It’s no secret that going to college can be a stressful experience. Chances are, you’re balancing a combination of academics, extracurriculars, work, and internships along with your social life, roommate drama, and more. Maybe you’re in a long-distance relationship and it’s getting tough, or you’re dealing with a professor who doesn’t like you and now, you’re nervous before every chemistry class. Whether you’re a first-year student or entering your senior year, there are many things you can do to start managing stress today. If you’re experiencing any form of stress right now — whether it’s simply a case of the “Sunday scaries,” struggling with your mental health, or otherwise — you’re not alone.
According to reports from the American Psychological Association (APA), stress levels are on the rise in the United States and have been steadily increasing over the past few years. This has been particularly true for college students who report high levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and relationship problems and continue to seek services at college counseling centers. A 2018 poll conducted by Gallup showed that Americans are among the most stressed people in the entire world, with about 55% of respondents saying they experience stress “during a lot of the day,” and according to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the APA, rising stress levels have led to Americans feeling “wracked with uncertainty” about safety, security, travel, work, and more.
Although the pandemic has exacerbated much of this uncertainty, college life is anxiety-inducing for many students, and the need for mental health resources continues. If you’re a student who’s dealing with college stress right now, here’s what it could mean and how you can cope, according to therapists and doctors.
By: Tianna Soto
What Is Stress?
According to the APA, stress is defined as a “physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors” — stress affects nearly every system of the body, and “influences how people feel and behave.” The APA also calls out clear markers of stress, including “palpitations, sweating, dry mouth, shortness of breath, fidgeting, accelerated speech,” and “augmentation of negative emotions.” Simply put: it’s not fun experience, and it can make your body feel like it’s going into overdrive.
You may have also heard stress referred to as the fight-or-flight response, like when you’re running late and rushing to class or when your heart starts beating faster right before a big exam. This is due to a spike in cortisol, AKA the stress hormone released by your adrenals (think: “adrenaline”). Stress manifests in a variety of different ways and depends on the person. However, at the basic level, you can experience acute stress in specific situations or chronic stress, which is a consistent feeling of pressure and overwhelm over a long period of time. While there are (sadly) plentiful opportunities to feel acute stress during college, it’s easy to fall into chronic stress over the years. And if this sounds like you, you are absolutely not alone.
College Stress Is a Universal (& Normal!) Experience.
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that college has become even more stressful since the pandemic, from campus closures and transitioning to online learning to returning to campus and having to start all over again. And whether you just moved away from your hometown or you’re worried about your demanding class schedule, there are a variety of things that can spark your fight-or-flight response.
Melinda Ring, MD, the Executive Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Northwestern University, says that even with the pandemic looming in the background, college can still be pretty tough, so it’s important to recognize that you’re in a unique time in life. “Even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, the college years come with unique stresses from developing new friendships to deciding what’s next after college,” she says.
Jessica Bell, a licensed mental health counselor and the founder of Mosaic Minds Counseling, adds, “College students are especially susceptible to stress because they’re in a new environment with entirely different expectations than what they’ve previously experienced.” So, if college is majorly stressing you out right now, go easy on yourself — you’re dealing with a lot!
“Some of the most common stressors for college students include exams, papers, money, relationships, and concerns about their future,” Bell says. “Because of these added concerns, it’s important to take steps to reduce stress before it even starts.”
Academics, Relationships, & Choosing A Career Path Are All Common Stressors.
Ashley Hudson, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist, says there are many common stressors for college students, and it’s important to recognize what factors are contributing to your stress. “Any change or adjustment can cause stress on the body,” she tells Her Campus. “Moving, living in a new location, changing friend groups, starting a new school, increasing difficulty in academics, and living on your own can cause emotional, physical, and mental stress on the body.”
According to Hudson, the social transition can be especially difficult for students: “When you mix adjusting to the ‘real world,’ making new friendships and outgrowing old friendships, adjusting to the new college environment, and managing expectations, college students can bear a lot of stress,” Hudson says. “You might be drifting apart from childhood/high school friendships and figuring out where you belong amongst the college crowd.”
Additionally, she says that leaving your childhood home and moving to a new city or campus can bring about new challenges. “It’s not easy leaving the safety net of your childhood home to be expected to live on your own, stay on top of your responsibilities, and miraculously become an adult overnight.”
As a college student, not only are you navigating a brand-new lifestyle, but you’re also figuring out your major and career path — which can lead to persistent anxiety about the future. Are you in the “right” major? What if you want to change your major halfway through the year? What if you have no idea what career path you want?
