Stress in College Students: Coping with College Anxiety

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Anxiety in college students — it’s something we sort of take for granted. School is stressful. College is particularly stressful. And don’t even get us started on graduate school. The pressure, workload, and expense of higher education all have a way of building up, leading to emotional distress, depression, and burnout. Indeed, anxiety and stress in college students are both potentially serious and often overlooked health risk factors. But why is school so stressful, and are there effective strategies for how to deal with stress at school? Read on to find out, and to learn ways of more effectively coping with college anxiety.

Stress in College Students

Traditional college age students are uniquely vulnerable to stress and anxiety. According to Courtney Knowles, executive director of The JED Foundation, a charitable organization that aims to reduce suicide and improve mental health for college students, the average age of onset for an array of mental health conditions is in the range of 18 to 24. In fact, says the National Institute of Mental Health, 75% of individuals with anxiety disorders will begin to experience symptoms before reaching the age of 22.

Harvard Health Publishing confirms that a majority of college students struggle with anxiety. According to the American College Health Association Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment, "63% of college students in the US felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. In the same survey, 23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year."

These findings suggest that traditional college students are both at a particularly vulnerable age, and in a particularly risky environment, with regard to mental health. For those who are vulnerable or at risk, the many adult "firsts" that come with the college experience can prove especially challenging.

According to the JED Foundation, "When students can’t manage these firsts, they’re more likely to struggle." Harrison Davis, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Counseling and Coordinator of the Community Counseling master’s program at North Georgia College & State University observes that "If students do not feel adequate or prepared to cope with the new environment of a college campus, they could easily become susceptible to depression and anxiety."

But what aspects of the college experience are most likley to heighten your risk of stress, anxiety, and even depression? And what steps can you take to reduce your risk?

To hear from an expert on mental health in higher education, check out our Interview with College Student Mental Health expert and Director of the JED Foundation, Lee Swain.

To find out why college students are so stressed out, read on…

Why are students so stressed?

Going to college marks an exciting time in your life. Every fresh semester, program, or activity brings with it the promise of new experiences and unforeseen opportunities. And each of these experiences and opportunities moves you one step closer to the goals you’ve created for yourself, whether educational, personal, or professional. But with each step, you’ll also face new and unforeseen challenges.

You’re adjusting to an unfamiliar environment. Your classes, assignments, and exams are much harder than anything you experienced in high school. You feel a palpable pressure to succeed, both as a consequence of internal and external forces.

And even if your classes are a breeze, even you acclimate seamlessly to campus life, and even your parents are just proud of you for getting into a good school, this may well be your first foray into independence. If that’s true, it may also be your first real encounter with important things like responsibility, accountability, and laundry. Your newfound independence means that you’ll be making many of your own decisions for the first time about things like class attendance, social affiliation, sexual activity, drug and alcohol use, personal expression, and so much more.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re an experienced adult returning to college, or online college, after some time away. At least you’re done with those vulnerable quarter-life crisis years, right?

Well, as you probably know all too well, real life carries an array of stressors that are too encompassing to list. Briefly speaking, some combination of work, child-rearing, bills, home maintenance, taxes, personal commitments, social obligations, gym membership, heath concerns, and aging parents may keep you in constant motion during the day, and restless at night. Add grades, credits, exams, and tuition costs to the mix and it’s easy to see why this exciting and awesome time in your life can also be a crucible of anxiety.

Academic pressure may be nothing new for many students entering college, especially those who navigated highly competitive high schools and admissions processes to arrive on campus. But the costs associated with higher education create far higher stakes.

For many, college begins as a stressful proposition simply based on its high cost and the demands that this cost places upon you to get your money’s worth. And because the cost has risen so dramatically — to the tune of roughly 100% since 1989 — students who are already vulnerable to the impact of stress and anxiety must also contend with harsh economic realities not faced by previous generations.

According to Psychology Today, "In the past, higher education was considered a public good, not a private product. Until the 1980s, it was supported by state funding and federal grants, making it affordable for nearly all students who had the aptitude and motivation to attend college. For example, in the 1960s, tuition at the University of California was $86.50 a semester; it was only $35 a semester at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Students could support themselves and work their way through college with part-time jobs — taking charge of their lives and embracing agency and adulthood in their late teens and early 20s."

It would be an understatement to suggest that attitudes toward higher education have changed. Psychology Today notes that community colleges still remain affordable, but that four-year degree options — even at public colleges and universities — have skyrocketed in price. Psychology Today reports that "the University of California’s tuition, for instance, is $13,225 a year; private college tuition can be $50,000 and more. With room and board another $20,000, college has become out of reach for many of today’s young people...Students look to their parents to pay for college, remaining economically and emotionally dependent on them, which may leave them unprepared for adult life."

Ironically, the high cost of college is making it harder for students to achieve financial independence and, thus, learn true financial responsibility.

Everybody faces stress and experiences anxiety. But how we manage these experiences can make a world of difference. Keep reading for stress-management tips on everything from affordability and time-management to self-care and mental health support.

How to Deal with Stress at School

 Find Ways to Save

In light of the considerable psychological toll that college costs can take on students, one of the best preventative measures for dealing with stress and anxiety is to find ways of saving money on your education. Take advantage of all your financial aid and scholarship opportunities, learn how to effectively wield a credit card, and preemptively consider your eventual options for student loan refinancing. And of course, you can get the ball rolling in the right direction by choosing an education that balances excellence and affordability. We’ve got resources to guide you down each of these paths. To learn more, check out:

 Get Academic Support

College will challenge you. It’s your job to rise to that challenge. But you don’t have to do it alone. That’s the whole point of being part of an academic community, whether on-campus or online. You have access to great minds, extensive academic resources, and dedicated support personnel. Take advantage. After all, you’re paying for it! If you’re struggling, don’t do it in quiet isolation. Before the stress becomes an insurmountable obstacle to your academic success, talk to your professor during office hours, visit your academic advisor, research tutoring options on your campus, even consider shifting your educational focus to areas more suited to you.

