Cause of Stress in College Students Guide

Experiencing college life as an adult and acclimating to the numerous and varied types of demands can be a truly overwhelming experience.

November 11, 2021

Cause of Stress in College Students Guide

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What Causes Stress in College Students

In the guide that follows, students will learn about common forms of stress encountered in college, what causes stress in the first place, how stress manifests itself in college students, meditation and mindfulness, and what to look for if a student feels he/she or a friend may be in over their head. The guide also provides a comprehensive list of resources to help students navigate this time of transition and graduate as happy and healthy adults.

As an incoming college freshman, experiencing life as an adult and acclimating to the numerous and varied types of demands placed on them can be a truly overwhelming experience. It can also lead to unhealthy amounts of stress. A report by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 80 percent of college students frequently or sometimes experience daily stress. With a growing pressure to do it all and be successful, students must learn how to healthfully identify and manage stress points to maintain balance throughout their collegiate career. Thankfully, this guide was designed to provide insight on how to do just that.

Identifying and Understanding Stressors

Once reaching college, students may encounter a multitude of stressors, some of which they may have dealt with in high school and others that may be a new experience for them. With so many new experiences, responsibilities, social settings, and demands on their time, it’s normal and expected to feel overwhelmed and anxious at times; the key component is knowing how to alleviate stress in a healthful manner. In his groundbreaking 1979 book Stress and the Manager, Dr. Karl Albrect identified four main types of stress. Each of these will be delved into in further detail below.

  • Time Stress

    This type of stress revolves around concerns about time – most frequently the lack of time to accomplish all that needs to be done in a given timeframe. Students, especially early in their collegiate careers, often experience time stress as they adjust to a larger workload and more significant demands from their professors and classes. This type of stress may also manifest in a concern for being places on time. Especially for students who attend a large college, navigating a new campus during their first few months can often leave them racing around and worrying they’ll be late to classes or meetings with advisors.

  • Anticipatory Stress

    Usually felt in conjunction with concerns about the future, anticipatory stress appears in both specific and vague manifestations. For some students, anticipatory stress is brought about when thinking about an upcoming test or presentation; for others, it can be an overall feeling of trepidation about what’s coming next. This form of stress is often triggered by a lack of confidence or an overall sense of fear about failing in some way. Many students may experience anticipatory stress during their final year of college as they begin to look for jobs or plan their next move after graduation.

  • Situational Stress

    While the two preceding forms of stress may be prolonged over a long stretch of time, situational stress tends to be sudden and overwhelming. The common thread amongst all forms of this type of stress is feeling a lack of control. Whether manifesting as an emergency, a sudden conflict, or making a mistake in front of peers, it happens quickly and students will feel they have no power to change what is happening. Other common examples in college could be failing a test, fighting with a roommate, receiving a scary call from home, or getting in a wreck.

  • Encounter Stress

    Stress of this nature is unique in its trigger points being specific to seeing people. Students experiencing encounter stress frequently identify as introverts, but extroverts may also share in these feelings. Moments of stress are likely to come out when being required to interact with a certain person or group of people, be it unfriendly classmates, hostile roommates, or intimidating professors. Students who work during their studies may also feel stress over interacting with a large number of customers while also trying to balance their studies. This type of encounter stress is often known as “contact overload” and originates from feelings of being drained from being in contact with too many people over a set amount of time.

Interview with a College Stress Expert

Dr. Traci Lowenthal has extensive experience working with college students to manage their stress levels and understand trigger points. She currently serves as the owner and Creative Insights Counseling.

Q. What are the main causes of stress that you've seen in college students?

The main stressors I’ve witnessed in first year students are: New living environment, first time living independently from family, and difficulty making decisions independently. Being required to manage sleep and hygiene on their own can sometimes create stress. Students are attempting to balance a heavier academic load than high school while trying to connect socially with an entirely new group of individuals as well as being in charge of their own care. The availability of alcohol, drugs and sexual freedom is often a struggle for students too. For students who have previous mental health concerns, college can be the first time they need to manage their own medication schedules as well.