“College students are feeling lonely, scared of wondering if they are going to make it in the career world, not feeling like they belong, and anxious if they are going to meet their expectations or their parent’s expectations of becoming the adult they ‘need’ to be,” Hudson says. If any of these common stressors are running through your mind, it’s easy to feel confused and isolated. However, it’s pretty common for students, and you’re not alone.
So, Here Are Some Ways To Deal With College Stress…
Whether you experience acute stress before a big event like public speaking or more chronic stress that feels like it never goes away, there are a variety of things you can do to cope.
“Some people use stress relief techniques such as yoga or meditation,” Bell tells Her Campus. “Others find that talking to friends or family members about their stressors helps to relieve some of the tension.” She also mentions exercise, self-care, and relaxation as key ways to reduce your stress levels over time. Remember: Stress reduction is a marathon, not a sprint, and it usually takes some time to start building healthy habits.
For college students who are super busy 24/7, practicing good time management techniques can also be a big way to manage stress in everyday life (yes, those viral TikTok hacks for school might actually come in handy!). Think about it: When you’re on top of your deadlines, assignments, and schedule, you leave less room for last-minute stressful moments and surprises. Bell says that when healthy time management is combined with caring for your physical health, you’re more likely to manage stress better in the long term.
“It can be beneficial for college students to focus on time management techniques and physical health,” she says. “Setting study times and sticking to them, taking breaks in between studying sessions, eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, sleeping at least 6-8 hours every night, and managing stress levels by establishing stress relief techniques such as meditation or yoga can all help to reduce stress.”
When it comes to the universal experience of stress, it’s all about finding coping mechanisms that work for you and align with your lifestyle. Maybe you can’t make it to a daily yoga class, but you can take a longer route while walking to class on Mondays to get some steps in. Maybe it’s a matter of booking a quiet room in the library, or having a study party with your friends in the lounge while baking cookies to help you feel a bit calmer. Explore different options that work for you, and notice how you feel. If you’re experiencing stress right now or know someone who is, here are more tangible ways to cope:
Label & Identify Your Feelings.
While the fight-or-flight response associated with stress can immediately send us into a panicked spiral, Dr. Ring says it’s important to pause and identify what, exactly, you’re feeling. Is it acute stress, ongoing anxiety, or something else? Are you experiencing a relationship conflict that might be contributing to your current feelings? Do you have a big midterm coming up? Maybe you have a big presentation coming up, or there’s an important deadline looming and you’re struggling to find time to complete your assignments. Noticing what is causing your stress can be the first step in learning how to best cope with it.
“Identify and name what you’re feeling as stress and anxiety,” Dr. Ring says. “If these issues are significantly impacting your quality of life and ability to cope, it’s important to know that and seek out the resources to support you.” Dr. Ring also mentions that it’s important to be gentle on yourself during difficult times; after all, stress is universal, especially in college, and you’re not alone in what you’re going through. “Self-compassion is key,” she says.
Find A Healthy, Supportive Community.
Speaking of not being alone, one of the most underrated ways to reduce stress is to find a supportive, healthy community to lean on. “Connecting with others can remove some of the sense of ‘being alone’ in what you’re experiencing,” Dr. Ring says. “Whether it’s one-on-one with a friend, through online social groups, or with a college-offered student wellness program, sharing what you’re feeling and hearing how others are coping can ease the burden.”
While college can be a great opportunity to make social connections, it can also be daunting to carve out a community for yourself. If you’re experiencing social anxiety or having trouble making friends, try attending a new extracurricular activity or simply seeking out what you’re passionate about on campus. You’d be surprised at the people you’ll meet with common interests, not to mention the number of people who are probably searching for new friends, too!
Try Mindfulness & Mind-body Practices.
Practicing mindfulness and mind-body approaches like yoga and meditation are popular stress relief activities these days, and according to research on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mind-body interventions can be beneficial for reducing your stress levels over the long term. One of the most profound aspects of these practices is that they can help you deal with uncertainty and decision-making, which according to the APA, are issues plaguing Americans as the pandemic rages on in 2021.
“Mind-body approaches like mindful meditation help by practicing the skill of being able to sit with uncertainty,” says Dr. Ring. “Explore some free apps available like Smiling Mind, UCLA Mindful, and the Healthy Minds Program.” If you’re interested in exploring mind-body practices like meditation but are short on time, apps like Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm are fun, user-friendly, and easy to play from your phone in between classes – a major plus for any busy college student these days.
Incorporate Movement & Exercise Into Your College Schedule.
By now, it’s no secret that movement and exercise can be powerful (and fun!) ways to reduce stress. 2022 research published in JAMA Internal Medicine even shows that daily physical activity can have a direct impact on your life expectancy. Whether it’s taking a 5-minute stretch break in between video calls or dancing to your favorite song during your lunch hour, don’t forget to move your body and incorporate some physical activity into your day — no matter how busy it is, or how long you might be required to sit at a desk.
