An increasing number of college students claim to suffer from the effects of stress. One report found that levels of depression and anxiety among college students seeking mental health services have grown slowly but persistently over a six-year period. The top three concerns of those students were anxiety (61 percent), depression (49 percent), and stress (45 percent).8
In one survey of American college and university students, 45.1 percent of respondents claimed to have experienced "more than average" levels of stress. Another 12.5 percent said they'd been under "tremendous" stress. And almost 32 percent said that stress was affecting their academic performance.6
The same survey also noted high numbers of students had experienced the following emotions:
- Felt overwhelmed by all they had to do—86.5 percent
- Felt exhausted (not from physical activity)—83.4 percent
- Felt overwhelming anxiety—60.9 percent
- Felt things were hopeless—51.7 percent
- Felt so depressed that it was difficult to function—39.3 percent
13 Stress Relief Tips for College Students
Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives. Stress itself is not inherently bad. For example, an exhilarating rush down a ski slope causes good stress. So does falling in love, or learning a new skill. If we were never challenged, life would get pretty boring.
But the key is knowing how to deal with college stress so that you can cope when the going gets tough. The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to manage your stress level and help maintain a healthy balance while at college. Stress relief is possible. Consider these tips:
1. Develop good time management skills.
You don't want to find yourself always racing the clock, always trying to catch up, and never getting on top of things. Managing your responsibilities while leaving time for rest and relaxation is a balancing act, but there are ways to make it easier. Set up a schedule for your life, create a priority list of to-dos, and be prepared to say no when you get stretched too thin.
You may also find this book helpful: The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: Achieve More Success with Less Stress
2. Avoid procrastination.
Leaving major projects and assignments until the last minute is a recipe for stress. One study found that college students who continually put things off had lower stress levels than their non-procrastinating classmates early in the semester, but they had higher stress, more illness, and lower grades later in the term.9 Ultimately, it's not a good way to go.
So take charge of your schedule. You might try using a monthly planner to keep track of due dates, for example. Break your projects down into manageable chunks and assign each task a milestone date to ensure that you stay on track. And check out other simple time management tips.
3. Exercise regularly.
Physical activity can be great stress relief. Working out can help work off the tension that builds during the course of a day. Learning how to create a college fitness plan can help you manage your stress and maintain a sense of well-being.
And regular exercise doesn't have to mean sweating it out for hours in a gym. Find an activity you enjoy that you feel you could stick with. Riding a bike, going for a walk, playing a sport, or even puttering in the garden can do you a world of good.
4. Stick to a healthy diet.
Cutting out junk food and focusing on nutritionally balanced meals goes a long way toward maintaining good overall health. It keeps your energy levels up and gives your body the reserves it needs to deal with the ups and downs of daily life.
Of course, the craziness of college life often means eating on the go. The trick is to plan ahead and have some healthy foods and snacks ready. Things like fresh fruit, low-fat cheeses, nuts, and yogurt are nutrient-rich ways to fuel your body. Learn more about how to create a college diet plan.
5. Watch what you drink.
It's important to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Caffeinated drinks like coffee or soda might seem like a good way to get a quick energy boost, but that boost is soon followed by a drop in energy that can leave you feeling tired and irritable.
And while you don't have to be a teetotaler, it's a good idea to try to limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol may help you fall asleep quicker, but it tends to interfere with your sleep patterns and leave you feeling drowsy in the morning.
6. Get enough sleep.
Staying up all night to finish an assignment or study for an exam might work in the short term, but it's ultimately counterproductive. Nobody functions well when they're tired. Your brain needs proper rest—generally about seven to eight hours per night—to perform at its best.
But the vast majority of college students don't get the full amount of rest they need. In a 2017 study, only 10.2 percent of students reported getting enough sleep to feel rested in the morning at least six days a week.6 Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to concentrate and learn, and it can lead to poor decision-making, lethargy, and even illness. So be sure to get plenty of shut-eye.
7. Take breaks.
Research has shown that people's ability to focus on a single task drops over time and that even brief mental breaks can help you refocus and finish what you need to do.10 Pushing yourself to keep going can lead to poorer results as well as higher stress. So try to find a few minutes each day to take a walk, listen to music, or just sit quietly. It's important to pace yourself so you don't get burned out.
8. Keep a journal.
Writing out your frustrations can be a great way to let go of what bothers you. Journaling can also help you understand your emotions and manage your stress. Don't worry about word choice or sentence structure or anything else your English teacher wanted you to learn. This is for your eyes only, so anything goes.
9. Laugh it off.
Laughter really can be the best medicine. When you laugh, your brain releases feel-good endorphins, just like it does when you exercise. Laughter can also improve your circulation and relax your muscles, thereby easing some of the symptoms of stress.
So watch a funny movie, read an amusing book, or just hang out with a good friend who knows how to make you giggle. Finding humor in your life is a great way to reduce tension.
10. Practice relaxation techniques.
One way to counter an overactive fight-or-flight response is by eliciting the body's relaxation response. This is a state of deep rest (not sleep) in which your breathing rate slows, your muscles relax, and your blood pressure drops. It can be a powerful form of stress relief.
There are many different ways to get your body to relax. You could try slowly counting to 10, thinking positive thoughts, visualizing your happy place, or squeezing a stress ball. Yoga, self-hypnosis, or deep muscle relaxation might also help. Find the technique that works best for you.
11. Lean on others.
We all need a little help from our friends sometimes. Having a support system of family and friends that you can talk to is invaluable. Don't be afraid to vent about the sources of stress in your life, but try to balance it by sharing some positive experiences as well.
12. Realize you're not alone.
It's normal to feel lonely or anxious. Some college students away from home for the first time feel homesick for family and friends. Others find it difficult to fit in to a new environment and stay on top of their new responsibilities. College is a big adjustment, and it's perfectly normal to encounter a few bumps in the road.
13. Ask for help.
You're human, and that means you have limits. Don't be afraid to seek professional help when you get overwhelmed. Most colleges have a counseling center or student health services that can help you. If you live in a dorm, you may have a resident advisor who can give you some direction. Find out what services are available and how to access them.
Consider Other Schooling Options
When it comes to college stress, where you go to school can have a big impact. So keep in mind that you do have options. Maybe the traditional college environment just isn't a good fit for you. If you decide you need a change, it might be worth considering vocational colleges or technical schools. You can locate program options in your area by entering your zip code into the search tool below.
1 American Association of Community Colleges, website last visited on May 4, 2017.
2 Journal of Advanced Academics, "High-Achieving High School Students and Not So High-Achieving College Students," website last visited on November 26, 2019.
3 Pew Research Center, "Americans Want More Pressure on Students, the Chinese Want Less," website last visited on May 4, 2017.
4 Sallie Mae, How America Pays for College 2016, website last visited on January 23, 2020.
5 National Center for Education Statistics, website last visited on May 4, 2017.
6 American College Health Association, National College Health Assessment II: Fall 2017 Reference Group Executive Summary, website last visited on August 13, 2018.
7 Psychology Today, "Managing PCSD—Post Commencement Stress Disorder," website last visited on January 8, 2020.
8 Penn State University, Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) 2016 Annual Report, website last visited on May 4, 2017.
9 Psychological Science, "Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health: The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling," website last visited on November 26, 2019.
10 Cognition, "Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements," website last visited on January 23, 2020.