Do points of stress change as students move through college, and if so, in what ways?

They can. Some students struggle the first semester and begin to really blossom and enjoy the process of college after that, while others do less well for the first couple of years. Stress can be re-experienced as each year brings new housing issues and academic changes. Also, changes in family outside of the school environment can impact students. Divorce, illness, death, changes in residence, pet loss are all things that students may experience during their time in school.

Q. As students transition out of college and into the real world, what stress points do they need to be aware of?

Many of the same points! There is the added stress of needing to know, “what am I doing with the rest of my life?” The end of college can create a significant amount of stress for students particularly if they are uncertain of a career path. I try to remind students that it’s okay to not know – but important to begin exploring what they are interested in. There are sometimes feelings of loss and pressure as graduation nears. Our society puts a lot of pressure on students and suggests that college is “The Best 4 Years of Your Life.” College and the transitions in and out can be a struggle for many. Being patient with yourself, practicing good self-care, and seeking additional support when necessary will go a long way toward reducing the stress of both transitions.

Dr. Steve Langerud has worked with over 15,000 clients on professional and educational transitions while serving as the Dean of a highly selective national liberal arts college, Assistant Dean of a top tier law school, and a Director of Global Development. He now runs his own consulting firm.

Q. What have you identified as the top three points of stress in college students?

In the past 25 years of closely working with college students, I have found key areas of stress: The first is identity, the second is purpose, and the third is finances.

Q. How can students effectively deal with stress throughout their college experience?

  • 1. Identify a purpose.

    On the outside students may like to look like they don't care but from my experience, a lack of purpose manifests in many other ways. What do you want your life to look like when you are done with college.
  • 2. Your major is often the least important of your decisions!

    Focus on skills you will use in the workplace. Any workplace.
  • 3. Take care of your brain

    Eat, sleep, and exercise well. They all feed your brain.
  • 4. Find a contemplative practice to provide quiet time for your brain

    Look to high performing business executives, athletes, and celebrities who practice Transcendental Meditation.
  • 5. Be clear about who you are as a person and student

    Know your values and what lines you will or will not cross.
  • 6. Talk about money

    Understand how much college costs, how you will pay for it, and what you will get out of it. Engage your family, friends, and college administration in the discussion.
  • 7. Create relationships.

    You have to succeed in college by yourself, but you don't do it alone. Engage others as friends, mentors, and advisors. It makes it easier when you share the stress.

What Causes Stress Among College Students?

Whether concerned about a tough class, missing a younger sibling, or trying to figure out their next steps after graduation, myriad causes can trigger stress in college students. While they may have experienced stress during earlier years, college stress can be particularly difficult as students are frequently trying to balance many different and new responsibilities and experiences, leaving them feeling stretched thin and moving in an unknown territory. One of the best things students can do is learn how to identify what is causing their stress and develop health ways of dealing with or alleviating pressure points. Some of the most common causes of stress are defined below.

  • Living away from home/living among strangers


    Most college freshman have been anticipating being on their own for what feels like years: finally achieving independence, setting their own rules, and not having a curfew may seem like the ultimate accomplishment while still in high school. Once reaching college and letting the excitement wear off, many students can experience high levels of homesickness. Being away from families for extended amounts of time can bring up many feelings of sadness, while continually sharing space with a new roommate who doesn’t understand a student’s need for space or privacy can quickly elevate levels of anxiety.
  • Academic demands and test anxiety


    Concerns about academic performance are one of the most common trigger points of stress for college students. Whether stemming from parental pressures, scholarship requirements, postgraduate demands, or personal expectations, concerns over maintaining a certain grade level or doing well on a test plague countless students. Some students also experience huge amounts of anxiety over taking a test; though they may have studied for hours on end and know the material forwards and backwards, actually sitting down to answer questions about their knowledge can be a massive source of fear.
  • Finances


    The exponentially rising cost of college is a topic frequently in the headlines. Crippling amounts of debt can leave even the most industrious and motivated student feeling hopeless and anxious about their finances. Even during college, many students are anxious about the debt they are racking up on everyday costs such as schoolbooks, meal plans, and general living expenses. Some students may try to work either on-campus or nearby while also enrolled full-time to offset some of the costs. While this plan works for some students, particularly those in their later years who have learned to manage other forms of stress, trying to do it all frequently leads to burnout and even more anxiety.
  • Post graduation plans


    As graduation looms, many students in their final year of undergraduate studies can feel pressure to figure out what they’re doing after completing their degree. Whether imposed by family, friends, or one’s self, being faced with such a significant decision while also trying to do well in upper-level classes and internships can frequently push students over the edge. Whether planning to move directly into an entry-level role or undertake more education, the decision can feel paralyzing and even irreversible in the moment. Speaking with peers who seem to have effortlessly figured it all out already only adds to anxious feelings.
  • Roommate negotiations and mediation


    While some students are lucky enough to either not have a roommate or get on really well with their assigned partner, most will encounter some level of conflict or need for compromise will living together, especially in a dormitory-style room. Many freshman dorms will place two or three students together in one open-floor plan room, with community bathrooms available on each floor. With varied schedules, interests, friend groups, sleep patterns, and expectations of a roommate, it’s more than likely that at some point during the year, tensions will rise.
  • Relationships (family and romantic)


    As students enter college, a number of their relationships shift and take on new forms. With parents, it can mean navigating the surrender of power and students subsequent ability to be responsible. If parents are paying for college, talks about finances can be particularly stressful. In romantic relationships, for students who came to college with preexisting partners, learning if they want to do long-distance and how to accomplish that can be a major stress, as both are adjusting to the pressures of different school environments. For the single student, they may often feel stress to find a boyfriend or girlfriend as all of their friends are partnering together.

How Stress Affects Students

In 2010, a national survey of college students was conducted to gain insight into stress levels and how those were affecting them both academically and personally. The results were both staggering and grim: one in five participants had considered dropping out of school due to stress and at some point had felt to stressed to study or spend time with friends. While in 1985, 64 percent of incoming freshman considered their emotional health to be above average, today that number has dropped to 52 percent. College students are feeling pressure to succeed on all fronts like never before, and it’s taking a toll on their overall health. Keep reading to learn how stress affects students in various ways.

  • Physical

    Stress affecting the body can take on many forms and quickly accelerate into a serious problem. Some of the most physical symptoms of stress include skin issues such as eczema or psoriasis; heart conditions like hypertension or heart disease; body pains in the back or neck; stomach-related pains such as ulcers, nausea, or digestion problems; sexual dysfunction and lack of sex drive; ulcers or sore gums in the mouth; and sleep issues like insomnia, foggy brain or headaches.
  • Emotional

    Emotional stress can sometimes wreak the most havoc on students, as they feel helpless to control their feelings and things begin to spiral. Emotional stress can manifest itself as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, weight gain, substance abuse, sadness, palpitations, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Cognitive

    Students experiencing stress through cognitive functions may have trouble focusing or remembering things; feel irritable, frustrated, or restless; be easily confused; have an internal dialogue of negative reinforcement about themselves; lose their sense of humor; have trouble sleeping or waking; never have enough energy; or experience lots of mood swings.
  • Behavioral

    While behavioral signs tend to be more unique to the person, some of the most common symptoms include being absent or withdrawn; showing up late to class or meetings; being exhausted; eating unhealthily; engaging in risky behavior; being excessive or showing signs of addiction; getting into accidents; or contemplating suicide.

Do’s and Don’ts of Stress in College

As a college student, stress is sometimes inevitable. Whether it’s an assignment you put off until the day before, a pop quiz, or navigating relationships, there will be unavoidable moments of pressure at some point. One of the most important aspects of adequately dealing with moments of stress is to create a healthy balance in your everyday life. By treating yourself well at all times, you won’t be as susceptible to the lingering effects of stress. Here’s a list of some of our best do’s and don’ts when it comes to stress.

