As if the demands of being a college student weren’t stressful enough, the holidays can create a lot of additional stress and tension — family demands, financial constraints, a to-do list that doesn’t seem to have an end and, of course, attempts (followed by the usual failures) to avoid the cookie buffet and maintain your healthy weight.
Little proof is needed to argue that college students face a high amount of stress, but it may be surprising to know to what extent they experience it and how it affects them. A 2009 College Stress and Mental Health Poll by the Associated Press and MTV found that 85 percent of the 2,200 students questioned felt stress daily. Sixty percent reported feeling so much stress that they were unable to complete their work or other meet other responsibilities.
Of course, concerns about school work and grades were among the top cited causes of stress, as well as finances and relationships.
The affects of stress — and particularly chronic stress — are insidious to both overall health and mental well-being. According to WebMD, long-term stress can:
- Make you more likely to get sick more often, and can exacerbate symptoms of chronic illness.
- Contribute to high blood pressure, abnormal heartbeat, blood clots, hardening of the arteries, coronary artery disease, heart attack and heart failure.
- Create muscle tension and contribute to a worsening of arthritis symptoms.
- Exacerbate digestive symptoms.
- Increase fertility problems and disrupt a healthy menstrual cycle.
- Cause acne, psoriasis, and other skin problems.
- And much more.
Though eliminating stress may not be a realistic option as a college student, there are a number of ways that you can manage your stress levels — throughout your busy semester, the grueling finals period, and even the next holiday season.
Many health professionals counsel that some levels of stress are actually good for us. The short rush of adrenaline can enhance our performance on a test, in a race or athletic competition, or at a public appearance. Small doses of stress can improve our concentration, our clarity, and our energy. But most college students, working professionals, and parents experience much larger doses of stress over a much longer period of time. The long-term effects of such stress can start to become unrecognizable, as they become a part of our daily lives. It is, therefore, important to recognize the symptoms of stress to understand what kind of impact it may be having:
- Fast heartbeat
- Muscle pain or tension
- Back pain
- Fast breathing
- Sweating and sweaty palms
- Upset stomach, nausea, or diarrhea (or other digestive issues)
- Frequent colds or minor illness
- Loss of sex drive
Cognitive or Behavioral Symptoms
- Negative self talk or outlook
- Inability to concentrate
- Memory problems
- Constant worrying
- Irritability or short temper
- Poor judgment
- Feeling lonely or depressed
- Eating more or less
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Withdrawing from friends
- Substance abuse
Many of these symptoms can also be the result of depression or other mental conditions. Chronic stress and depression are also closely related. If you experience these symptoms, you should talk with a counselor or other mental-health professional, and you should take steps to manage the stress and other sources of anxiety or conflict in your life.
There are a number of ways that you can manage stress successfully:
Change Your Diet
You know that old saying, “You are what you eat?” Well, you may not suddenly transform into a blueberry muffin, but eating certain foods can change the way you feel (both physically and emotionally) and the way you think.
Caffeine is one the worst culprits of nutritional stress. Caffeine is a powerful drug that stimulates your nervous system (the same thing stress does) and actually increases the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body. So when you’re feeling stressed out by your approaching final and you fuel your late-night study sessions with coffee and soda, you are actually increasing your stress levels — and impeding your ability to concentrate and to retain information. Caffeine can also lead to sleep disturbances and fluctuations in blood sugar levels — both of which can lead to feelings of fatigue, inability to concentrate, lapses in memory and more.
If you’re a coffee drinker, try a cup of decaffeinated green tea for a warm and soothing drink that is also packed with health-boosting antioxidants. If cola is your guilty pleasure, drink some flavored sparkling water.
Other important changes you can make to your diet include eating regular meals (no skipping breakfast!) and snacks, limiting processed foods and sugars, and ensuring that you get a proper balance of proteins and healthy carbohydrates and fats. The key is to maintain blood sugar levels by eating nutritional, whole foods to ensure a steady level of energy, which will keep your mood balanced and ensure that you can concentrate on your work.
Exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress, in the short or the long term. Exercise can help relax muscle tension, enhance sleep, improve circulation (affecting memory and concentration), and elevate your overall mood.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, delivering more oxygen and glucose to aid in intense thought processes and concentration. Exercise also releases endorphins, contributing to an overall sense of happiness and well-being.
In Exercise for Stress Control, Dr. Michael H. Sacks says, “Exercise can be a powerful method of relaxation, and it can help people deal effectively with the stress of daily life. In various studies, researchers have found that exercise can decrease anxiety and depression, improve an individual’s self-image, and buffer people from the effects of stress.”
Exercise also acts as a kind of meditation, giving you another activity on which to focus and clear your mind of distractions and worries.
Don’t worry: Long hours on the gym aren’t necessary to combat stress. Even 20-30 minutes of moderate activity such as walking, biking, and swimming can help to alleviate stress. If you don’t have time for that, short and intense bursts of activity such as sprinting can also have immediate positive effects.
Learn to Prioritize
When you consider EVERYTHING you have to get done all at once — study for the history final and then prep for your English lit review and then finish your Calculus homework and then call your best friend about Friday night and then talk to your adviser about your student loan and then call your mom about the advance on your monthly allowance and then talk to your boss about that coming weekend off — it can all get a bit overwhelming. Accept that there is only a certain amount of time in each day and that you cannot accomplish everything that is on your to-do list.
Instead of sacrificing your sleep, your health, and your mental well-being in an attempt to accomplish more than you can, learn to prioritize tasks. Identify tasks that MUST be accomplished — projects that have a deadline, a work schedule that must be kept, classes that must be attended. Once your priorities have been met, if there is time to complete less-pressing tasks, then complete them. If not, leave them for another day.
