College requires significantly more effort from students than high school. Once you enter college, you will probably find that your fellow students are more motivated, your instructors are more demanding, the work is more difficult, and you are expected to be more independent. These higher academic standards and expectations are even more evident in graduate school. As a result of these new demands, it is common for college students to experience greater levels of stress related to academics.
Many students find that they need to develop new skills in order to balance academic demands with a healthy lifestyle. Fortunately, the University of Michigan offers many resources to help students develop these skills. Many students find that they can reduce their level of academic stress by improving skills such as time management, stress management, and relaxation.
The Pros and Cons of Stress
Stress is anything that alters your natural balance. When stress is present, your body and your mind must attend to it in order to return you to balance. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that help you cope with the situation. That in turn takes energy away from the other functions of your brain, like concentrating, or taking action. There are two different sources of stress: external triggers, like getting a poor grade or breaking up with your girlfriend/boyfriend, and internal triggers, like placing high expectations on yourself.
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Watch this music video which shows how six college students deal with stress.
Stress is a part of everyday life. There are many instances when stress can be helpful. A fire alarm is intended to cause the stress that alerts you to avoid danger. The stress created by a deadline to finish a paper can motivate you to finish the assignment on time. But when experienced in excess, stress has the opposite effect. It can harm our emotional and physical health, and limit our ability to function at home, in school, and within our relationships. But the good news is that, since we are responsible for bringing about much of our own stress, we can also do much to manage stress by learning and practicing specific stress-reduction strategies.
Click here to learn more about academic stress. This link will take you to information and helpful tips including a study skills checklist.
Are you experiencing too much stress?
Here are a few common indicators:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased worrying
- Trouble completing assignments on time
- Not going to class
- Short temper or increased agitation
- Tight muscles
- Changes in eating habits (e.g., “stress eating”)
- Changes in sleeping habits
People with mental health disorders are more likely to notice that their specific symptoms reemerge or grow worse during stressful times. In many cases, stress can act as the “spark” that ignites a mental health episode. But this does not mean that every time you are busy or face a difficult challenge you will have a mental health episode. Not everyone responds the same way to potentially stressful circumstances. For example, during final exams many students feel very overwhelmed and anxious, while others are able to keep their stress under control. If you are one of the many people who have difficulty managing stress during difficult times, look for some helpful tips below.
Ways of reducing and managing stress
- A feeling of control and a healthy balance in your schedule is a necessary part of managing stress. Learning how to manage your responsibilities, accomplish your goals and still have time for rest and relaxation requires that you practice time management skills.
- Try setting a specific goal for yourself that will improve your mood and help you reduce stress. Start by filling out a goal-setting worksheet.
- Avoid procrastination. Putting off assignments or responsibilities until the last minute can create more mental and physical stress than staying on top of them. Procrastination can affect many aspects of daily life, such as the quality of your work, the quality of your sleep, and your mood. To learn more about procrastination, click here.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you burn off the energy generated by stress.
- Practice good sleep habits to ensure that you are well-rested. Sleep deprivation can cause many physical and mental problems and can increase stress.
- Try mindfulness meditation. Attend this workshop to learn a variety of ways to work more skillfully with the stress and anxiety related to college life.
- Limit (or eliminate) the use of stimulants like caffeine, which can elevate the stress response in your body.
- Pace yourself throughout the day, taking regular breaks from work or other structured activities. During breaks from class, studying, or work, spend time walking outdoors, listen to music or just sit quietly, to clear and calm your mind.
- Start a journal. Many people find journaling to be helpful for managing stress, understanding
emotions, and making decisions and changes in their lives.
- Realize that we all have limits. Learn to work within your limits and set realistic expectations for yourself and others.
- Plan leisure activities to break up your schedule. Click here for a list of fun things to do on campus.
- Recognize the role your own thoughts can play in causing you distress. Challenge beliefs you may hold about yourself and your situation that may not be accurate. For example, do you continuously fall short of what you think you “should” accomplish? When our minds continuously feed us messages about what we “should” achieve, “ought” to be, or “mustn't” do, we are setting ourselves up to fall short of goals that may be unrealistic, and to experience stress along the way. Learn techniques for replacing unrealistic thoughts with more realistic ones.
- Find humor in your life. Laughter can be a great tension-reducer.
