Don’t Let Stress and Anxiety Get the Best of You
July 18th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Stress is a part of college life. This is nothing new. But the level of stress, poor mental health, and overwhelming anxiety is growing amount students. Anxiety not only makes every day life difficult, but it can also lead to poor physical health, which in turn can lead to expensive visits to nurses and doctors.
Balancing classes and other responsibilities, such as a job, can easily become stressful or even anxiety producing for students. This can lead to poor performance and worse, some students may become college dropout statistics if they don’t recognize the warning signs and take proactive steps to minimize the impact.
Students may not be able to control all of the circumstances or requirements in their lives, but they can learn to cope with the demands of a busy school schedule.
The College Students’ Perspective
College freshmen are experiencing record levels of stress, according to a survey, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010. Over 200,000 full-time college students were surveyed and the results found that there was an increase in the number of students who ranked themselves “below average” for their emotional health. According to Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association, “more students are arriving on campus with problems, needing support, and today’s economic factors are putting a lot of extra stress on college students, as they look at their loans and wonder if there will be a career waiting for them on the other side.” This is a stressful way to begin the college experience, feeling a sense of pressure and concern about the future.
The pressure students feel as they begin their program is not likely to decrease because of the cost of tuition, the economic conditions, and a competitive job market. It may become an ongoing concern throughout the entire degree program. In Stress Takes Its Toll on College Students, the results of a 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association were discussed. The study concluded that the number of college students who sought help for severe psychological problems was 37.4 percent, which was up from the 16 percent as reported in 2000. John MacPhee, executive director of the Jed Foundation, which oversees the online mental health resource for college students ULifeline, has found that depression and anxiety are the most pressing emotional issues that students face.
There is another type of college student that is also at risk for experiencing the effects of stress and anxiety, and it is the adult who is returning to school with added responsibilities such as a family and career. Some of these adult students also have children in college, which adds even more financial pressure. Online schools have become a popular choice among this group of adults, especially those who are working adults, as it eliminates the required face-to-face scheduled class time. However, it does not eliminate the potential for stress as an online degree requires greater commitment, dedication, and self-motivation. In addition, the tuition rate at many online schools can be higher than traditional colleges and universities.
Short-Term and Long-Term Conditions
There is short-term stress and long-term stress. If you have a busy life, with many demands made of your time, you may experience moments when you feel rushed, pressured, or have to pick up the pace. If you experience this type of stress on occasion, it isn’t a problem if you acknowledge it and make corrections as needed to your time management plan or use any other coping strategy. In How Stress Affects Adult Students’ Concentration, it was noted that periods of short-term stress can actually improve your ability to concentrate as the body sends chemicals to the brain that help you focus. In addition, adrenaline is released into the bloodstream and that helps you concentrate better as your senses are heightened. In other words, occasional stress can actually be beneficial, especially if you are pressed for time.
Another condition that has a negative impact on students’ mental well-being is anxiety. This usually manifests as persistent or occasional thoughts and concerns, which students refer to as worrying. It is a mindset or internalized response to external events. Students may be faced with stressful conditions and then experience anxiety as a result of these circumstances. There is another form of anxiety that is emerging, referred to as “the busy trap,” which is a self-imposed form of busyness. A New York Times opinion piece recently described this as a voluntary condition that is brought about because of ambition and drive. The resulting consequences include anxiety, addiction, and exhaustion.
Anxiety and stress can become harmful in nature if you don’t recognize it is taking hold of you and it is allowed to continue unchecked. The long-term effects may include reduced performance as you have to work harder to focus on the required tasks, and more importantly, some or all aspects of your well-being will likely suffer – especially if you begin to feel that you are overwhelmed, frustrated, and unable to cope.
Coping Strategies for Stress and Anxiety
1. Separate tasks and emotional issues
In Stress in College Students, a method for coping is provided that involves making a distinction between problem-focused and emotion-focused solutions. If you are experience anxiety or stress, make a list of the thoughts you have and then separate the items between tasks and emotions. For task-related issues, you can develop a plan to address them and this will help alleviate stress. If the stress or anxiety is a feeling or general sense of worrying and concern, you can then work on managing your emotions.
2. Be on the lookout for potential causes
Managing stress effectively is necessary so that you can maximize your effectiveness as a student. Every student handles the pressures, demands, and stress they experience in very different ways. What would be helpful for you as a coping tool is to think about the times when you experience anxiety or stress, and then develop a list of stress triggers or possible causes. For example, if you discover that you feel anxiety every time an assignment is due; use that as a reminder to review your time management plan and make certain adequate time has been allocated throughout the week to avoid the last minute rush.
3. Keep your mindset in check
In The Top 10 Ways to Beat Stress, a helpful suggestion was provided and it indicated that “if you can deal with life events in a composed and relaxed way, everything will move much smoother.” Of course that is easier said than done; however, if you develop a plan for your school work and focus on one task at a time, you will likely feel a better sense of control. When you begin to tackle too many projects at once, or allow yourself to get caught up in feeling the emotional pull of a busy and demanding life, you may allow negative thoughts to take hold and that can lead to anxiety and stress.
4. Manage your well-being, not just your stress
The University of Georgia’s University Health Center offers an online resource titled Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students. One method of addressing stress is to consider your overall well-being, which includes your attitude, the way you eat, the method you use to manage your time, and the amount of sleep you get. The better you feel, the more likely you can cope effectively with stressful conditions.
5. Take proactive steps – now.
The University of Illinois’s Counseling Center offers stress-management tips for first-year students in Recommendations for First-Year College Students. There are three strategies that would be beneficial for all students. The first is to be patient. A stressful time for students is starting a new class. There is a new instructor, new course materials, and a new set of expectations. Give yourself time to learn the processes and routine. The second tip is to connect with other students. As you learn to collaborate with other students you’ll develop connections and working relationships that can benefit you in the long run because they may become a source of support. The third tip is to get involved with student organizations. For online students, you can utilize study groups and social media as a means of joining a community of students with similar interests.
It is very unlikely that you can completely eliminate stress. There are going to be times as a student when the work, assignments, and discussions feel manageable and other times when all of these demands become too much. You feel anxious and over time feel the impact of these stressful conditions. But you don’t need to let it get the best of you. Learn to become proactive by recognizing signs and symptoms, keep your internal responses in check, and you will become much more effective in coping with stress.
Photo © REB Images/Blend Images/Corbis