Don’t be afraid to ask for academic help. Sometimes, just knowing there are others who care about your educational journey can help to relieve your stress.

It also helps to be prepared, whether you’re studying for exams, attacking a writing assignment, or conducting online research. Take some of the stress out of your work with our handy classroom resources:

For more homework help, including our awesome Study Starters series, drop by The Study Lounge.

Oh, and one more thing before we move on from the academic stuff…

 Don’t Procrastinate

Don’t place yourself behind the eight-ball by putting off until tomorrow what you could do today. Of course, this applies to homework and studying, but it should also apply to stuff like dealing with bureaucratic obstacles at school, setting up medical appointments, and attending to daily life responsibilities like taking out the trash before your dorm attracts vermin. Stay on top of your responsiblities by managing your time effectively, studying incrementally rather than cramming, and organizing your tasks in ways that actually allow you to get things done.

If you’re learning how to work independently for the very first time, check out Online College and Time Management.

 Seek Mental Health Support

If you are a struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression, seek help immediately. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or self harm, call +8 (800) 273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text "HOME" to 741741 (Crisis Text Line). If you are experiencing an emergency or an immediate crisis, call 911 or your local emergency number.

According to the JED Foundation, "stigma remains the most significant barrier to seeking treatment." The Foundation notes that students, in a study from 2006, cited embarrassment as the number one reason someone wouldn’t seek help."

It’s important to recognize that stress and anxiety are common among students at every level. (In fact, if you’re in graduate school, the risk of anxiety and stress disorder is even greater.) Know that you aren’t alone. Don’t let perceived stigma or embarrassment prevent you from seeking the support you need.

If you have access to on-campus mental health counseling, begin there. If you lack such access, or are a student at an online college, there are numerous organizations, hotlines, and community support groups ready to help. To learn more about these groups, take a look at these Mental Health Resources for Online College Students.

And for additional resources supporting those in crisis, visit Preventing Student Suicide: Support and Resources for Students, Educators, and Peers.

 Get Connected

For many students, one of the biggest stressors in higher education is a feeling of isolation. From those attending sprawling state colleges to those earning degrees through online courses, there are countless students experiencing college alone. This may be especially true for marginalized or minority groups. With this in mind, we offer an array of resources dedicated to student populations with distinctive needs. Use these resources to make the most of your educational experience and to connect with students, alumni, and advocacy groups who share your needs and experiences.

  Get Some Rest

Sleep deprivation may be a common part of the educational experience, but it’s neither healthy nor a productive way to pursue an education. Long hours of study, a demanding assignment load, a challenging work schedule, and chronic partying can all cut into crucial sleep time. And that sleep loss can add up to some real mental health consequences including depression, ADHD, and anxiety.

According to Harvard Health, roughly 50% of adults with sleep disorders were also diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Take steps to improve your sleep situation. Avoid caffeine and snacking in the evening, impose a mandatory "lights-out" time on your study and homework sessions, refrain from screen time before hopping into bed. For peak academic performance, make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

To learn more about the connections between sleep and academic performance, check out Hitting the Snooze Button On High School.

You might also be interested in knowing that College Kids are Sleeping in Pods.

  Health Matters

Of course, there’s more to it than just a good night’s sleep. There are quite a few other health factors that could have a direct impact on your anxiety levels and your overall mental health. College campuses bring a number of unique risk factors from the prevalence of sexual assault and the dangers of hazing to the realities of bullying and the permeation of binge drinking. Each of these constitutes an area of student health that can have a direct connection to student stress and anxiety. If you are impacted by these, or any other health challenges, be sure that you’re seeking the proper treatment, therapy, or support.

For an overview of the numerous health risks faced by college students, and strategies for navigating these risks, check out our ever-growing Student Health Portal.

 Chill Out

We don’t mean to patronize you. We know the responsibilities, pressures and stakes of college are very real. But we also know that there’s more to the college experience than just grinding through your homework. You are now part of a community; you have access to opportunities; and you have ways of growing that will take place entirely outside the walls of a classroom. So in spite of the blood, sweat and tears that you’ll be putting into your schoolwork, be sure that you’ve put aside enough time to do things you love. With that in mind, check out a few of the recreational opportunities made possible by your enrollment in college:

 Remember that Grades Aren’t Everything

Again, we know grades are important, and that there’s a lot riding on your academic performance. Bad grades are naturally stressful. And those who thrive on good grades endure a constant drumbeat of anxiety over the need to maintain this high performance standard. But it’s really important to put grades into perspective. Grades do not have life or death consequences. And in fact, research suggests they probably aren’t a truly accurate measure of our knowledge and abilities. However, in most traditional academic settings, graded evaluations are central. Always do your best as a student, but also do your best not to take grades personally. You are more than your grades.

For a little more perspective on the subject, check out our theoretical discussion on Eliminating the Grading System in College: The Pros and Cons.

Anxiety and stress in college students do pose some real public health concerns, especially as they connect to rates of non-completion, depression, substance abuse, addiction, and suicide. There is a real need for mental health professionals — especially school counselors — who have the compassion and knowledge to make a positive difference. If you’re interested in a career helping others cope with or manage anxiety, stress, depression, burnout and the host of other conditions to which students are especially vulnerable, you might consider a career in counseling, especially as a school counselor. To learn more, check out the following counseling degree programs: