Helping Your College Student Cope with Stress

College students experience a lot of stress.  As parents, some of us are acutely aware of our student’s stress levels, and to others of us it may be less obvious.  Of course, not every student experiences stress, and some students actually thrive on a certain amount of it; but many college students find that increased pressure or anxiety are part of the experience of college.

Consider some of the following information gathered about student stress as you think about your own student’s potential stress levels.  Discuss some of these findings with your student to help them realize that they, and/or their friends, may not be alone if they are experiencing anxiety.

College students experience a lot of stress — but it’s not all bad

The Associated Press and MTV conducted a survey of college students to consider college student stress.  They surveyed over 2,200 students at 40 randomly chosen colleges throughout the United States.  Although the survey is several years old, the results have not changed much, or may be even more concerning in recent years.  Some of the findings of this College Stress and Mental Health poll are included below.

  • 85% of students feel stressed on a daily basis
  • 60% of students at some time have felt stress to the point of not being able to get work done
  • 70% of students have never considered talking to a counselor about their stress
  • 84% of students reach out to friends to help them with their stress
  • 67% of students reach out to parents for help with stress

The good news is that in spite of these statistics regarding stress levels, 74% of students reported feeling very or somewhat happy.  Clearly, not all stress is bad.

What do we mean by ”stress”?

Perhaps one of the issues regarding college student stress, and the surveys that attempt to study it, is that stress may be defined in many ways.  For college students, stress may manifest itself as a general feeling of unease, feeling overwhelmed, changes to eating patterns, increased consumption of alcohol, low energy, difficulty sleeping, loss of or increased appetite, or difficulty with issues of self-esteem or self-worth.  Stress may be difficult to identify because it takes so many forms.  Many of the symptoms of stress may also be normal conditions of college life.

What causes college students stress?

  • 85% of students feel stressed on a daily basis
  • 77% of students feel stress over academic concerns
  • 74% of students feel stress about grades
  • 67% of students feel stress about financial worries
  • 54% of students feel stress about their families
  • 53% of students feel stress about relationships

The factors which cause students stress are as varied as the students themselves.  A condition which stresses one student may actually stimulate and excite another student. As parents, knowing your college student will help you determine what might, or might not, create difficulties for your student.  An open dialogue about life at college will also help you determine how your student feels about some of these factors.  Many college students have indicated that some of the following factors create feelings of stress for them.

Clearly, in spite of the message that many students receive about college being ”the best years of your life”, there are issues, worries, and concerns that can make college a difficult time for many students.  Stress may be a motivator, a small, temporary hurdle, or an obstacle that can stop a student in their tracks and require professional help.

What can parents do?

As parents, it is important that we recognize that student stress is prevalent and real.  However, it is also important that we recognize that some stress is probably inevitable and possibly a good thing.  We need to recognize that most students are coping and happy in spite of a certain degree of stress, and that most students will deal with their own stress in their own way.  As with so many things in our college students’ lives, we need to find the balance between true concern, providing support when necessary, and knowing when to get out of the way.

We want to help our students have the best college experience possible.  We want to protect them from harmful things and keep them healthy.  As college parents, some of the difficulty that we experience is knowing that we cannot always ”make things better”.  In our role as coaches rather than caretakers, we are limited to offering suggestions to our students and then letting them take control of their lives.

You must continue to trust the parental radar that may indicate when your student’s anxiety is more than normal everyday stress.  If you have an indication that your student is having extreme emotional difficulty, suggest immediately that your student speak to someone at school.  Schools have counselors, psychologists, or other mental health professionals who are ready to help and who are experienced in college student issues.  If you fear for your student’s well being, contact someone at school.  They may not be able to share information with you, but they can check on your student.

For most college students, however, student stress can be addressed and, if not eliminated, at least alleviated.  If 67% of students reach out to parents when they are feeling stress, parents are in an ideal position to discuss stress, and possible ways to deal with it

Coping with stress 

One reason to discuss stress with your student, perhaps before they have an opportunity to experience it, is to help them learn to be proactive in dealing with it.  One problem that many students encounter is that stress takes them by surprise. There are four steps that can help your student actively deal with stress.

  • Expect it. Students who are prepared for the possibility that even a wonderful college experience can be stressful at times will not be shaken when it happens.
  • Name it. Student stress may be caused by many things, or by one particular thing.  It will help your student to deal with the problem if they can identify the cause.
  • Accept it. A certain amount of stress is inevitable — and possibly a good thing for some students.  It will help if your student sees this stress as part of the college experience.  Much like being caught in a current while swimming, going with the flow may be the best way to tackle the problem.
  • Tackle it. Going with the flow does not mean that your student needs to accept stress as a continual way of existing.  There are specific things that your student can do to lower stress to a more manageable level.

Strategies to share with your student

Once your student has named their stress and determined to deal with it, here are a few suggestions that might be helpful.  Share some of these with your student so they can think about changes that may be helpful.

  • Identify the cause. See what can be done specifically to deal with the source of the stress.
  • Get organized. Make lists.  Use a calendar.  Tidy up your desk or room or workspace.  Don’t try to carry everything around in your head, put it on paper.  A list may seem daunting at first, but knowing what needs to be tackled may be half of the battle.
  • Work on your health. Get exercise.  Get more sleep.  Make better food choices.
  • Get support. Talk to friends, but consider talking to an Academic Advisor or Counselor.
  • Use calming techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, visualization or positive imagery.
  • Work on balance. Are you involved in too many activities — or not enough to provide variety?  Are you trying to work too many hours?
  • Find some quiet time when you can be alone. Residence halls may be wonderfully social places to live, but they are often continually active and busy.  Whether it is a few moments or a stretch of time, find some time to be quiet and alone.  Go for a walk.  Find an out of the way space and just sit.  Take time to center yourself.
  • Take an occasional break from routine. Get off campus.  Visit home.  Visit a friend.  Go for a hike.  Go shopping.
  • Go to class. Don’t avoid problems.  Don’t fall behind — or more behind.  Talk to the professor.  Keep up with current work — even if you have to make up back work as well.
  • Get involved with other people and activities. Busy, involved, active students may experience less stress. Talk to your family.  Talk to your friends.  Ask for help if you need it.
  • Count your blessings. Take a few moments to think about all of the things that are going well.  Even when things may seem most difficult, there are probably some things in your life that are great.  Focus on the positive. Make a list.
  • Do something for others. Take the focus off of yourself.  Help out someone else.  Tutor a friend.
  • Differentiate between the things you can change and the things that cannot be changed. Don’t waste time and energy trying to change things that can’t be changed.
  • Set some goals or make some resolutions. Be forward thinking and know where you’re headed.
  • Take action. Don’t just hope for something, create an action plan that will get you there.  Think of every small detail that you can tackle that will move you forward.  Be in control.

Just as stress can take many forms, so can strategies to deal with that stress.  As a college parent, you may be in a good position to help your student think carefully about how they have dealt with stressful situations in the past and how they can apply the coping skills that they already have to this new situation.  This may be one of those times when your listening skills may be far more important than anything specific that you tell your student.  Once again, knowing that you are there to provide support may be the most important job that you will have.

Related articles:

Keeping the Dialogue Open with Your College Student

Ten Suggestions to Help Students Through the Stress of Midterm Exams

Parents Can Help Students with End-of-Semester Stress Meltdown

Is Your Student “Present” at College?


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