DO

Without question, ample amounts of sound sleep are one of the most important components of maintaining a health mental and physical state. While most professionals recommend at least seven hours of sleep, the number depends on the individual: if you need nine to feel your best, then get nine. It’s also important to set healthy bedtime routines to ensure the hours of sleep you do get are worthwhile. Try to turn off all technology an hour before, and have a set sleeping and waking time if possible to get your body acclimated. Whenever you feel a negative thought about yourself popping into your head, counter with a positive encouragement. Rather than getting down about not getting the exact grade you wanted on a recent test, focus on the kind word you received from a professor. Keeping yourself in the right frame of mind during stressful times can mean the difference between it being a short episode or a spiral into chronic stress. While these will take on different forms for different people depending on their personalities and temperaments, having an outlet to pull you away from a stressful situation can really help you reframe the issue at hand and gain clarity about how to healthfully proceed. Common stress outlets include journaling, exercising, being out in nature, or having coffee with a friend. It doesn’t have to take long – even five minutes away from a pressure point can help to regain focus and formulate a plan. Stress is known to cause tension in the body – whether manifesting in a stiff neck or shoulders, a headache, or something more serious, finding a way to release this tension and relax your body and mind can really take the pressure off. Meditation is a great tool for centering your thoughts and releasing stress, as is yoga or other mindful exercises. Sometimes it’s also good to simply laugh for a few minutes and loosen up your mind and body. Watch a funny YouTube video or catch up with a friend from home, you’ll feel more relaxed after. If you’ve tried various techniques listed above and still can’t seem to get the upper hand on stress, it may be time to speak to a counselor or trained stress consultant. These professionals can provide a wealth of tools and resources for dealing with trigger points and finding healthy coping mechanisms for stressful times. They may even help you identify points of stress in your life that you may not have identified previously. All colleges should have a trained therapist on staff, as well as a health and wellness center.

DON'T

While we have all overloaded on coffee at some point to push through an all-nighter or get us through the day, it’s important to monitor your caffeine intake, especially during stressful times. Caffeine is a stimulant and can mask other issues such as exhaustion or anxiety, allowing them to grow into much more significant problems before they are actually recognized and treated. While some caffeine is actually good for the body, try to limit yourself to one or two cups each day, maximum. Students who are struggling with stress or anxiety often don’t want to spend time alone as they worry that facing pressure points or stressful thoughts will be too exasperating. While this is a valid reason, studying exclusively with friends also means you’re unlikely to get nearly as much done, leading to an even higher level of stress. When studying with friends, it’s easy to keep chatting or get off topic and realize you’ve been sitting for hours without having much to show for it academically. Instead of spending countless hours half-studying, try to dedicate time to do your schoolwork in a quiet space and meet up with them later to do something that’s actually a fun group activity. We’ve all heard the phrase “work hard, play hard” and while this mentality is certainly prevalent in college, taking it too far can have serious consequences. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 150,000 college students experience a health problem related to alcohol, while between one and two percent of all students said they had attempted suicide within the last year because of substance abuse. The college experience almost always includes alcohol, but it’s important to remember to be balanced in consumption and not rely on alcohol or other substances to take away the burden of stress. Procrastination is the hallmark of all college experiences at one point or another, and taking breaks during stressful times is an important way to replenish your mind and body. Procrastination takes this idea a little too far, though, and can often leave students feeling exasperated and incapable of focusing on their work. Rather than sitting for hours on end trying to force work out or putting it off until the last minutes and then rushing to finish it, try to create a structured timeline that allows you to complete assignments in different stages. By breaking up a large task into smaller components, you’re less likely to feel as overwhelmed. Whether originating from their parents, their mentors or themselves, students feel a lot of pressure to succeed academically. With the economic downtown still looming in the back of our minds, it’s easy to get stressed out about keeping up grades and landing a good job at graduation. Though it may seem like it makes sense to put pressure on yourself to do your best, a study by the University of Minnesota found that excessive amounts of stress can actually make students fair more poorly than they would if maintaining a healthy school:life balance.

Where to Find Help on Campus

The good news is that college campuses across the nation are recognizing the damaging effects of stress on academic performance and everyday life and are working to provide resources to alleviate pressure points. Some of the common resources offered at colleges and universities today include:

  • Counseling


    All colleges should have a full time counselor or therapist available to help students identify their points of stress and move toward more healthy habits. In many cases, this is a free resource available to all students and staff.
  • Mental Health Resources


    In addition to counseling services, many universities will have a number of mental health services, such as free online screenings, workshops, tips for building healthy coping mechanisms, or relaxation techniques.
  • Exercise Facilities


    Colleges almost always have a gym available for student use, including a variety of cardio machines and weights. In some cases, classes such as yoga or Pilates may also be offered.
  • Group Sports


    Intramural sports teams are a great way to get away from stress and get your endorphins flowing. Even if it’s just one game a week, it will help to refocus and come back feeling fresh.
  • Substance Abuse Support


    Students who find themselves turning to excessive drinking or substance abuse can turn to their school’s support programs. Whether it’s a counselor who specializes in substance abuse or other resources, these programs are free to enrolled students.
  • Meditation Areas


    Oregon State University’s Mind Spais a great example of a college providing outlets for mindful relaxation and regeneration. Whether it’s a special room on campus or a more intensive program, ask your school if this is something already available or if it could be considered.

6 Signs a Student Needs Help

When students are in the throes of a heightened season of stress, they may not even recognize how badly, or immediately, they need help. If you recognize some of these signs in yourself or in someone you know, it’s time to take action without delay.

Students contemplating ending their life exhibit warning signs that can be identified if looking closely. Constant thoughts about death, general apathy, deep sadness, loss of appetite, and feelings of hopelessness are all synonymous with suicidal thoughts. Having one too many on a night out isn’t immediate cause for concern; however, if this type of behavior becomes an everyday habit as a way of coping, it’s time to seek help. Similarly, an overdependence on drugs can signal deeper troubles brewing within a student. Everyone needs downtime and a chance to recharge away from other people: it’s both normal and healthy. Trouble arises when students are so overwhelmed by stress or anxiety that they begin pulling away from social groups and lose their interest in spending time with people who normally recharge them. Irritability, anger and aggression are all warning signs of repressed or elevated feelings. If a student who has otherwise always been calm and civil has a violent outburst, it’s a sure sign something more serious is going on within them. If left unchecked, this behavior could have negative effects on those around them or could turn into self-harm. Without fail, inexplicable crying is a direct result of emotional stress and a cause for concern. Students who normally have a healthy and balanced emotional state who begin to have emotional outbursts are likely battling an internal struggle and are in need of professional help to sort out their feelings. Without fail, inexplicable crying is a direct result of emotional stress and a cause for concern. Students who normally have a healthy and balanced emotional state who begin to have emotional outbursts are likely battling an internal struggle and are in need of professional help to sort out their feelings. If you suspect a friend, roommate or peer is struggling with intense feelings of stress, there are a number of ways to approach the matter and guide them towards help. Some of the best tips include:
  • Ask

    If you think someone is struggling with the effects of stress, try to talk to them about it in a kind and open way. Approaching it out of care and concern for their well-being may help them recognize behaviors they may not have picked up on yet.

  • Remind them they aren't alone

    It’s important for students to remember that everyone feels stressed out at one point or another. It’s normal, and there are plenty of others who can empathize and provide helpful advice.

  • Point them in the right direction

    College students have access to a number of helpful services, but often may not know they exist. Consider researching available resources and telling them about ways they can seek help. You may even want to offer to go with them if it seems appropriate in the moment.

  • Check in

    Once approaching them, remember to check in and see how they are doing. Whether it was a one-time event or is a symptom of chronic stress, it will be important for them to know someone is walking alongside them while they move towards balance and health.

Additional Resources for Student Stress

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