- Seek the support of friends and family when you need to “vent” about situations that bring on stressful feelings. But make sure that you don’t focus exclusively on negative experiences; try to also think of at least three things that are going well for you, and share those experiences.
- Try setting a specific goal for yourself that will improve your mood and help you reduce stress. Start by filling out a goal-setting worksheet then help yourself stay on track by using your weekly motivator worksheet.
Next > Relaxation Techniques
Students are one of the most common victims of stress. Factors such as financial expenses, overcommitment, family expectations, deadlines and workload all induce stress in students. While a mild amount of stress is very useful and acts as a motivation for students, too much stress can interfere with their daily lives.
When built over time, stress can give rise to a host of serious problems such as depression and anxiety. Managing stress in its early stages can help maximize the college/university experience and opportunities for students.
There are three kinds of common stress triggers students experience:
Social stress puts serious peer pressure on students. Dealing with new relationships, balancing academic life with social life, living with or without family members, adjusting to the new environment, all trigger stress in students.
Strict schedules, deadlines, low grades, challenging classes, exams, responsibilities, and poor time management all lead to a buildup of academic stress.
- Daily life.
This stress is associated with issues that are not related to academic or social life. These can include daily commute, part-time job, financial burdens, and so on.
Practical stress management can help students deal with their worries and become more productive, competent and efficient. Here are a few tips for managing stress:
- Manage time.
Proper time management is one of the most effective stress-relieving techniques (Macan et al., 1990). Whether it’s relaxation, work or study, time must be spent wisely. Students must be able to design and stick to a timetable. Choose a relaxing break between work and study, even if it’s just taking out time to breathe.
- Exercise and get some air.
A healthy lifestyle is essential for students, especially at university level. Instead of partying at night and being cooped up at home studying throughout the day, take out time to get some air and exercise. Stress is generally lower in people who maintain a healthy routine.
- Stay positive.
If you keep focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, you will be burdened by mental stress (Thompson & Gaudreau, 2008). Instead, try to look at the glass half full, and stay optimistic through tough times. For example, instead of feeling upset over a bad grade, try to maintain a positive attitude and look at ways to improve the next time.
- Organize your academic life.
Organization is very important in academic life for dealing with stress (Sinha, 2014). By keeping academic notes organized, turning in assignments on time, and keeping track of all deadlines, stress can be reduced to a great extent.
- Stop procrastinating.
The best way to stop procrastinating is to get the most difficult tasks out of the way first. Most people procrastinate because they dread the task they’re putting off. Get rid of the dreaded deed, and you’re good to go.
- Take one step at a time.
Don’t put too many eggs in one basket. Instead of feeling overwhelmed about all the deadlines, it’s best to make a list and sort them out one by one. This helps you to be more efficient and productive with your time.
- Spend time with friends.
A cup of coffee with family or friends is all you need to bring your stress levels back to normal. Stress can also get worse if a person feels lonely. By letting out all your thoughts to someone you trust, you immediately feel a lot better.
- Water therapy.
Water therapies are effective for reducing stress and relaxing the body (Lewis & Webster, 2014). By drinking lots of water and treating yourself to hot baths, you can help your body relax. By adding aromatic oils in your bath, you can double your relaxation effect and improve your academic performance.
- Do something you love.
If you feel extremely stressed out, take a break and do something you love. Whether it is painting or listening to music, doing something you enjoy can cheer up your mood and distract you from a stressor.
A general rule of thumb is to moderate your workload and avoid taking on too much. Following the tips above can ensure you find and maintain a good balance in your academic life. If normal management tips do not help, seek advice from your university’s student support services or other professionals.
Lewis, J. & Webster, A. (2014). Sort Your Brain Out: Boost Your Performance, Manage Stress and Achieve More. Capstone.
Macan, T. H., Shahani, C., Dipboye, R. L. & Phillips, A. P. (1990). College Students’ Time Management: Correlations With Academic Performance and Stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82(4), pp. 760-768.
Sinha, A. (2014). Stress vs Academic Performance. SCMS Journal of Indian Management, 11(4), p. 46.
Thompson, A. & Gaudreau, P. (2008). From Optimism and Pessimism to Coping: The Mediating Role of Academic Motivation. International Journal of Stress Management, 15(3), pp. 269-288.
Stressed student photo available from Shutterstock