It comes as little surprise to most that college students experience stress. In recent years, this fact has received quite a bit of attention from psychologists and researchers, as well as attention from major media outlets like the New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, Psychology Today, and others. It’s easy to see why college students experience stress – as research has noted, college students experience many new stressors; it’s a time of incredible change for incoming freshmen, a time of leaving home for most, high pressure to achieve in more difficult academic circumstances, establishing a new social life, and a time of being faced with actually having to enter the job market. College is also more stressful for minorities, according to more research.
But you probably already knew all that.
Because of the aforementioned media coverage and research that has been publicized within the last ten years, in addition to personal experiences in college or with college students, most people are aware of the fact that college students are stressed.
What people don’t agree on is how to handle this issue. Fundamentally, there are two schools of thought.
One group is working for more resources to help college students cope with stress and stressful situations. This group, generally speaking, advocates for or provides resources and/or events for college students to decompress or de-stress to better deal with the college experience and the stress that comes with it. They believe that these help students prepare for the workplace by teaching them how to safely cope with acute stress.
The other generally believes that these elevated stress levels are a result of sheltered, coddled students. Their solution is, in essence, to let students figure it out on their own. Generally, this group believes that “resources” brought in to help students cope are doing them a disservice by babying them and failing to adequately prepare them for the post-college world. They contend that since these don’t exist in the work world, they shouldn’t exist in college either, so that students are prepared to handle the stresses of the workplace.
At any rate, it is clear that students do experience stress, which needs to be dealt with.
So, how exactly does one manage stress?
Psychologists break down stress relief strategies into two categories: problem-focused and emotion-focused. Problem-focused strategies are aimed at getting rid of a problem that causes stress; emotion-focused strategies are focused on changing one’s emotions and responses to stressors.
Problem-focused strategies are fairly straightforward, centering around identifying triggers for stress and eliminating them. Roommate problems stressing you out? Talk to your RA about switching rooms. Time management strategies also fit into this category. This is all about getting to the root of the problem and getting rid of it.
Of course, sometimes it’s impossible to just get rid of the stressor. That is where the more nebulous emotion-focused strategies come into play.
The University of Oklahoma recommends a number of practices to combat stress that fit into this category, like relaxing by visualizing yourself in a comforting place or deep breathing for relaxation.
OU also recommends some physical health reminders that can help with stress as well, like sleeping 7-9 hours every night and staying hydrated.
A full list of university-suggested anti-stress tips is available here. Other, similar resources are available from other major universities.
There are times when feeling stressed is more than stress. Sometimes, especially when stress is persistent, when the source of stress can’t be identified, or stress is making it difficult to function, stress is a symptom of an anxiety disorder, or another mental health problem.
Mental illness is a serious problem, and the number of college students affected by it is rising – In 2010, the National Survey of Counseling Center Directors (NSCCD) found that 44 percent of counseling center clients had severe psychological problems, up dramatically from 16 percent in 2000. The most common mental health problems reported were anxiety and depression, both of which can be exacerbated by stress. These illnesses can have a significant impact on the person afflicted, making it difficult to do everyday tasks.
Further compounding the negative impact these disorders can have is the stigma surrounding mental illness. While mental illness is just that – an illness – it can be seen as a personal shortcoming or weakness, particularly in the case of disorders like anxiety and depression. This can prevent those affected from seeking help
However, these disorders are treatable, most commonly through therapy and medication.
When in doubt as to whether you are experiencing something more than normal stress, seek the help of a mental health professional. Here at OU, students can take advantage of counseling services at Goddard Health Center.