How to Reduce Stress in College: 7 Effective Tips

How to Reduce Stress in College: 7 Effective Tips
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Stress is inevitable. Coming at different levels, stress can range from dealing with just your everyday schedule to experiencing a major life event. However, for college students, facing the pressure of college life itself to juggling their new responsibilities as a result of living on their own for the first time can make their stress levels more intimidating. This can take a toll on their academic performance or worse, their mental well-being.

Luckily, there are plenty of proven ways to curb this problem. In this article, we will tackle how to reduce stress for college students. Hopefully, with these, you can find a strategy that works best for you and allow you to be in tip-top shape to meet your academic goals.

Ways to Reduce Stress in College Table of Contents

  1. Declutter Your Study Space
  2. Watch Your Nutrition
  3. Get Regular Exercise
  4. Find a Hobby
  5. Give Yourself a Break
  6. Socialize With Fellow Students
  7. See a Counselor

The idea of being stressed is never really thought of as a positive thing. However, stress itself is not all bad. “Good” stress can serve as a motivation factor that allows students to rise to challenges, exert more effort in studying, and generally do better in class. The only problem is, when it is left unchecked, stress can lead to significant disruptions to daily life. These can range anywhere from poor concentration and fatigue to anxiety and depression (Stress Management Society).

Student stress statistics show that students today generally experience more stress and pressure than students their age a few years prior. For starters, in a survey conducted by the American College Health Association, 45.1% of college students said they experience more than average stress levels while 12.7% say they undergo a tremendous amount of stress. (ACHA, 2018).

Source: ACHA 2018

The same survey reveals that this level of stress is often triggered not only by the heavy class load but also by other factors, such as social pressure or even bullying and harassment. With all these concerns at play, it is important now more than ever for modern students to develop healthy ways to cope with stress. Among the most effective ways to reduce stress in college can be as simple as dedicating a few minutes each day for self-care and grabbing coffee with friends to pursuing passions and talking to a professional, which will be discussed in detail below.

1. Declutter Your Study Space

The desk is a student’s sanctum. It is perhaps the place you spend the most time in the duration of your college life, save for the classroom and the library. That said, it is also the place that gets the most untidy in the smallest amount of time. Not only can it get unsightly but studies also show that having a constant stream of clutter for your eyes to look at can make you anxious.

According to research published in the Journal of Neuroscience, having multiple stimuli within a person’s visual field at the same time can overload the visual cortex. They essentially compete for neural representation and consequently interfere with one’s ability to process information (McMains & Kastner, 2011). Meaning, when you have a cluttered desk, it can continually pull your focus away as you do your schoolwork and unnecessarily stress you out.

On the other hand, students who study in a neat environment kept their focus on a task for an average of 1,117 seconds before getting distracted (Chae & Zhu, 2015). This is over 1.5 times as long compared to students doing the same task in a messier space (669 seconds).

These go to show that a decluttered desk space can translate to a decluttered headspace, allowing you to focus better on your studies. That said, it might be good to make it a habit to clean your desktop—both your digital and physical ones—as frequently as possible.

2. Watch Your Nutrition

As cliché as it may sound, having a healthy body makes for a healthy mind. Research shows that roughly 95% of serotonin, the hormone responsible for stabilizing our mood, is produced within the gastrointestinal tract (Kim & Camilleri, 2000). This part of the digestive system is lined with millions of neurons, which make it responsible not only for helping us digest food but also for guiding our emotions. Meaning, eating properly is among the simplest things you can do to manage stress.

Opting for fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and other whole foods over fast food, processed meats, and refined sugars can allow you to maintain a better mood and energy level throughout the day. This can, in turn, help you process stress in a more healthy manner. Of course, while there is nothing wrong with the occasional comfort food, you might want to think twice about how frequently you reach for your favorite candy bar or order a burger during a study session.

