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College Stress

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Copyright @ 2011 by 

Tom Siebold

All rights reserved.


Managing Stress as a College Student*

Good Stress, Bad Stress

Take a look at your napping cat. That's the picture of a stress-free life and it's probably not the life you aspire to. Stress is the engine behind your ambition. Most people perform best with a moderate amount of stress; it's only when there's too much of it that stress can take a toll on the mind and body.

Symptoms of Excessive Stress

  • Physical symptoms can include: headache, stomachache, insomnia, muscle tension, a loss or increase of appetite, an irregular heartbeat, etc.

  • Emotional/mental symptoms can include: feeling overwhelmed or defeated, being irritable, crying often, having poor concentration and memory, etc.

  • Additionally, some people seek an escape valve for excessive stress by turning to alcohol, drugs, nicotine, food, or other unhealthy or harmful outlets. Be on the alert and seek help if you recognize these dependencies in yourself.

Strategies for Reducing Excessive Stress

Identify & Eliminate Some of the Stressors

You can't eliminate the biggest stressors in your life (the next exam coming up), but eliminating some of the smaller stressors can make it much easier to deal with the big issues. Think hard about the little stressors in your life and try to eliminate some of them. For example:

  • If your commute is adding to your stress, move closer to campus next semester.

  • If a friend is calling too often, screen his/her calls.

  • If you're feeling guilty because you're not fulfilling your obligations to family, friends, or organizations, discuss this with the people involved. You might want to tell friends or organizations that you will be back in touch during the semester break.

Talk to Yourself

Put things in perspective by reminding yourself of the reality of your situation. For example, you might tell yourself, “I just have an exam coming up; there are others who will be diagnosed with cancer today.”

  • If you received a low grade on an exam, tell yourself that most students graduate  with a low grade or two.

  • If you feel like you have way too much to learn and not enough time, tell yourself that many students are in a similar situation and you can't learn everything.

  • Be a friend to yourself. Stop saying mean things to yourself that you would never say to a friend.


Both laughing and crying can do wonders for taking the edge off your tension. Some people like to watch a good comedy to de-stress; others prefer a tear-jerker.

Surround yourself with funny people and occasionally try to laugh about your stress.

Use Relaxation Techniques

  • Try a few minutes of slow, counted breathing. Inhale deeply to the count of 7 and then exhale to the count of 7. (This sounds simple, but it works!) Repeat the sequence of counted breathing 2 or 3 times.

  • Download or purchase relaxing music or recordings of guided relaxation. Listen to a recording at bedtime if you have trouble sleeping.

Take Care of Your Body

Your body is more vulnerable to illness when you're stressed, so it's essential that you take care of yourself. The last thing you need is to get sick when you have a lot to do.

  • Take the time to exercise regularly.

  • Treat yourself to a massage.

  • Eat nutritious meals.

  • Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Research indicates that your ability to concentrate, remember, and deal with stress are all compromised when you do not get enough sleep. Also, it doesn't make sense to stay up studying late at night, when concentration and productivity are at their lowest.

  • Avoid nicotine, excessive caffeine, and other stimulants.

Have fun!

  • Take the time to have a little fun each week. This doesn't necessarily mean you should take a whole weekend off, but it does mean that having fun is a good way to lower your stress.

  • Friends, Family, and Experts to the Rescue

  • Commiserate with classmates. Knowing you aren't the only one who is stressed out or did poorly on an exam can help you gain perspective.

  • Talk to someone who thinks you're smart and capable. A little unconditional support can help when you're feeling overwhelmed.

First Aid for Crunch Time

  • Create a study schedule, listing specific tasks and how long each will take to complete.

  • While studying one topic, don't let yourself think about all the other things you have to do. Remind yourself that you wrote everything on your list and you will get to each item in turn. Keep telling yourself, “One thing at a time. Right now I'm doing this.”

Reclaim Your Confidence

  • It's not uncommon for students who once felt smart and capable to begin to question their abilities when taking a difficult course. Most of your classmates feel this way.

  • Don't give your performance on a test the power to define you. An exam won't tell you whether you're brilliant or not so brilliant. Your performance mostly depends on your prior education, your preparation for the exam, and your test-taking strategies.

  • Remind yourself that admissions staff members admitted you because they know you have the ability to succeed.

  • Remind yourself of a time in the past when you handled twice as much work as you thought you could handle. You can do it again!

If you begin to feel truly overwhelmed, seek professional help.

*Used with permission from Academic Center for Excellence at the University of Illinois at Chicago