Surviving Back to College Stress!

Much of my time these days is spent around stressed-out students.

As a parent, I observe my own children’s back-to-school stress, as they transition from a care-free summer vacation to early alarm clocks and regimented academic and social pressures. In my role as a lecturer at Cal Poly, I not only witness student stress, but the academic requirements I set are inevitably the cause of some of it. Finally, as an anxiety specialist with a private practice in a college town, most of my work day is spent with stressed out college students.

What I have come to realize is that stress is as normal a part of the college experience as textbooks and bad pizza. It is unavoidable!

SOURCES OF NORMAL COLLEGE STRESS:

  1. Quizzes, papers, projects, tests, mid-term and final examinations
  2. Living away from home, probably for the first time (laundry skills, anyone?)
  3. Roommate and other relationship problems
  4. Homesickness
  5. Balancing multiple academic and social commitments along with basic self-care
  6. Financial concerns
  7. Decisions regarding substances and relationships/sexuality
  8. Dealing with over-involved (or under-involved) parents
  9. Noise and chaos in your new living environment (Not loving the dub-stepping neighbors?)
  10.  Graduation stress
    • Getting first job
    • Leaving school for the first time ever (or perhaps starting over at graduate school)
    • Leaving friends, perhaps breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend (whose new job is 1000 miles away!)
    • Relocating and starting over in many ways
    • Having to become an “adult” (Bye-bye summer vacation—see you when I’m 65!)

So, no matter where you go to college, stress is likely to be an issue. It is just something that comes with the territory. I call it “Clean Pain” in that almost everyone experiences this discomfort on some level.

COLLEGE STRESS MANAGEMENT TIPS

  • College is stressful and difficult enough. Get treatment for underlying anxiety disorders or other mental health issues. When in doubt, go to the Counseling Center on campus.
  • Find your peeps. Seek out kindred spirits. They are there–though you may not have met them yet. Some colleges are “commuter schools” and are more socially limited so you may need to meet people in your classes, neighborhoods, work, church, outside clubs and organizations, and so forth. Don’t wait for people to seek you out—be proactive!
  • Notice what your stress signs are (skipping meals, isolating, panic attacks, etc.). Make a comprehensive stress management plan and take action—don’t wait for burn-out, be proactive.
  • Take some time for yourself daily. Not negotiable!
  • Exercise is incredibly useful for stress management, depression, and/or anxiety.
  • Practice reasonable nutrition habits. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugar, and simple carbohydrates. Try to eat at least one well-balanced meal a day. If you skip meals, your blood sugar may plunge, leaving you more vulnerable to stress and anxiety.
  • Don’t overdo the substances! Besides the possibility of psychological or physical addiction, alcohol and pot can both be significant anxiety triggers for some people. If you have an addiction, get it treated and move forward with your life.
  • Practice good sleep habits. Keep ALL work away from your bed and preferably from your bedroom—your bedroom should be about peace!
  • Learn to be assertive in your relationships. Ask for what you want and need straightforwardly.
  • Practice life balance. All work and no play makes Jack a stressed, depressed, and burned-out boy! Self-care is NOT optional, you must schedule that into your life with equal importance to studying!
  • Pick a relaxation strategy and practice it daily. This could be yoga, meditation, self-hypnosis, mindfulness, guided imagery, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and so on. Pick what works for you and just do it!
  • Gather inner strength through spiritual, religious, or positive philosophical beliefs and practices.
  • When feeling overwhelmed, take a break, gather your thoughts, and then write down the problem you are having, brainstorm MANY possible solutions, and pick one or more and implement. Anything worth worrying about is worth problem-solving.
  • Learn and practice effective time management and organizational strategies!
  • Set realistic goals and leave perfectionism to the deities!

While an increase in stress is normal for college students to experience upon returning to school, it can be manageable if students take it seriously and take steps to manage their own well-being in healthy and proactive ways!

If you balance your life, learn to take things in stride, and manage your stress admirably, then it really can be very tolerable. However, if you neglect your well-being and try to fight off stress in unhealthy ways (constant numbing out with pot, alcohol, video games, and so on), stress is likely to take over your life in new and unpleasant ways!

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.

coastalcenter.org