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Last school year, I polled a small group of college students about what made them feel the most stressed in college. Mostly juniors, their answers varied but were all specifically related to not having enough time to do everything required of them. Unalarmed by their answer, I wanted to know more. Why did these students not elaborate with reports of disparaging feelings of overwhelm, doom, or stress? Did they know what stress looked like on themselves?
It turns out these kids are not only academically involved, but heavily socially involved through teams, Greek life, study groups, clubs, and volunteering. As if fifteen or eighteen credit hours is not enough, you would expect these college students to express feelings of overload and burnout, and to be concerned about their mental health and overall wellbeing, but a certain observation lead me to understand why these students did not allow stress to register as overwhelm or anxiety.
To them, stress was an integral part of their existence. It was analogous to being a college student. They accepted the possibility that stress was present and they tolerated its existence. They formed a vision of stress and all of its glory, and used this visual to help them regulate the negative impact of stress. This was more than a forced positive attitude about stress. This was tapping into their mental and emotional resources to cope. They became familiar with how stress felt on them, how it looked on them, and how to wear it successfully by staying busy, committing, and forming meaning relationships.
Even more remarkable? Not one of the ten students was willing to scale back on obligations despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed. They could not visualize their lives differently. They existed in this kind of whirlwind where stress became the energy behind the spin (eustress). Did they mention some healthy and not so healthy ways in which they de-stressed? Of course. Did they look sleep deprived? Yes. Were they craving a home cooked meal because they were tired of fast food? You bet, but these college students seemed inherently calm when talking about missing a deadline, accomplishing less than expected, and having to say “no”. They seemed to be masters at planning ahead, communicating needs, asking for support, and adapting. They had no issue with asking for extensions, payment plans, and even alternative options to attending a meeting or a class. They met with professors, arranged coffee with a friend, and even skipped meetings when needing to collect themselves mentally. They displayed very little fear of over involvement, failure, burnout, or even success. It was apparent that being involved proved to be the most effective stress management.
Aside from this (maybe) unusual group, every college student perceives stress and overwhelm differently. While academic pressures impact one student, another student feels isolated by social and emotional stressors. Finances worry certain students while fear of failure halts others. In addition, there are many factors that play in to how well a person senses, responds and maneuvers through stress. Personality, genetics, life experiences, and practice all determine how well one copes with stress or succumbs to its negative effects. Some people have to learn the skill of managing stress, while others have the inherent ability.
There are just as many students who walk through each day on campus emotionally fragile, inexperienced, and heavily impacted by life’s stressors. Not having enough time to do everything leaves them feeling exhausted, impaired with anxiety, and unable to push forward. There is no internal regulation device and there is minimal emotional and mental resources to cope. With these students, accepting stress as normal is as difficult as asking for help, seeking professional guidance, or using available resources. Daily stressors become most challenging and often paralyzing. The unfortunate result of not being unable to regulate stress appropriately is that the stress can turn into anxiety, two very different things. To be clear, anxiety means:
· sleeping through classes
· skipping meals
· lacking proper personal hygiene
· experiencing panic
· using substances and food to self-soothe
· experiencing sleep disturbances that affect mood and performance.
As anxiety manifests differently in everyone, it prevents the movement and motion needed to get through four years of college.
During true anxiety, the prefrontal cortex is put on hold while the emotional brain dominates, so logical thinking is halted. Negative, irrational thoughts prevent the needed action to persevere. If you are unable to break this thinking with “mind training” exercises, your physical and emotional feelings surface and can become unmanageable. For some, simply surviving a day presents a real challenge because every sensation registers as a threat - “the stress response is hardwired into our nervous system as a protective mechanism devised to enact the Flight or Fight reaction to threats.” Once that false alarm is set off, chemicals begin to flow and thinking becomes skewed. The body is simply responding to the mind. (Jain, Renee. “5 Things You Should Never Say to an Anxious Child.” GoZen!, GoZen.com, 1 Aug. 2017, www.gozen.com/5-things-you-should-never-say-to-an-anxious-child/.)
From this discussion with college students, it was obvious that the ability to accept stress as a normal part of college life helps manage and regulate the impact of it. The students who are better at handling demands of daily life had the foresight to not only expect stress, but to weave it into their psyche. If there were negative thought processes these students were able to interrupt them and channel their energies into actions: participating, volunteering, exercising, socializing, and persevering.
This is insightful knowledge that college kids need to know. Being emotionally and mentally ready to accept stress as normal, eliminating the fears and being prepared to protect one’s self from stresses’ negative influences will determine if stress makes or breaks a person.
Consider these tips for managing college stress: