Stress and College Students
College life can be very stressful. Sometimes parents, faculty and others tend to idealize their college experience and remember it as that idyllic time when they had few worries or responsibilities. To students currently attending college, however, the process is often stressful and frustrating. The competition for grades, the need to perform, relationships, fear of AIDS, career choice, and many other aspects of the college environment cause stress.
Before condemning stress outright, we need to understand that stress is only harmful when it is excessive. Much of the stress that we all experience is helpful and stimulating. The challenges of life tend to be stressful and an attempt to avoid stress completely would lead to a rather boring existence. The problem comes when you experience too much stress.
Although some stress reactions are part of deeper and more serious emotional problems, many are not, and can be handled with relatively simple counseling and stress-management techniques. You can use the following guidelines to help manage your stress:
- understand your role in stress reactions
- develop a balanced life-style and effective personal organization
- learn specific relaxation techniques
- gain perspective on problems by discussing them, and
- clarify your values and develop a sense of spirituality
Source and Symptoms of Stress
There are four primary sources of stress:
- The Environment - examples include noise, pollution, traffic and crowding, and the weather.
- Physiological - examples include illness, injuries, hormonal fluctuations, and inadequate sleep or nutrition.
- Your Thoughts - the way you think affects how you respond. Negative self-talk, catastrophizing, and perfectionism all contribute to increased stress.
- Social Stressors - examples include financial problems, work demands, social events, and losing a loved one.
Symptoms of stress appear in many forms. Some symptoms only impact the person who is directly experiencing stress, while other symptoms may have an impact on our relationships with others. Perhaps you experience some of the examples below when your stress levels are elevated.
- muscular tension
- colds or other illnesses
- high blood pressure
- difficulty sleeping
- fear or anxiety
- feeling overwhelmed
- mood swings
- unwanted or repetitive thoughts
- difficulty concentrating
Develop a Balanced Lifestyle
Stress reactions to various situations are also affected by your overall level of health. Someone who is always feeling overwhelmed, eats poorly, and doesn't get enough sleep (a description of many students) usually has a limited ability to cope with stressful events. You need to pay attention to your own well being. The right balance of sleep, food, exercise, work, school, and recreation is crucial.
Some people are in a constant state of trying to catch up. They find themselves rushing and hurrying from one activity to another, always racing with the clock and never getting on top of things. Part of this problem, for many students, is not being well organized. Effective time management can help. See the Counseling Center website for more about Time Management.
Gain Perspective by Discussing Problems
It is easy to get caught up in a problem or a narrow view of something you are doing, and to lose perspective and feel that a failure or roadblock is a catastrophe. Discussing your problems with a trusted, empathic friend can allow you to gain new perspective and can allow you to move out of what might seem like an isolated and negative internal world. The act of verbalizing your concerns and putting them together will often help give you a sense of control.
Specific Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques are extremely valuable tools in stress management. Most of the techniques like meditation, self-hypnosis, and deep muscle relaxation work in a similar fashion. They make it possible for you to spend a short period of time in a state of profound relaxation. In this state both the body and the mind are at rest and the outside world is screened out for a period of time. The practice of one of these techniques on a regular basis can provide a wonderfully calming and relaxing feeling that seems to have a lasting effect for many people. Your energy level and ability to cope with the external world are replenished. Practitioners and researchers have reported many positive life effects from the regular practice of one of these techniques.
You may want to take a course or read about one of these techniques. The Counseling Center, as well as various other campus agencies, offer stress management groups. These techniques easy to learn, but can be difficult to fit into your schedule. If you don't have an opportunity to get instruction, just practice sitting quietly for 15 minutes, with no interruptions. Let yourself relax by focusing on something peaceful - a beautiful scene at the beach or in the mountains, for example. Sometimes it is your negative thoughts or worries that create tension. You can practice "thought stopping techniques" and learn how to use positive self-talk to cope with stress. Even simple interruption can help. Stop and take a purposeful 10-minute break. Go for a walk, breathe deeply, call a friend, put on some favorite music. Keep your sense of humor! Remember, you can talk with a counselor to learn more about how to develop these stress-reducing skills.
Clarify Your Values and Develop a Sense of Life Meaning
Stress is often caused by general unhappiness and a sense of aimlessness or lack of purpose. People sometimes wind up making choices and living life styles that really don't fit them. A student may be studying accounting when he or she really wants to be an artist, or he or she may have a wide circle of friends, but not really have the kind of intimate relationships that feel fulfilling.
Clarifying your values and deciding what you really want out of your life, can help you feel better about yourself and have that sense of satisfaction and centeredness that helps you deal with the stresses of life. This process is, of course, not easy. Most of us are constantly growing and developing our sense of self and our ideas about what we want and how we want to live. A sense of spirituality can help with this. You might find this with an organized religion or it might be a more personal, individual process. It may involve a sense of oneness with nature, or it may be related to the deep satisfaction gained from volunteer work that really helps someone. Although each of us must develop our own sense of well being and spirituality, it does help to talk about these issues with others, as a way of clarifying and challenging our own ideas and beliefs.