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Stress in College Students: A look at the Numbers, Common Causes, Stress Relief Activities and Tips for Parents

Written by Rebecca Hastings


Posted on December 04 2018

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that college can be a very stressful time for our young student population. We have almost become numb to the talk about college students and stress. As parents of college students, it is important for us to take a closer look at the health statistics, common causes, and effective solutions for stress in college.

It should first be noted that not all stress is bad. It’s sometimes easy to get overwhelmed as a college student so don’t worry- experiencing stress as a student is normal especially during exam time and can actually be beneficial.

According to ULifeline, “stress is a burst of energy that basically advises you on what to do”. Stress can motivate you to reach your goals and boost your memory. It’s those times when our college children are struggling that we need to be concerned.

What are signs of stress?

A signal of too much stress can manifest itself in external ways. They include:

  • Low energy level
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Chest pains
  • Shaking or sweating hands
  • Stomachaches and nausea
  • Sick more often with colds

And manifest itself in internal ways:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to complete tasks
  • More irritable than usual

Unfortunately, it’s the internal stresses of college that can have a negative impact on the student’s mental health, making it difficult to handle the daily demands of school. For instance, data from the 2017 NCHA (National College Health Assessment) indicated how 37,000+ current students were feeling at the time of the survey:

  • Things were hopeless 52%
  • Overwhelmed by all you had to do 86.5%
  • Exhausted (not from physical activity) 83.4%
  • Very lonely 63.1%
  • Very sad 67.3%
  • So depressed that it was difficult to function 39.3%
  • Overwhelming anxiety 60.9%

In fact, the two most common mental health disorders are anxiety in college students and depression in college students. Research shows that nearly 1 in 5 university students are affected with anxiety or depression.

Because 75% of mental health issues begin to appear before the age of 25, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) released a video in 2017 on college and mental health. The purpose of the video is to help families begin a dialogue about mental health as students move away from their support systems and family.

Causes of Stress in College Students

We know that students are stressed, but what’s causing it? In an article by True Stress Management, six possible causes include:

  • Heavy course loads
  • Family turmoil and loss of loved ones
  • Romantic relationships
  • Pressure to perform well on exams
  • Unfamiliar environment
  • Living among strangers

Dr. Yvette Stupart, a clinical counselor and educator included a list of other common stressors for students in college:

  • Critical adjustment to college life
  • Academic requirements
  • Demands of studies (e.g., assignment deadlines and increasing workload)
  • Unsatisfactory housing arrangements
  • Lack of a support system
  • Ineffective coping skills
  • Extended commute time
  • Greater levels of independence

There appears to be one common theme in all these lists - academics. In another article, What are the Common Causes of Stress in College Students, the author’s first common cause from the list was maintaining academic success followed by building new friendships, balancing the social life, handling roommate drama and homesickness. The latter, if unchecked “could lead to depression, bad grades and dropping out of school.”

Is it the academic demands that are causing college students the most unhappiness today? According to a 2010 article in Psychology Today, it is. The demands of academics appeared to be 10% higher than any other stressor (financial problems or intimate relationships).

However, in a recent article (One in Five College Students have Anxiety or Depression and Here’s Why) from February of 2018, this could be changing. The author who is a professor of psychiatry and a practicing psychiatrist who has experience with mental health problems among college students, sees other emerging factors: They include:

  • Dangers in technology
  • Seeking out drugs
  • Other stressors (homesickness, rising cost of college, dread of debt & parent involvement)

When discussing dangers of technology, the author cites several studies that have found that mobile phone addiction, as well as excess smartphone use, is associated with increased sleep disturbancedepression, anxiety and overall stress.

Seeking out drugs is another area of concern. For instance, students want to stay in college and maintain good grades. The author reports, “To attain these goals, it is not uncommon for students and their parents to seek chemical assistance. In the past five years, the number of requests I receive from high school and college students and their parents for stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall have skyrocketed.” It’s a well-known fact that Ritalin and Adderall’s side effects include anxiety and possibly depression.

Concerning parent involvement, the author reports, “Parents are also more involved in their children’s college and work experience. It is not uncommon for parents to call college counselors, bosses and work managers. Once that would have been off-limits. Now, this is commonplace.” However, not all parent involvement leads to conflict and therefore stress. According to College Parent Central, parental involvement can be beneficial

Stress Relief Activities for College Students

Students and healthcare professionals identify ways to beat stress. Power naps, exercise, music, staying organized, and eating healthy are widely known. However, professionals also mention positive thinking and how students with positive attitudes experience better circumstances. For example, positive thinking leads to a more productive life with better grades, better health and better relationships.

This student blogger suggests these techniques to beat stress, meditate, take breaks regularly, get a pet, and laugh. The importance of laughing cannot be underestimated. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. A rollicking laugh fires up and then cools down your stress response, and it can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good, relaxed feeling.”

Aromatherapy has also been included on stress relief lists. Some essential oils like lavender have been shown to reduce stress. Since dorm rooms typically do not allow lit candles, a diffuser is an easy way to enjoy the effects of essentials oils. Serene Living makes the Aroma Sphere which is suitable for dorm rooms since it is powered by batteries or by plugging it into the USB drive of your computer. You can purchase the Aroma Sphere along with other relaxing items (Shower Tablets) through hugabox.  Additional information about each item can be found here.

Through The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), Gabriel Mojay defines aromatherapy as "the controlled use of essential oils to maintain and promote physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being.” Medical News Today reports that aromatherapy is seen as a complementary therapy and reduces the following conditions:

  • Nausea
  • Pain and body aches
  • Anxiety, agitation, stress and depression
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Muscular aches
  • Headaches
  • Circulatory problems
  • Menstrual problems

However, there are other college care package ideas that have been known to reduce stress or at least bring a smile and a laugh to your student when opened. Who remembers the slinky? The shifting between hands can be mesmerizing. It sometimes has been placed on a table during brainstorming sessions to reduce stress. From a blogger concerning stress relief toys, “the idea behind [the slinky] is to divert your attention away from your stress."

In a similar manner, a parent may be inclined to send The Stress Buster Bat, (should receive an even greater laugh) a stress ball or make your own stress balls. One parent and teacher was very creative, she created a piece of bubble wrap with the following message:

Stress Relief

Pop three stress relief capsules every 4-6 hours or as needed. See Physician if symptoms persist!

Tips for Parents

While sending care packages is not always feasible, there are other ways to help your student reduce their stress that does not require a financial commitment. One of the best ways is to text your student regularly especially college freshman. Research from Erin Ruppel suggests that “exchanging text messages with your student can provide support during their early college days.” What’s most interesting is that the students did not necessarily share what was bothering them. However, they felt better receiving the text anyway. It also keeps your student in the loop and connected with the rest of the family by sharing events and activities at home.

Validation is one of the most important things a parent can do. When your student does come to you with a problem, it’s best not to say, “That’s nothing to get upset about”. Instead validate statements so your student feels heard. For instance, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “You must have felt terrible when that happened”. Validation leads to a calmer interaction and may increase the number of times your student comes to you to share.

However, there may be times when your student really needs a great deal of support. In these situations, the creation of a support plan may be appropriate. Have a plan put together beforehand with insurance information, numbers to college counseling services and support groups on campus. Some campuses may have text lines available to students if the need is urgent.

All of this depends on the student and how willing they are to participate. There are some students who may be afraid to ask for help. If your student does not have the above resources available to them or they would rather seek assistance off campus, there’s also the Crisis Text Line.

Helping college students cope and reduce stress during the early start of their college career will help them prepare for their junior and senior years and potentially higher levels of stress when they land their first job.







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