Stress is obviously not something unique to college students. It’s something we start experiencing as soon as we’re born (though our causes of stress tend to get more complicated as we get older). Stress has been the topic of many a TED Talk. Scores of books cover the topic, and many of them have unique things to say about it. There are experts and researchers who follow stress. We’ve heard of stress-causing mental anguish and physical afflictions. We’ve also known people who carry their stress as their badge of honor.
Though stress is not something experienced solely by college students, new forms of stress tend to hit that particular age group all at once.
What is Stress?
The actual definition of stress is:
“The body’s reaction to anything that requires an adjustment or response.”
Your body can react in all sorts of ways to stress varying from physical to emotional responses and more. To put it plainly, it’s normal. Our bodies are pretty good at reacting to stress. They have resources to combat it or adjust to it. It causes us to move forward, often in positive directions.
However, there also comes certain points where our bodies can no longer handle stressful situations and they begin to wear down. When bodies are placed into an environment (either mentally or physically) where there is continual pressure without any relief, they begin to experience negative symptoms. Your body has a natural response to extreme cases of stress known as “fight or flight.” While this intense response is valuable in life-threatening situations, it can actually become life-threatening in and of itself when prolonged past its point of helpfulness.
When stress passes its point of usefulness, it becomes known as distress. Our bodies may react with something mild such as a stomach ache or headache. Dysfunctional sleeping and chest pain are also symptoms of distress that are slightly more alarming. In the most intense cases, distress can cause hypertension (high blood pressure). It is also associated with heart disease, liver and lung ailments, and even cancer. Emotional responses range from panic attacks to depression. They can be as harmless as feeling “out of it” to as dangerous as suicidal thoughts.
The good news is that stress doesn’t usually cause the more extreme reactions, though the milder symptoms can be plenty bothersome.
Types of Stress
There are four different kinds of stress according to Dr. Karl Albrecht, a social scientist and management consultant.
One can experience “time stress.” This is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, you feel like you can’t make your deadlines. You don’t have enough time to do everything you’re supposed to be doing. There isn’t enough time in your day.
Another type of stress is “anticipatory stress.” With this kind of stress, you feel worried about what the future holds. It can be vague or concrete. You can have specific worries about something that’s coming up, or you can just feel stress about the uncertainty of what’s coming up.
The third kind of stress you can experience is “situational stress.” Situational is different than time or anticipatory stress factors. This kind of stress pops up out of nowhere such as a distressing call with bad news or an unfortunate work-related injury. This kind of stress gives you no warning.
“Encounter stress” is the final type of stress you can face. This occurs when you’re anxious about encountering specific people. This person may be as mundane as a professor you don’t know well or as critical as someone who may have abused you in some manner. This kind of stress can either be anticipated or out of the blue.
Stress, as we’ve come to realize, is a very broad term.
Stress in College Students
In a survey known as the National College Health Assessment, researchers found that only 1.6% of students did not feel “stressed.” The American Freshman National Norms is an organization at UCLA that found an unfortunate trend. Students’ perceptions of their mental health have been steadily declining. In fact, it declined as much as 13% from 2009 to 2010 alone. This is true of both males and females. Anywhere from 1,100 to 1,400 college students commit suicide annually; this is particularly tragic considering it is the second leading cause of death among college students. Sixty percent of students report that stress affected their ability to do their class assignments, and this statistic has been steadily rising. 46.3% find their studies “overwhelming.” Only 11% of the students surveyed stated that they felt “well rested.” Though that particular statistic was not specifically tied to stress, stress can be a contributing factor.
Coping with Stress
Some of those statistics are quite alarming. While this can make college feel more intimidating, it doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Finding ways to cope with stress and practicing those habits can make stress become a healthy influence in your life.
Let me start by saying, whether you’re in college or about to become a college student, if you are experiencing extreme amounts of stress, seek professional help. If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or others, reach out. Depression and anxiety thrive in darkness, secrecy, and isolation. Shine a light on it, and it diminishes.
If you are experiencing smaller symptoms, or if you’re looking to avoid experiencing problems in the first place, there are a couple of tools you can add to your arsenal to make sure you’re well prepared to face the new challenges that come with becoming an independent college student.
1) Recognize the kind of stress you’re experiencing.
This is so that you’ll know how to intentionally react to it. Below are the different kinds of stress you can experience. If you notice which symptoms apply to you, you can take the steps needed to treat that kind of stress.
- Most students experience “acute stress.” This occurs when a new event pops up and requires attention and maneuvering. Acute stress can still cause sore muscles and headaches, but interestingly enough, it can also cause excitement. Acute stress often passes on its own as the event passes.
- The next level of stress is known as “episodic stress.” As I looked into this particular type of stress, the best I can describe it in a word is “worry.” Episodic stress is often just repeating cycles of acute stress. People feel irritable or temperamental. This often comes as a result of poor coping strategies. Little events that come up can throw these worriers into crisis mode.
- Chronic stress is the final, and most dangerous level of stress. This is the level of stress that can cause long term, and even permanent, physical health problems. This is the kind of stress that is associated with heart attacks and strokes. It is the type of stress that can lead to suicide. This is a complicated level of stress because it is constant and therefore, those who experience it don’t often recognize it. It can be caused by depression or it can cause depression. It is often caused by situations beyond the control of the individual student, such as poverty or an unhealthy marriage relationship. This kind of stress requires professional help to overcome.
2) KEEP UP YOUR HEALTH.
This particular tip is one I’ve covered frequently in other articles. Instead of breaking these down into separate tips, just do what you already know you’re supposed to do. Start with one vegetable a day, even if it’s in a smoothie. Take a multivitamin. Go to bed at a decent hour. Go for a 30-minute walk. Start with one goal and continue developing healthy habits from there.
3) Fit your current situation into its proper place.
If you have a particularly grueling schedule this semester, look at it in the grand scheme of your life. It’s temporary. It usually lasts less than five months. You’ll know next time how to plan better so that you don’t experience the same levels of stress. If it’s really drowning you, remind yourself over and over that it won’t last. Make it your mantra.
4) Beyond placing time into perspective, place everything else into perspective as well.
At the end of the day, what really matters? It’s who you’ve become. When you’re about to die, I promise you won’t be thinking back to some test you took. You’ll be thinking about how you treated others and how you’ll miss who you’re leaving behind. A test may be built up to feel like the world will come crashing down if you fail, but it won’t. In fact, you probably will fail a test. We all have. Don’t let it freak you out, and welcome to college. If I could give you a specific tip about that, it would be to celebrate your failures. They will become less scary allowing you to function better (and probably take tests better!). Don’t let it bring you down. A test is such a small indicator of what you know and who you are.
Those are just a couple of tips I wanted to throw out. Coming to understand what kind of stress you’re experiencing and realizing the levels of stress that are coming up in your life will help you to combat negative experiences and health problems. Being proactive with your health is going to relieve a lot of stress and prevent more stress factors from popping up. Stepping back and placing everything in perspective is yet another way to take unhealthy stress and turn it into motivation rather than distress.