Break Down Tasks
A marathon can seem like an impossible goal — an endurance feat that is too overwhelming to consider or attempt. But if you break down the race into manageable segments — one mile at a time — it becomes easier to imagine crossing the finish line.
Likewise, when a big project seems overwhelming, break it down into smaller tasks. Create a to-do list and focus on accomplishing one task at a time. When you complete a task, cross it off the list and feel a sense of accomplishment.
You can use this same approach for your entire to-do list, whether it is for one project or for many. Focus on only one task at a time, complete it well, and feel a sense of satisfaction in completing it. You will gain a sense of control over what can seem like an overwhelming array of tasks and will instill some order in the seeming chaos.
Learn to Say ‘No’
If you have a final approaching, and you are strapped for cash, and you’re already working overtime at your job, don’t feel obligated to say “yes” when your friend asks you to plan a surprise birthday party for your joint BFF and bake the cake and buy her that new bag she’s been eying.
Don’t feel like you have to agree to every invitation or solicitation for help. And don’t feel like you can. Recognize your limitations, and don’t take on more than you have the time or the energy to accomplish. Remember your priorities and focus on accomplishing them.
Avoid Stressful Situations
OK, so short of dropping out of classes, you can’t avoid stress in college. But you can avoid other situations in your life that add to your stress. Do you have a friend who always gossips and criticizes others, making you feel anxious and uncomfortable? Find ways to avoid her. Know that going shopping with your girlfriend makes you anxious and eventually leads to a fight? Opt out the next time she suggests you head to the mall. Identify your emotional triggers and take charge of these influences in your life that you can control to reduce stress.
For those stressors that you cannot escape, such as long study sessions before an exam, take breaks to get your mind off the activity for a short time. You’ll give yourself a reprieve from the stressor, and you’ll clear your head so that you can return refreshed and ready to concentrate. Take short walks, call a friend, or watch a few music videos that put you in a good mood. Regular breaks like these can make intense activities easier to manage.
Maintain a Positive Attitude
Many times, what makes a situation stressful is your attitude about it. Some might see Calculus as mentally challenging and invigorating, while others are sent into a panic attack at the thought of being tested on algorithms.
Learning to change your thinking about your situation can help change your reaction to it. If you view the things that you have to do as challenges or opportunities, you will find a sense of satisfaction in completing them. Likewise, maintaining a generally positive attitude — instead of focusing on the negative aspects of your life — will result in a sunnier disposition overall and a better sense of well-being.
Do Things that You Enjoy
When you start to feel overwhelmed, take time out to relax and to raise your spirits by participating in an activity that you enjoy. This can be a hobby such as running or painting or playing an instrument. It can be something fun such as going to the movies or dinner with a friend. Or it can just be something relaxing like playing with your dog or reading a book.
Routine and long hours completing a strenuous task can take its toll. Give yourself a mental break and boost your energy by doing something that you like doing — for no other reason than that you enjoy it. Don’t paint a picture to sell for extra cash, don’t read a book for another class, don’t call a friend to talk over a problem you’ve left unresolved. Whatever you are doing, make sure you are doing it for your own enjoyment and for no other reason. Take your mind off your to-do list and your studies and just enjoy the moment.
Use Relaxation Techniques
There are a number of exercises you can use to help relax. Simple stretching and yoga can help relieve tension in your muscles and make you feel calmer and more focused. You can spend a few minutes stretching or simply tensing and releasing your muscles to reap some of these benefits. If you prefer, you can take a yoga class at a local gym or follow a DVD routine in your dorm room. Other beneficial exercises include Tai Chi or Pilates. Any gentle stretching exercise can have stress-releasing benefits.
Another technique you can try is deep breathing. These exercises are intended to bring your focus to your breathing so that you can relax your body and clear your mind. Some exercises can be found at Dartmouth University’s Academic Skills Center.
Meditation, self-hypnosis and visualization are all useful techniques that can help you work through stress. Meditation and hypnosis can help quiet the mind, calm the body, and rid negative thinking. Visualization is a way to process outcomes to reduce emotional reactions when situations occur. For example, you might consider some likely negative outcomes to a personal situation or a project so that you can prepare yourself for how you will react and resolve the problem when it occurs. This exercise is not about focusing on the negative, but about preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for unexpected outcomes.
Many books and web sites are available with tips and guidelines for each of these techniques, or you can seek help from a counselor or mental-health professional.
Talk to Someone
Sometimes, all we need to do is vent a little. A sympathetic ear can often be enough to help us blow off some steam and process some of the negative or stressful situations we are experiencing. When you feel overwhelmed, call a friend or close family member and talk about what’s on your mind. Maybe you want to share some concerns, maybe you want to get suggestions for how to handle a problem, or maybe you just want to rant a little and then laugh a little. Your network of friends and family can be a great support system.
Other times, friends and family are not enough to offer the help we need. In those cases, it is helpful to talk to a professional counselor. You can work with a counselor on strategies for handling stress and any other emotional issues you are experiencing (such as anxiety or depression) and can talk about how to process your emotions and get to root of triggers. Speak with someone in your student health center for guidance or a referral to a professional in your community.
Control Your Reactions
Remember: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Anxiety tends to breed more anxiety. If you worry and fret over every small detail, you will create a chronic state of tension and anxiety that will only cause you to worry and fret some more. Learn to let small details and interactions pass. So your friend didn’t call you back. Maybe your mother is nagging you about your new boyfriend. Maybe your dog won’t stop jumping on your bed and now your new bedspread is covered in black hair. Don’t waste energy on inconsequential matters or on things that you can’t change. Either spend less time with your friend or accept that she won’t always call you back. Control the information you give your mother, and buy your pooch his own doggy bed so he won’t be tempted to sleep on yours.
The way you react to and think about a situation will influence how you feel. If you tell yourself it doesn’t matter, then it won’t.