College and Stress
The good, the bad, and tips for keeping it in check
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 20 million students currently attend U.S. colleges and universities. Like their parents before them, many will look back at college as the best time of their lives. Others however, may not recall their time so fondly. For too many students, college today can be an endless cycle of worry and stress—stress that unaddressed, can become debilitating.
Eighty percent of U.S. college students reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, according to a recent study conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And while each student experiences college in his or her own way, there are a number of common factors that can contribute to high levels of stress. For most, this is the first time away from home, and saying goodbye to the security of family and friends can be unsettling. Developing new friendships and learning to live with strangers is often a huge adjustment, and maintaining or ending long-distance personal relationships—particularly as young adults—can be trying. Add to that costly education expenses, a burdensome academic workload, and changes to patterns in sleeping, eating and drinking, and it’s easy to see how students can become overwhelmed with stress.
The news about stress however, is not all bad. Research indicates that short-term stress does have some benefits. According to University of Alabama Birmingham’s Dr. Richard Shelton, learning to deal with stressful situations can make students more resilient by providing them with opportunities to develop their physical and psychological senses of control. Stress can also boost immunity by producing extra interleukins, chemicals that help regulate the immune system. Known as eustress, Dr. Shelton says, “Good stress can motivate students to succeed by stimulating their behavior to manage situations effectively, rapidly and more productively. The key is viewing a stressful situation as a challenge to be met, rather than an overwhelming, unpassable roadblock.”
Dr. Phil Quinn of South Shore Mental Health’s Bayview Associates Counseling agrees, adding that understanding their response to stress—whether emotional, behavioral, or cognitive—helps students recognize when they are actually under stress. He also offers the following tips for keeping stress in check during college.
Don’t think of change as negative. Change can be positive and can lead to new and exciting things.
Plan out study periods and time for writing papers. If you need to develop skills or need extra help, talk to your professors or your advisor.
Eat and drink healthy
Make smart food choices. Avoid high fat, processed, and greasy fast foods. Remember, healthy foods increase energy and fast foods drain our energy. Limit alcohol consumption and avoid drug use.
Aerobic exercises like walking, jogging, dancing, and swimming increase our ability to resist stress. Work out with weights. When we strengthen our muscles, we look better and feel better.
Play a sport for fun
Join an intramural team. Most colleges have dozens to choose from—like pickup basketball or Frisbee.
Make it a point to relax
Practice relaxation, meditation, or yoga. If you’ve never done it, find a free class or group on campus.
Take mini stress breaks
Several times a day, stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and visualize a relaxing scene. Think positive thoughts about yourself. Positive affirmations can help to counter potentially stressful or negative situations.
Socialize and have fun
Make new friends, and plan to get together on a regular basis. Join a school club or organization. Keep in touch with old friends. Taking time to have fun can help balance school, work, and play.
Dr. Quinn emphasizes that it’s important to locate mental health resources on campus for help with stress, anxiety, depression, and other conditions that left untreated, can make an already-challenging time in life more difficult. With budget restrictions affecting many colleges and universities and a growing number of students pursuing higher education, it’s crucial for students to know where to turn in times of crisis. They may never need it, but knowing that help is just across the quad can provide peace-of-mind throughout these pivotal years.
During the weeks ahead, when many students are home for the holidays, making time for family should be a priority. In addition to delivering students a much-needed break from their studies, time with family offers parents the opportunity to check in with their children, determine if they are struggling—and if so—develop a plan that best supports them as they continue to learn and grow.
Best wishes for a healthy and happy holiday season,
South Shore Mental Health
P.S. Many colleges and universities offer students and employees the opportunity to learn how to recognize and assist someone experiencing a mental health crisis. To learn more about Mental Health First Aid, contact Kathleen Bambrick.