“Exercise is a known stress reliever and can be as powerful as medication when it comes to supporting your mood,” Dr. Ring says. “If your campus gym is off-limits, you can still take advantage of online classes and find thousands of ways to sweat out your stress.” Dr. Ring recommends a YouTube channel like Yoga With Adriene or another free resource that can provide a movement break amidst your busy college schedule.
Moderate Your Caffeine, Sugar, & Alcohol Intake.
Although many students probably can’t imagine their day without a yummy cup of coffee, Dr. Ring says it’s important to be mindful of your caffeine intake during college, since it can have an impact on your stress levels. Often, caffeine can elevate your cortisol levels and potentially lead to negative health impacts over time. Additionally, the side effects of your “caffeine boost” itself have a tendency to mimic symptoms of stress and anxiety (think: heart racing), which can lead you to many feel even more stressed out than before!
“Cut down (or eliminate) caffeine, sugar, and alcohol,” Dr. Ring recommends. “Any temporary sense of comfort comes with a harmful impact on our adrenals and ability to cope with stress, depression, and anxiety.” That said, it’s important to remember that everyone’s body is different and will subsequently react differently to different things — so, it’s all about finding what works for you. In some cases, that might mean approaching caffeine, sugar, and alcohol in moderation or simply noticing how each substance makes you feel. You may think that you need to rely on coffee for that long study session, but try switching from a venti to a tall cup, and see what happens — you may be surprised at what you find!
Dr. Ring says that if you’re experiencing ongoing stress, vitamins and supplements may be another helpful option. “Adaptogenic herbs and calming supplements like ashwagandha, lemon balm, theanine, and magnesium can support your emotional well-being,” she says. “While these are available over the counter, it’s best to use them under the recommendation of a provider who can ensure you’re using them safely.” Note: You should always consult a doctor before trying a new supplement or substance.
Make Time To Relax & Get Enough Sleep.
There’s no doubt that college can be a stressful time, with many students reporting ongoing anxiety, burnout, and uncertainty about the future. And while the term “self-care” can seem overused these days, carving out intentional time to relax can be a total game-changer for your college experience.
“Many people find that setting aside time each day for relaxation activities, such as reading or listening to music, can help lessen stress levels,” says Bell. The key is to find something that genuinely makes you feel good and allows you to unwind — whether it’s getting outside in nature, hitting up a café with a friend, or watching a funny video to get your mind off of schoolwork for a few minutes. No matter what you decide on, don’t feel guilty for taking a break. It’s not only helpful for stress reduction, but it’s necessary for your long-term wellness!
Speaking of rest, how is your sleep schedule lately? Stress and sleep are closely linked, so make note of how many hours you’re sleeping each night and the quality of your sleep experience. For example, you might be sleeping enough each night, but are you forever staying up late dreading tomorrow’s to-do list, or endlessly scrolling through TikTok into the wee hours of the morning? Are you checking your email first thing in the AM and immediately getting stressed about all of your responsibilities? Getting quality sleep is more than how many hours you’re sleeping for; notice the everyday routines around your sleep schedule, and if you’re struggling with sleep, check out psychologist-approved tips for what to do.
Seek Therapy & Professional Help.
No one is meant to experience college alone, and if you’re dealing with a lot of stress right now, know that it’s normal (and recommended) to seek professional help — whether it’s working with a doctor, therapist, coach, mentor, or simply having someone in your corner who can support and hold you accountable for your wellness.
“If stress becomes unmanageable on your own, it is important to reach out and get help,” says Bell, who supports clients in her private therapy practice, Mosaic Minds Counseling. “Most schools will have mental health resources available to you,” she says, so don’t be afraid to visit your campus counseling center or see what drop-in support groups or workshops are available.
“Know when you need professional help,” adds Dr. Ring. “Many therapists and psychiatrists — whether through your school or independently — are doing teletherapy, which makes it easier to access options for therapy and medication support.” Whether it’s doing weekly therapy over Zoom or speaking to a trusted mentor who can provide helpful guidance, remember that there are trained professionals ready to support you — with stress, mental health, and more.
At the end of the day, stress is a universal experience that everyone can relate to, whether you’re a high school senior going to college for the first time, or you just graduated and are figuring out how to “adult” in the real world. However, stress during college is one of the hardest things to experience, from juggling your class schedule with your social life and navigating how to be independent for the first time. No matter what type of stress you’re experiencing right now — whether acute or ongoing — remember, you are not alone, and there are many practices to try that can help you manage it. Start with the above tips the next time you notice your stress getting the best of you, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ve got this!