Aside from eating properly, another way to watch your nutrition is to avoid turning to alcohol to beat stress. According to college drug abuse statistics, alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among college students, alongside marijuana, Adderall, MDMA, and cocaine (Schulenberg, et al, 2019).

Alcohol consumption forces your body to release more cortisol (Badrick, et al, 2007), a steroid hormone produced when your body perceives high levels of stress so that it can cope with the situation. While it may help for short-term relaxation, it can cause you to be unable to cope with stress without alcohol in the long run. Moreover, this chronic release of cortisol can eventually lead to long-term problems such as chronic fatigue, hypertension, or even an impaired immune system (Lupien, et al, 2009).

Source: Monitoring The Future (2018)

3. Get Regular Exercise

In line with our discussion on nutrition, exercise also plays a significant role in stress management. Exercise has the capability to reduce adrenaline and cortisol, also known as “stress hormones,” making it an effective way to curb stress. Moreover, it stimulates the production of endorphins, which are chemicals produced by the body to relieve pain and boost the mood (Harvard Heath Publishing, 2020). This is why it comes as no surprise that it is the second most common way to cope with stress among college students (American Addiction Centers, n.d.).

Studies show that having 60- to 90-minute sessions of Yoga or Tai Chi thrice a week is effective for stress reduction (Jackson, 2013). The same calming effect can be reaped in 20- to 30-minute sessions of aerobic exercise.

However, in case squeezing in this amount of time for exercise in your already busy schedule proves difficult, experts also say that one need not spend hours at the gym for physical activity to work for stress management (helpguide.org, n.d.). Exercising in short bursts, such as 15-minute walks twice a day or 90 seconds of interval training several times a day can effectively boost your mood and help you combat stress throughout your day.

Source: American Addiction Centers

4. Find a Hobby

Sometimes, the best way to stave off stress is to find a distraction to keep your mind occupied. A study has shown that four in five people found that taking some time for hobbies can be moderately to highly effective when it comes to stress management (Australian Psychological Society, 2015). As such, finding a hobby that suits your interests, be it creative, athletic, outdoorsy, or something very personal to you, is a great way to unwind. This will help you catch a break from the stress of keeping up with schoolwork and help you lift your mood.

For some, this may mean listening to music, watching a movie, or reading a book in their downtime. For others who prefer physical activity, taking up dancing classes or engaging in team sports are good ideas. Meanwhile, for those who want to exercise their creativity, learning how to play a new musical instrument, painting, knitting, and origami are great options. There are also those who prefer getting their hands dirty by taking up gardening, woodwork, cooking and baking, or even camping.

In case these feel too time-consuming for you to fit into your schedule, you may even try journaling or other types of writing. Simply taking a few minutes each day to write about how you feel will allow you to digest and manage emotions better. Alternatively, you can choose to write about positive experiences and the goals you want to accomplish. Doing so can help you refocus yourself and increase your psychological well-being (King, 2001).

5. Give Yourself a Break

Sleep and academic performance are related. Hence, taking breaks is just as important as being productive. And sleep is necessary for one to function properly as it is what allows the mind and body to recharge.

Lack of sleep, on the other hand, can reduce mental clarity and take a toll on one’s mood. It also alters the level of hormones that you need for stress response (Meier-Ewert, et al, 2003), which makes it more difficult to cope with negative emotions. A more recent study also shows that individuals, particularly teenagers, who get less than eight hours of sleep tend to show symptoms of stress. These include irritability (50%), anxiety (46%), depression (43%), and the feeling of being overwhelmed (American Psychological Association, 2013).

Of course, while getting enough sleep is important, the quality of rest should also be taken into consideration. You can ensure the best sleep quality through simple habits such as avoiding the consumption of caffeine and alcohol in the evening as well as limiting the use of electronic devices at night. Preparing your bedroom by keeping it cool and dark before bedtime will also allow your body to produce melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle, and help you fall asleep faster (Blume, Garbazza, & Spitschan, 2019).

