The transition from high school to college can be an arduous experience, not least because college students are thrown into a high pressure environment, often without the necessary skills to manage heightened levels of stress. While overburdened college administrators and mental health counselors across North America struggle to address this issue in a tangible way, most students are left to their own devices in navigating increased expectations and workloads.
The current epidemic of stress and anxiety can have serious impacts on your health and/or success as a student. While it is almost impossible for some people to avoid some periods of high stress and anxiety while learning to navigate multiple deadlines, exams, or work and other extracurricular commitments, there are tried and proven ways to address and manage these symptoms in order to succeed, while continuing to live a healthy lifestyle.
The Science Behind Stress
Stress is a natural hormonal reaction that your body uses to deal with increased pressure or perceived threats. When the body is under stress, signals to the brain spur the production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which temporarily increase energy by triggering the release of glucose in the bloodstream, raising your blood pressure and heart rate, and allowing you to fight or run away when necessary. This process also tends to slow other bodily functions, such as digestion, that are not immediately needed.
Small levels of stress on a daily basis are healthy and necessary; it’s what motivates you to get to your early morning classes, or finish your assignments by a given deadline. However, long term high levels of stress can lead to myriad physical problems, such as headaches and high blood pressure, and more rarely, can result in a heart attack or stroke, even among young people.
Studies have also found that long-term stress can weaken the immune system over time, leaving students susceptible to viral infections. Since stress also slows non-vital functions like digestion, it can contribute to a variety of digestive disorders and to the accumulation of body fat, as well as cravings for typically unhealthy foods like salt and sugar. Chronic stress can also wreak havoc on students’ mental health, increasing feelings of anger, fear, and paranoia, and can lead to anxiety disorders and depression.
How much Stress is too Much?
So if it’s normal and necessary to feel a certain level of stress every day, how do we know if what we’re experiencing is too much? The following are six telltale signs that your stress might be out of the normal range:
- You’re experiencing difficulty concentrating. Overwhelming feelings of stress or anxiety are preventing you from buckling down on the tasks you need to get done. Not being able to complete the tasks you need to get done causes you further stress, and this vicious cycle prevents you from getting the relief you need.
- You’re increasingly agitated and have a shorter temper. Stress is disrupting your social life and you find that your more easily annoyed by your friends and family. Even small requests or annoyances that wouldn’t have fazed you in the slightest now cause you to snap at your loved ones or strangers.
- Your eating habits have changed. Where your eating used to be controlled and moderate, you are now ‘stress eating,’ or seeking short term relief in the form of a bag of chips or box of cookies. Alternatively, food just looks unappetizing to you now; stress has caused a constant and faint nauseating feeling in your stomach and thought of eating anything is unpleasant.
- You’re getting more headaches and getting sick more frequently. You’re more susceptible to headaches than you used to be, and you might have a nagging cold that just won’t go away.
- Nothing feels easy or fun for you anymore. Life has become a series of deadlines and commitments, and it feels as though you’re trudging through your days. The feeling of overwhelmedness that you used to get just before a tight deadline are prolonged and now feel like a fixture of everyday life. It is affecting your social life, and things you used to enjoy are tinged with thoughts of stress or anxiety.
- Your sleeping habits have changed. You’re constantly exhausted by long days at school and work, but assignments, deadlines, and other issues are racing through your head and keeping you up when it’s finally time to sleep. You may be too anxious to fall asleep, and even if you do manage to get your eight hours, you still feel under-rested and exhausted during the day.
8 Tips to Help Manage Stress in College
If you’ve identified that you’re feeling more stress than what’s normal, then you’re probably next wondering what it is you can do about it. Even if you don’t feel that your stress levels are out of hand, the following techniques can help keep those feelings in check and ensure that your college experience is a healthy and happy one. Here are 8 tips to help you manage your stress through long days of working and studying:
- Acknowledge and Identify the Sources of Stress: Sometimes there are so many things going on — school, work, extracurriculars, and a complicated social life — that you’re not exactly sure how to pinpoint the sources of stress in your life. Try writing down exactly when and by what you feel your stress is being triggered. Maybe you feel that your peers you are getting by more easily, and maybe you don’t feel that you’re measuring up? Or is it that you have too many commitments and too little time? Or perhaps that you feel that however much you study for a test, it doesn’t seem to yield the grades that you’d hoped for. Writing down exactly what you think causes your feelings of stress is the first step to being able to manage it.
- Get some Sleep: Feelings of stress and inability to sleep can create a rather vicious cycle, in which inability to sleep causes you more stress, and more stress increasingly prevents you from getting the rest you need. Breaking the cycle may be easier than you think. First, try creating some distance between your work and the time you go to bed. Give your mind and body some time to wind down after a hard day’s work or study, and commit yourself to a regular sleep schedule. At a certain point, the benefit to your grade that you’ll get from completing a homework assignment isn’t worth the damage it might do by reducing your cognition in class tomorrow. Getting proper sleep will sometimes be a better long term investment for your academic success than staying up all night to finish. Research is clear that a lack of sleep can impair memory and reasoning abilities, so cutting into your sleep will only make academic commitments more difficult to fulfill. The more clear-minded you feel, the more efficiently you’ll be able to get through your work and stress less. If you’re having trouble sleeping, check out Spire’s posts on how to fix your sleep cycle and some meditations for insomnia.
- Get Some Exercise: Finding the time and energy to exercise while you’re stressed out over a deadline might feel impossible, but you won’t regret it once you get up and moving. Exercise helps use up built up energy caused by sustained stress, and it works to release endorphins — your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters — as well as improve sleep, improve alertness and concentration, and enhance your cognitive functions. Regular exercise can also boost your self-confidence and make you feel more prepared for the challenges ahead. Finally, exercise is extremely effective at combating general anxiety, therefore decreasing stress.
- Eat Healthy (and Avoid Giving into Unhealthy Cravings): When you’re feeling stressed out, sluggish, and short on time, turning to junk food and caffeine might seem like an easy and quick solution. It is important to know that while caffeine provides your mind with short-term feelings of wakefulness, it can also elevate your body’s stress response. And while students may think to turn to alcohol and junk food to help alleviate stressful feelings, the short-term relaxation from alcohol or large quantities of unhealthy foods are vastly outweighed by their adverse health effects. Following a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains will help your body feel at its top shape, strengthen your immune system, and may alleviate physical stress on your body.
- Breathe and Practice Meditation: You might feel that your mind and body are racing from the moment you wake up to the moment you got to sleep. Finding time to practice meditation and breathing techniques can help you calm your body and mind. These techniques have been shown to provide number of emotional benefits, and can help you actively manage your stress and anxiety. Meditation and mindful breathing in the morning and/or night could help bring you a sense of calm and peace before and after tackling a fast-paced and stressful day. Here are some handy meditations to help you get started right away.
- Find an outlet : Find a non-academic activity that brings you joy or calm, and make time for it. This could be baking with friends, joining intramural sports teams, or finding another hobby or social club that you do just for the fun of it. Remembering that there is life and happiness outside of school can help alleviate some of the intense pressure you feel from your studies, and doing something that you’re passionate about can help combat feelings of stress and anxiety. We recommend trying out yoga.
- Seek help: If self-help strategies don’t seem to reduce your levels of stress, it might be time to seek help. Often, talking out your feelings of stress or overwhelmedness can help reduce those feelings. Turn to friends and family if you need a comforting presence to turn to. If you feel that you are struggling with a specific course or topic, try sitting down and talking with your professor. Schools also often have resources to connect you with a mental health worker on or off campus.
- Think Positively, and Remember that There is Life after School: It’s important to recognize the role that your thoughts and expectations play in causing you stress. While your final exams may sometimes feel like a life or death situation (we’ve all been there!), try to remember that your success in school or the grade you get in one course doesn’t define the person you are and represents only a narrow definition of academic potential and intelligence.
College is can be an exhilarating time in a person’s life, and it shouldn’t be mired by overstress. Putting aside a few hours a week or month towards stress relief can ensure that college students are getting good grades and enjoying the special time that is college. For frequent reminders and support, you can try Spire, which seamlessly integrates into busy student life to provide constant stress relief.