Stress in College: What Everyone Should Know

What Is Stress?

Stress is your physical, emotional, and mental responses to change, regardless of whether the change is good or bad.

Without some stress, people wouldn't get a lot done. The extra burst of adrenaline that helps you finish your final paper, win at sports, or meet any other challenge is positive stress. It's a short-term physiological tensing and added mental alertness that subsides when the challenge is met, enabling you to relax and carry on with normal activities.

If you can't return to a relaxed state, this stress becomes negative. The changes in your body- increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and stomach and muscle tension- start to take their toll, often leading to mental and physical exhaustion and illness.

Using the analogy of a rubber band, positive stress is just the right amount of stress needed to make it useful. Negative stress snaps the band.

Stress and Illness:

Negative, excessive stress may be a key element in half of all illnesses, ranging from the common cold to heart disease. Studies suggest that your stress level affects your immune and nervous systems, heart function, metabolism, and hormone levels. As a result, researchers now believe that stress may affect your recovery from, as well as susceptibility to, illness.

The Signs Of Stress:

The symptoms below may indicate increased stress as well as other problems. Have a medical checkup for any physical symptoms and try some stress reduction techniques to relax and regain perspective. If relaxation or returning to healthy habits is still difficult, you may want to investigate individual or group counseling through your student or community health or counseling center.

  • Problems eating or sleeping
  • Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Increased boredom and fatigue; a general sense of "the blahs"
  • Problems making decisions; increased procrastination
  • Becoming anxious and confused over unimportant events
  • Inability to concentrate or pay attentio
  • Inability to get organized
  • Weakness, dizziness, and shortness of breath; "anxiety attacks"
  • Persistent hostile or angry feelings; increased frustration with minor annoyances
  • NightmaresOverpowering urges to cry or run and hide
  • Changes in your exercise habits
  • Frequent headaches, backaches, muscle aches, or tightness in the stomach
  • Frequent indigestion, diarrhea, or urination
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Frequent accidents and minor injuries


You may be suffering serious stress overload if...

  • You feel a growing need for food, tobacco, alcohol, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, or other drugs.
  • Your behavior (such as driving too fast, vandalizing school property, or practicing unsafe sex) is putting you or others at risk.
  • Friends keep telling you that you seem stressed out.

Speak with a counselor to find some less dangerous ways to unwind.

Taking Charge:

In addition to creating potentially stressful situations, college gives you a way to evaluate and change the ways you manage stress.

You've been coping with stress since you were a child, using skills you copied or learned from family and friends. You may be feeling that some of the techniques you have learned- letting others make decisions for you, skipping school, or overeating- aren't as effective as you once thought they were. Or you may need to learn new techniques to manage new levels of stress.

Try some of the techniques below and check with your student or community health or counseling center to see what stress management workshops they offer. Since managing stress usually involves physical and mental processes, programs ranging from biofeedback to time management and from muscle relaxation to assertiveness training may be useful alone or together at different times. Individual counseling or psychotherapy also may be helpful.

Short-Term Ways To Handle Stress:

  1. Relax where you are. Sitting in a comfortable position, place your left hand over your navel and rest your right hand on top of your left. Breathe deeply through your nose, feeling your hands rise as your abdomen fills with air. Still inhaling, count to three and feel your chest expand. Hold your breath momentarily, then release it. Repeat four times, but stop if you become light-headed.
  2. Take a break. Get some exercise or fresh air, or go somewhere private and yell or cry.
  3. Ask yourself whether it's worth being upset over the situation. You can choose to stay calm and ignore it. If the issue is important, confront it directly, talk it out with a sympathetic friend, or write it out in a letter that you don't send.
  4. List all the things you think you need to do right away. Then prioritize the list and only do the top few. The rest can be first priority tomorrow. See "Beating Procrastination" below.

Long-Term Ways To Handle Stress:

  1. Seek your own stress level. Strive for excellence within your limits.
  2. Choose your own goals. Don't live out choices others have made for you.
  3. Become part of a support system. Look out for yourself by letting friends help you when you are under too much stress and by helping them when they are overloaded.
  4. Think positive. Your mind sends signals to your body to prepare for danger whenever you think about possible negative outcomes, and you become tense regardless of whether or not the event happens.
  5. Make decisions. You can learn to live with the consequences or change your mind. In general, any decision- even consciously deciding to do nothing- is better than none.
  6. Keep realistic expectations. Don't expect perfection from yourself or others. Expect some problems reaching your goals and realize that you can solve most of them with practice.
  7. Accept what you cannot change. If a problem is beyond your control, you're better off accepting it for now than spinning your wheels.
  8. Anticipate potentially stressful situations and prepare for them. Decide whether the situation is one you should deal with, postpone, or avoid. If you decide to deal with the situation, practice what you will say and do.
  9. Live in the present. Learn from the past and move on.
  10. Manage your time. Prioritizing and planning can keep the demands of college life from becoming overwhelming.
  11. Take care of your health. Exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and avoid alcohol and other mood-altering drugs.
  12. Take time for yourself. Make yourself your priority. Find time to relax- even if only for a few minutes- every day

Beating Procrastination:

Here are some tips to help you cope with one of the most common stressors- procrastination. You can develop similar "hands on" plans to manage other stressors and help you stay in control.

  1. Buy a calendar. Set up a daily or weekly schedule for yourself, allowing time for class, study, leisure, exercise, and other activities that are important or fun for you. Allow yourself about two hours of study time for every hour of class. And remember, your schedule doesn't have to be perfect- you can change it as needed.
  2. Keep a "to do" list. Prioritize your tasks and try to get the most important done on time. Fit the rest in as possible, making certain that you take some time to enjoy yourself.
  3. Ask for help. Contact your student or community counseling center for support and additional help if you need it.

For More Information, Feel Free To Contact The Following Resource:

American College Health Association
P.O. Box 28937
Baltimore, MD 21240-8937
(410) 859-1500



If You Need to Talk to Someone

The University of Massachusetts Center for Women & Community provides confidential rape crisis counseling to men and women, 24 hours a day, at (413) 545-0800.


See the Sexual Respect and Title IX website for additional contacts and more information.