Stress in college: Where it comes from, and how to manage it

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The statistics

It is a universally known truth that being a full-time college student can be exhausting. There are many sleepless nights, skipped meals, and never-ending piles of homework to attend to all while trying to be healthy, maintain an active social life, and achieve a high grade point average. Being a full-college student while juggling a part-time or full-time job and participating in extracurricular activities can be detrimental to your personal mental health. According to a survey done by Georgetown University, 25 percent of students that are enrolled in college full-time are also working full-time jobs, and 70 percent of college students nationwide have part-time employment. The high amounts of stress throughout the semesters has caused more than 80 percent of college students to report feeling overwhelmed about what they had to do in the past year (American College, 2013). The scariest statistic to come to light is that suicide is the second leading cause of death in college students. One in every 10 college students report having seriously thought about suicide (Drum et al., 2009). Therefore, it is important for college students to be aware of this problem and take care of their mental health.

Dealing with stress: Be aware of your own health

If stress is the main reason you are feeling anxious or depressed, there are some steps that you can take to manage your mental health. One of the best things you can do is to get organized. By learning what works for you and what does not, how much you can work in one day without feeling burned out, and sprinkling in an hour or two of leisure time, you can soon lessen the weight on your shoulders. Of course it will be impossible to maintain a regular sleeping schedule at some points in the semester, but setting a time to sleep will help you get a good night’s sleep most nights. Take one day to stop and think about everything you need to get done and list it by a matter of urgency. After you have done that, then make a schedule to tackle it in small parts and think “it’s going to get done.” Even if you do not stick completely to the schedule, it will still decrease the mental picture of the mountain of homework because it is now in fractions.

Alleviating stress: university resources

As college students it is important to know about the different steps you can take to alleviate or prevent mental illnesses. One of the things that you can do is become familiar with the counseling services in your university. Obtaining counseling from the university can be a great way to find support, especially from people who are familiar with the stresses of being a college student. These services are being paid for by your tuition. They are there for you to use them if you need help, so take advantage of them. Another thing that you can do is educate yourself about the warning signs of mental illness. There are a lot of resources online about mental illness and you can talk to someone at your university’s counseling center. A preventive step that you can take is to become aware of the type of stresses and the amount of stress you can handle. For example, avoid taking a large course load if you believe cannot handle it. There is no reason to be ashamed if you cannot take those 15 or 18 hours. Some people work at different paces, and you should not overwork yourself if it is detrimental to your mental health.

Healthy coping mechanisms: Find what works for you

Understanding that stress and anxiety can attack without a warning and at unpredictable situations is key to dealing with one’s mental health. A few ideas to keep stress at a minimum:

    1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Lie down on your bed or comfortable chair and take a few minutes to unwind. From your toes to all the way to the muscle of your face, begin contracting each muscle group while breathing in. Hold the muscle tight for three seconds and then release tension while exhaling. This procedure can be done in just 10 minutes and can alleviate stress and anxiety. Instructions for this procedure can be found on YouTube — some even include nature sounds in the mix. This procedure can be done a night before the exam, on a morning before you head off to class, or even during your lunch break.
    2. Diaphragmatic Breathing. At some point we have been told to “take deep breaths and relax” but are rarely instructed on how to do so. Diaphragmatic breathing involves expanding the diaphragm to increase the flow of oxygen to the body. Simply begin by finding a comfortable place to sit, and expand your stomach as much as you can while you inhale. One quick cue is to place one’s hand at the belly and make sure the belly “inflates” while inhaling. Hold the air for two to three seconds and then exhale. Repeat this cycle three to five times to complete one set of diaphragmatic breathing. This can be done right before an exam, before a presentation or interview, or simply whenever you feel stress is overwhelming you.

 

  • Write-it-out. If you feel like you have too much work ahead of you and don’t know where to start, write it all down on paper. Write your upcoming assignments, exams, projects, and even your worries about the upcoming deadlines. Not only will this assist you to time-manage but to also think concretely about your stressors. Write a journal entry about it on paper on even on your computer — you can even delete it afterward. Finding a healthy way to vent your fears can be difficult, but identifying what your stressor is on the first place can lead to find what works for you.
  • Sleep. Exercise. Enjoy. There is no better relaxation technique than a good night of sleep. Even though college has become a colloquial synonym for “all-nighters,” do prioritize your health by sleeping enough. Not only will you endanger your health, your cognition (memory, ability to focus, learning ability) will also be at risk if you sacrifice too many hours of your sleep.

 

Similarly, you will not function at optimal levels if your body is not taken care of. So get creative — exercise at least three to five hours per week. Listen to your professor’s recording while walking a few laps around the track or take your dog out for a run every weekend before you binge on your favorite TV show. Find an enjoyable activity to take care of yourself. Enjoying life can be a forgotten factor among college students who are trapped between long hours of work, 15 or more hours of classes, and extracurricular activities. Take a swim every other day at the pool, enjoy a night out with your friends, and don’t miss out on your family’s cookout.

  1. Get involved in your college campus. Adding to your stress might include not fitting in well or not knowing others on campus. Going to school events or joining a college club like, like the LGBTA Club, Chess Club, or any that catches your eye can help. These groups may help you forget about your stress and enjoy time with new friends with similar interest.

Your academic success may become too stressful if you do not sleep properly, if you forget about your health, and especially if you forget to replenish your mental and emotional energy with your loved ones. Once again, sleep, and enjoy the good moments of life!

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts and feels like life is not worth living, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255), by texting Crisis Text Line at 741741 or by calling 9-1-1. References available upon request

(Co-Authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV: Paola Quijano, Melissa Briones, Abigail Nunez-Saenz, Andy Torres, Armando Villarreal-Sosa, and Amy Ramirez)