It’s no secret that undue stress and anxiety are the most prominent and shared issues amongst college students. Higher education is a petri dish for studying stress and anxiety. Living on your own for the first time in your life, the college experience is very far from familiar. Any change of lifestyle comes with the fear of the unknown and pressure to diverge from the comfort zone. College students are faced with a saturated job market that does not ensure employment post graduation, statistically the highest cost to attend a college or university since the concept of higher education originated, and a competitive academic and social environment at all times. During this major period of transition, an abundance of different factors exist that contribute to the stress students feel as they learn to navigate and flourish in their undergraduate career. The main stressors that college students face can be placed in three main categories; academic and social balance, time management, and financial pressure.
Attending higher education has become the popular career seeking route following high school. It is necessary to address the topic of stress in the realm of higher education as this impacts hundreds of thousands of young individuals. Mental health is an issue that is being spotlighted in college culture and a ton of attention is being brought to these newfound issues surrounding college students.
The first component of stress that college students encounter in the new chapter of their lives is balancing their academics and social life simultaneously. For most, this is the first time they are living on their own away from their parents. Many students have never experienced this magnitude of personal freedom with their life decisions and have very little to compare it to in the past. Having this new personal accountability forces students to become adults very quick. From the moment your parents leave you on campus, your survival instincts kick in. Making friends in excess can be overwhelming especially to those who have struggled with friendships in the past. Homesickness is something that impacts almost all college students at some point and impacts not only academic progress but the overall retention rate at a school. One of the biggest reasons students transfer from a school is due to the fact that they have not found their friends or they feel as if they do not fit in. Having a new roommate comes with another slew of potential problems as students can find themselves in disputes with the person they are physically staying with all the time. Thinking for yourself and thinking as a group become merged as the group mentality seems the easiest way not to stand out. Students become victims of peer pressure and other activities such as drinking and smoking in an effort to fit in. Social isolation makes college seem impossible to those who do well academically, but feel they are still missing a major component of the college experience.
In addition to socially struggling, the high levels of stress that result from academic course loads are creating notable trends in mental health. Academic success is the primary reason students go on to seek higher education in the first place, but there are side effects of these career pursuits. Specifically, writing term papers, having multiple tests in the same week, and succeeding in courses have been reported as the three most stressful academic tasks for college students (Zajacova et al. 2005). The job market being as saturated as it is currently creates a major stress to get the highest GPA possible to stand the highest chance of standing out from other applicants. Students feel pressured to have an immediate idea of what they would like to do professionally before even entering college. In doing so, the stress that follows the next years verifying that you have made the correct decision in what to study and where to intern is only to be expected. Balancing fitting in socially along with high career pursuits and academic expectations often creates anxiety and worry for many students.
Spending your time in the most efficient manner is a universal struggle to people but is magnified in college. There is no overlooking element who will tell you whether you have managed your schedule the most effectively, or warn you about future events that are going to force you to have your priorities in line. Being encouraged constantly to get involved with clubs and organizations, get a job, do well in classes, maintain friendships, do laundry, eat, exercise, and all the other life tasks that occur daily, are only a few of the possible ways to spend a day at college. As your involvement in organizations continue with your time at a school, they become more time committing and force you to make the difficult decisions on what commitment to skip and put priority on. The constant battle to not spread yourself to thick or thin is completely valid and only gets worse as you get closer to graduation. All too often students forget to take care of themselves as their responsibilities build up trying to balance their schedule to the best of their ability. Lack of sleep, forgetting to eat, not getting to the gym, and a few other daily tasks do not get enough thought when assignments start to build up and there is no clear end to the course load being assigned. In order to succeed at school you must take care of yourself first!
Whether a students’ parents are paying for higher education or the student is taking out loans, someone has to pay for it. Education is an investment in yourself and an expensive one at that. As with many monetary problems in life, there is a stress that comes along with it. Almost two thirds of college students are concerned about their ability to pay for college costs (Eagan et al., 2014). The cost of higher education is not getting any cheaper any time soon. Although many might say that financial aid or student loans are the solution to these problems, they are not always a possibility. Even if an individual were capable of obtaining either, that in itself would add more stress, so it becomes a sort of inescapable hardship. If, for example, a student receives financial aid, it more than likely involves a certain requirement such as the Bonner Program at TCNJ which requires a certain amount of volunteer hours/meetings per semester alongside a GPA requirement. This leads to the consistent worry of having to achieve and maintain certain grades in order to even be able to afford to remain in college. If, on the other hand, individuals decide to take out loans they may additionally be constantly worried about the accumulating interest and having to pay them back eventually. In addition to the cost of college, many college students struggle with maintaining a budget. Paying attention to the expenses you incur will help you control your life.
It is evident to see that college students are in need of stress management outlets, techniques and resources to help manage their wavering anxieties. As overall college student mental health gets worse and worse each year, stress management becomes notably more crucial to improve the lifestyle and well-being of young adults. This is where a holistic approach to stress management comes in. There is not one solution or one methodology that will cure all college students of undue stress and anxiety. Just like there are many different factors that contribute to this stress and anxiety, there are many different components to managing that unwanted negativity in your life.
Stress management begins with awareness and education. If you do not know that the amount or nature of the stress and anxiety you are feeling is unhealthy, you do not know that there is something that needs to be improved. Similarly, if you do not know the causes of your undue stress and anxiety and the ways to effectively manage them, you will be stuck in a miserable cycle of feeling overwhelmed, and never being able to settle that feeling when it gets out of control. Although counseling centers and other mental health resources that are available on campuses are helpful in combating student stress and anxiety, such as Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at TCNJ, they do not benefit the students who are unaware of these resources. Many college students resort to unhealthy coping techniques such as binge drinking and drug use because of their unawareness or lack of education about these stress management resources. One of the ways college counseling centers are reaching out beyond the therapist’s walls is by working with faculty to include wellness awareness in their interactions with students. Other outreach techniques used by college counseling centers include training students, faculty, and staff in mental health issues, as well as offering suicide, sexual violence, and drug and alcohol prevention programs (“Students Under Pressure”, 2014). These outreach programs and initiatives are critical because 78 percent of students with mental health problems first receive support or counseling from friends, family or other non-professionals (“Students Under Pressure”, 2014). Though universities are realizing that an open dialogue about mental health and a healthy environment should be prioritized, and that such a burden cannot fall on the shoulders of counseling centers alone, there is still a lot of work to be done surrounding education and awareness of stress/anxiety and other mental health issues.
Apart from seeking professional resources for stress and anxiety management, a simple, yet effective way to reduce stress is by physically taking care of the body. Things such as dehydration, lack of exercise and sleep, and poor diet all are proven to agitate stress levels (“Stress in College”, 2016). Other ways to manage undue stress includes practicing mindfulness meditation and constructive thinking. Mindfulness meditation has many different physical and mental health benefits, but two of the most prominent are the reduction of stress through lowered blood pressure and a strengthened immune system. Through constructive thinking and changing your mind about stress, you can change your body’s physical reaction. A study around viewing stress as the body preparing you to face a challenge revealed that in addition to making people less stressed and more confident, it affected their blood vessels by making them less constricted, ultimately increasing their life expectancy (“How to make stress your friend”, 2013). Again, it is important to keep in mind that one size does not fit all; what methods work for one person may not work for another. What is important is that college students are equipped with all the knowledge and resources that may help them in their stress management journey.
It is indisputable that stress experienced by college students is becoming increasingly widespread. The American Psychological Association (2017) found that of college students seeking counseling, 45% did so in relation to stress. Nearly half of the student body is affected by this, however, it is thankfully an area people can always try to get ahead of. Although, as discussed, there are various facets of the college life which act as stressors for an individual, there are also various ways to try and lessen their effects. Some ways to do so include simply acknowledging that it is something worth trying to alleviate in the first place alongside trying to pinpoint the exact stressors to combat. As stated, one of the ways college counseling centers are reaching out is by working with faculty to include wellness awareness in their interactions with students.
In addition, college counseling centers may try and implement Deckro et al. (2002) findings to further provide assistance for those in need. They found significantly greater reductions in psychological distress, state anxiety, and perceived stress in those who underwent mind/body training (Deckro et al., 2002). Although in the experiment students received six 90-minute group-training sessions, this is still applicable to students overall. It is very likely that if this were to be directly carried out, that is providing students on campus with the capability to attend these 90-minute group-training sessions, very few would actually do so. This can be tied back to time management and prioritization. Although this is indisputably going to benefit the individual in the long run, the students are not very likely to put it at the top of their list if they have a big test the next day or a group-project to work on or even would rather just spend those 90 minutes taking a power nap so to speak. Going forward then, this can be implemented rather as brief trainings which will be useful as a preventive intervention for college students both because of the training itself, but also its accessibility. Individuals do not necessarily need to be in a specific location for an allotted period of time, but can instead apply what they’ve learned in various domains of their lives when necessary.
Therefore, in order take initiative to alleviate the effects various stressors have on millions of college students, we must take a holistic approach. First, we must acknowledge that the amount of stress we are under is not eustress, but rather distress, and is likely unhealthy. Then, we need to take a step back and try and locate where we are acquiring so much stress from because, yes it is common, however it can get to be too much and deteriorate the individual. Once we have located the various stressors in our lives, whether it be one of those discussed today such as financial pressures or others such as focusing on what’s after college, we must then plan ahead and use stress management techniques. For example, in regards to time management the individual can try to implement the ABC-rank order method by assigning the tasks with most urgency ‘A,’ those with secondary urgency ‘B,” and so on. Finally, the individual may simultaneously integrate other forms of aid such as going to the tutoring center or CAPS for help, or implementing some of the diaphragmatic breathing they may have learned during a training session if they feel they are becoming too overwhelmed with undue stress and anxiety.