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Standing by water feeling the effects of stress on college students

The Effects of Stress on College Students

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The effects of stress on college students are taking an increasingly heavy toll. With the typical stressors of college multiplied by the pandemic, nine out of 10 students believe there is a mental health crisis on college campuses, according to a recent survey. 

Each semester brings new challenges and uncertainties alongside academic demands. Anxiety about going back to college during the pandemic has shifted into midterm stress and now exam stress as the end of the school year gets closer. How can young adults learn how to deal with college stress and find a healthy balance between achievement and well-being?

Is College More Stressful Than High School?

College and stress seem to go hand in hand. “I am struggling in college” is one of the most frequent issues reported by young adults seeking mental health support. Why is college so stressful? Essentially, college students are attempting to perform to their best ability academically and socially, while living in an environment that is not conducive to self-care. For most college students, eating well, staying physically active, and getting enough sleep—the three pillars of young adult mental health—are pretty low on the to-do list. 

Freshman stress can be particularly challenging. It’s a big change to go from being an experienced high school senior to a newbie with no idea how things work or how to find your way around campus. Living away from family (often for the first time) and making a whole new set of friends can be scary. The HBO show The Sex Lives of College Girls is a comedy, but it pretty accurately depicts how hard it is to navigate the freedom of college and the excitement of new relationships while trying to stay focused on academics and career plans.

Know the Facts

3 out of 4 young adults say they could have used more emotional support than they have received since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the APA’s Stress in America report.

Young adults have struggled more than any other age group with the stressors created by the pandemic—including loneliness and isolation, the negative impact on academics, and having to put the brakes on launching a more independent life. While these effects of stress on college students were especially intense during the first year of the pandemic, the mental health repercussions have not eased up over time. According to a January 2022 survey by TimelyMD, 70 percent of college students were experiencing distress or anxiety due to the Omicron surge, with higher levels of stress among female and nonbinary students. And nearly three-quarters of college students were feeling the same or even more stressed than they were the year before. 

The American Psychological Association (APA)’s 2022 Stress in America report found similar statistics on young adults and stress. Adults aged 18–25 had the highest average stress level of all adults—a score of 5.8 out of 10, with 10 representing “a great deal of stress.” More than 60 percent of young adults said they experienced the pandemic as a daily stressor. And 77 percent agreed that the pandemic “has stolen major life moments they will never get back.” 

Even as COVID deaths continue to decline and restrictions have eased, young adults continue to report feelings of uncertainty about the future and anxiety about possible new variants. Furthermore, chronic stress doesn’t always go away when the stressor is reduced. For many college students, long-term stress has progressed into a mental health condition such as depression, an anxiety disorder, or PTSD

“The pressure to perform academically for college students is high on a regular year. So having a hard time during the pandemic is something we would expect to happen.”

Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, CCTP
Newport Chief Experience Officer

Signs of Academic Stress and Burnout

The effects of stress on college students can be long or short term, acute or chronic. Symptoms of stress can be emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and/or physical. They include:

  • Feeling worried and anxious all the time
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Stomachaches and headaches
  • Chest pain and shortness of breath
  • Procrastinating or neglecting academics
  • Feeling overwhelmed and hopeless
  • Having negative thoughts
  • Withdrawing from peers and social activities
  • Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Problems with focusing and concentrating
  • Disordered eating
  • Dissociation—feeling disconnected from one’s thoughts and identity
  • High-functioning anxiety
  • Using alcohol, drugs, or other substances as way to cope with stress.

Stress symptoms in men can sometimes look different than in other genders, due to social expectations around masculinity. Women often seem to find it easier to verbally express feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. But young men are more likely to self-medicate stress with substance abuse, or channel it into aggressive behavior. 

Young adults feeling the effects of stress on college students
Young adults feeling the effects of stress on college students

Social Media, Young Adults, and Stress

Young adults use social media more than any other age group: 84 percent of them are on one or more of the apps. And while they often turn to social media to help them cope with stress, it doesn’t help. In fact, research shows that it’s making their mental health worse

That’s due in large part to the constant comparisons prompted by social media and pressure to look perfect all the time. In one study of 2,500 college students, posting edited photos was directly associated with a higher risk of eating disorders. Moreover, the addictive nature of social media keeps young people scrolling, using up the limited time they have for more effective relaxation and stress relief, not to mention assignments and extracurriculars. Ultimately, that creates more stress.

Another social media–related stress on college students is ensuring that their profiles don’t contain content that might put off potential employers. 

Know the Facts

According to a survey of employers, 57 percent have decided not to hire job applicants because of what they found on their social media accounts.

How to Deal with College Stress: 5 Coping Skills for Young Adults

These evidence-based strategies can help counteract the effects of stress on college students. 

Design a self-care plan.

To support their general well-being and head off signs of academic stress, students can work with family, mentors, or a therapist to create a plan for staying mentally and physically healthy. The plan should reflect the young adult’s specific needs and what they find most supportive. It might include setting goals for sleep, nutrition, and exercise, as well as limits for substance use. Accessing college counseling resources might be part of the plan as well. Students can also build in time for a creative outlet or other activity they love. Ideally, this is something they can turn to in times of acute stress, rather than falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms like substances or social media overuse. 

Get organized.

College students often find they are busier than they ever were in high school, and they don’t have effective tools to help them map out their time and priorities. It may sound simple, but it can make a huge positive difference in reducing the effects of stress on college students. The college’s academic support center can be helpful in providing options for better organization. Even a simple Excel sheet to keep track of everything can ease the effects of exam stress on students—and social stress as well.

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, and breath awareness are proven to reduce stress. These practices help shift the nervous system from the fight-or-flight response into the relaxation response. Many colleges offer yoga and/or meditation classes. In addition, college students can ease exam stress and other moments of acute stress by using breathing exercises. Here’s one called Square Breathing:

  1. Sit comfortably in a chair, with your feet on the floor and hands in your lap.
  2. Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of four, allowing the air to fill your belly.
  3. Hold the breath in for a count of four.
  4. Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of four.
  5. Hold the breath for a count of four.

As you breathe, visualize a healing blue or white light washing over your body. Repeat the sequence for several minutes.

Build connection with others.

Multiple studies have shown that social relationships improve mental and physical health. The more support we have, the more resilient we are against stress. Colleges offer multiple ways to make trusting and authentic connections, including support groups, clubs, performance troupes, and affinity groups. 

Remember why you’re there.

Reconnecting with their motivation is one of the most powerful ways students can lower anxiety about going back to college or being overwhelmed at college. Which skills and strengths do they want to develop? What experiences do they want to have? Are they clear on what they want to take away from their time in college? Remembering their original inspiration and goals can reduce stress on college students and keep them moving forward with hope and energy. 

Treatment for Toxic Stress in Adults in Their 20s

If stress on college students has progressed into a mental health condition, lifestyle change is less likely to be successful without professional support. At Newport Institute, we guide young adults to process stress and trauma while building resilience and healthy coping skills. Our clinical model prioritizes education as a part of whole-person treatment, so young people can stay on track with their education and career goals while receiving the comprehensive care they need.

Contact us today to learn more about our specialized approach to mental health treatment for young adults.

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Int J Eating Disord. 2020 May; 53(6): 864–872. 

Computers Hum Behavior. 2020 Jan: 206–213. 

JAMA Intern Med. 2014; 174(3): 357–368. 

J Health Soc Behav. 2010; 51(Suppl): S54–S66.

Mental Health / March 18, 2022

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