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College Students, It’s Real
It is not political hub bub. It isn’t the latest in the fashion industry. And, it is not a story we are following on the six o’clock news. Stress for college students in an everyday, somewhat normal occurrence. With hesitation, I use the word “normal” because normal for one person is not normal for another, just as the impact of stress on one person may differ in manifestation from another.
What is the latest regarding stress and students is that at their “young” age, they are seemingly as stressed as adults, bombarded with demands and pressures of school and every day responsibilities. As a result, college students are experiencing severe emotional and physical symptoms.
According to Vicki Abeles who wrote an article for the NYT magazine (Jan. 2, 2016), a Saint Louis University School of Medicine pediatrician and professor, Stuart Slavin, suggests expectations revolved around education these days are what causes teens and young adults stress. The amount of homework and extracurricular activities, competition surrounding awards, grades and scholarships, emotional challenges like pressure to fit in to certain groups or even finding a group, self-confidence issues, lack of down time, and even financial worries are all factors that are “making our kids sick.”
As a professional life and wellness coach who helps students stress less, I have witnessed middle schoolers comment on what would happen if they brought home a B; how they would not be allowed to participate in their extracurricular activities. I have seen high schoolers fall asleep during tests and complain of various physical symptoms because of how stress was being registered. And, I am aware of the high pressure experienced once a freshman enters college- one stressor leads to another and chronic emotional and physical issues result.
I recently ask a small group of college students (both genders, a range of economic groups, and all ages) what their greatest sources of stress are. They suggested the lack of free time, the lack of sleep, and the rigor of classes as being their primary struggles. It is real!
A frightening statistic published by the American Psychological Association in 2014 alerts us that nearly 31% of teenagers said they were overwhelmed because of school and 30% stated they were depressed or sad as a result of stress. (Staff, Practice Central, APA, Feb. 2014). One might expect high stress in adults, but this survey was given to teenagers.
For teenagers and college students alike, we assume that because they are of adult age, they behave, think and cope with stress like adults- making healthy decisions, regulating emotions, and planning and organizing appropriately to reach goals. The opposite is true, actually, because of brain development.
Years of neuroscientific studies on the brain indicate that the prefrontal lobe of teenage and young adults is indeed not fully developed until somewhere between the ages of 18-25. Not only does this explain engagement in risky behaviors during ages 18-25, but it proves that during this time span when stress is reportedly high, students are incapable of solving problems and managing the negative emotions related to overwhelm. A researcher from The University of California (Los Angeles) was stated in a publication for the NSF (Welsh, Live Science, June 21, 2011):
“Teenagers experience stress as more stressful.” “When you are stressed out as a teenager, it's interfering with your ability to make decisions.” "It's interfering with how the brain functions in regions that are still developing, mainly the reward system and the prefrontal cortex.”
Stress, reactions to stress, and the impact it has on young adults emotionally, physically, and mentally is a concern of both educators and parents because students who struggle daily do not seem to thrive.
Sleep is poor. Proper daily nutrition is neglected. Self-care is neglected. Drugs and alcohol are abused. Relationships and social connections are avoided. And, emotions are both hidden and displayed. Fear, anger, frustration, thoughts of hopelessness, sadness and other negative feelings sabotage any change of being able to help one’s self.
Parents may not know their role in contributing to the stress, sometimes having high expectations, being emotionally unstable themselves, or expressing their own fears (example – over finances). School educators, professors and even deans may not consider the impact of classroom rigor, deadlines, and course load on students. And, friends, social groups and acquaintances on campus have their own set of stress-related issues (one will assume).
Therefore, counselors and wellness professionals, who are experienced and knowledgeable about stress, depression and anxiety often have some of the best strategies for stress release. Today, most schools seem to be prepared and proactive in recognizing the impact of stress. Wellness Centers are a part of almost every college campus in the U.S., it seems, providing preventative and helpful information and guiding students towards success. In fact, some schools, like several in Virginia, have the Dean of Student Affairs frequently publish “tips” for parents on how to help their college freshman at certain times stressful times. One recent publication explaining how two independent worlds of thought are coming together for the first time in three months, was sent to parents to help them understand how to help their college freshman decompress over fall break.
Similarly, one of the things I do initially with clients is to have them recognize what stress looks like. What exactly does it look like on you? Describe it in detail. How does it feel emotionally, mentally, and physically?
Is it a headache very Monday night before your 7pm class? Is it a crying episode every morning because you have to eat alone in a cafeteria filled with thousands of your peers? Is it that your alcohol consumption has increased significantly since you arrived on campus? Is it weight loss or gain? Is it feelings of hopelessness, that maybe you are not meant for college? Is it anger at your parents for having such high expectations of you?
This is important because we are prepping the brain for change. The brain loves to operate with the least amount of work, so it is on autopilot every time stress triggers strike. It automatically prepares to deal with stress in the same (ineffective manner) as it always has. The neurons in the brain do not communicate or connect with other neurons when there is a drought of new thoughts and practices (strategies) introduced.
By describing in detail how stress feels, we successfully plan specific, personal, and effective modes of managing symptoms. This is intentional and direct, focusing all efforts and energies on changing the brain and its plasticity. By receiving this new information, practicing and repeating the new strategic behaviors, neurons begin to revitalize, reconnect, and form new connections. (Fewer are formed when under chronic stress).
Permanent, successful stress management now means that when thoughts of devastation occur, alcohol and drugs are abused, and self-care is neglected, the brain resort to these more effective responses.
For instance, Katie was paralyzed by the fear of attending a freshman class. After we determined what exactly she didn’t appreciate about the class (fear of speaking up and being noticed), and how it registered with her and on her, together we set into place a few simple strategies for her to ease that fear: arrive at class early; be prepared even if you have to make an outline for the day’s lesson; speak privately to the professor about the fear; repeat the mantra – “I am not the only one who is shy in my class;” take your mind to a specific chapter that you really engaged in and convince yourself you DO know the material; simply smile and make eye contact with a new person in class each week.
All of the strategies are getting the brain ready to go off of auto-pilot, challenging the path of least resistance and ineffective coping, and preparing the chemistry of the brain to change so newly repeated strategies start to create permanent effective stress-reducing behaviors.
This seems to be very successful when students have a specific and action-related plan to turn to in times of physical and emotional stress. It may mean doing something uncomfortable like telling a friend you can no longer go with her to the midnight study group or asking your professor for an extension. This most definitely means the possible replacement of a TV show with thirty minutes of no LEDs. Or, the addition of a TV show as a reward for finishing studying early. Add a kickboxing class or knit- something that brings you the sense of calm your body and mind require. Join a prayer group or a support group for depression, but only allow yourself the one hour of the class to think about negative things and then move forward.
There are endless combinations of possibilities that can work against stress. It is important to seek whatever help is available to get this started. Being at the center of a tug-of-war rope wanting one side to just win so the pain is over is not ideal for daily coping of stress. Relief mean more available mental space so that we can think about the things we love to think about and do the things we love to do. Ultimately, even life in college can be more rewarding when you incorporate healthy stress management.
Stress is real, but less stress means success!
Lori Bender, MSW
Professional/ Certified Life and Wellness Coach
Founder of Carolina Lifestyle Coaching and Consulting, LLC