It may be good to note, however, that stress and sleep have a tricky relationship. Sleep is vital to stress management but stress may just be what keeps you awake at night. One way to remedy this is by keeping a strict sleep schedule and by conditioning yourself for sleep each night. This can be done through relaxing activities, such as meditation, reading, or listening to music a few minutes before the time you intend to sleep. Keep in mind though that these sleep practices often take some time to get used to. So, do not feel discouraged if you do not feel its effects right away.

Symptoms of Stress Among Teens Who Get Less than 8 Hours of Sleep

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Source: American Psychological Association

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6. Socialize With Fellow Students

As the old saying goes, “no man is an island.” Humans are social creatures by nature and, as such, require socialization for overall well-being regardless of how introverted or extroverted they may be. In fact, our brain rewards us for social interaction.

Socialization prompts the brain to secrete oxytocin and dopamine, also known as “happy hormones.” These are the same hormones responsible for making us feel good when we eat delicious food, play with our pets, as well as hug the people we love (Stanford University Medical Center, 2017). As a result, socialization can decrease anxiety levels and allow one to efficiently cope with stressors. This is why college students should try to socialize with friends and family every once in a while, whether it be by grabbing coffee with a classmate or even just talking with parents over a video call.

Alternatively, you may choose to join student organizations based on your interests. After all, no matter what college or university you are in, there is bound to be a handful of fellow students who share your passions, be it video games and anime or sports and arts. In this way, you not only get to socialize with your fellow students but perhaps also hone skills and learn about new things together.

Lastly, another way to increase socialization is by joining or organizing study groups. This can be beneficial to you academically as well so that you can make studying a more collaborative activity and make it more fun.

7. See a Counselor

While the above-mentioned tips are effective in helping students destress and unwind, it is important to note that there are certain levels of stress and certain effects of stress that prove too difficult to tackle on your own. In some cases, seeing a counselor may be the best course of action.

Extreme or chronic stress can have a serious impact on your overall well-being. The American Institute of Stress (2014) reports that a staggering 77% of people experience stress that affects their physical health while 73% of people feel that stress has already impacted their mental health. These often lead to symptoms that range from low energy, lack of motivation, and feeling depressed to feeling anxious, being irritable, as well as having frequent headaches. In turn, it may not only affect your daily life but also harm your relationships with other people.

Luckily, most universities and colleges offer free counseling services. Through these, students get access to various treatments, ranging from cognitive behavioral therapy to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to help them cope with stress. As of 2018, 20% of college students in the U.S. have utilized these mental health services and facilities.

But of course, one need not wait to experience high levels of stress before consulting a professional. An occasional appointment with your college’s counselor can be beneficial in preventing the symptoms of stress well before you even feel them.

Mental Health Support on Campus

Percentage of students who availed of campus mental health services

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Source: ACHA 2018

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Find the Ideal Stress Management Techniques for You 

Stress and anxiety may be inevitable, especially among college students. However, this does not mean that it is not manageable. By recognizing how stress is affecting your life and understanding how to manage it, you can make lifestyle changes in the right direction.

Learning various stress management techniques will allow you to reduce the impact of stress and give you better control over your academic performance as well as your social and emotional experiences throughout college. Moreover, practicing these while you are still in college can serve as training for stress management once you enter the workforce, where the pressure from the job and responsibilities at home can pile up quickly.

As you can see on this list, stress management can take many forms, some of which you can try out right at this moment. However, it is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all formula for stress management. At the end of the day, you will have to figure out which techniques work best for you. By keeping these tips in mind, hopefully, you’ll be able to find some that meet your preferences.

 

References:

  1. AAC (n.d.). Coping With College Stress: Exploring Perceived Stress and Coping Methods in College. Brentwood, TN: American Addiction Centers.
  2. ACHA (2018). ACHA /NCHA II Fall 2019 Reference Group Data Report. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.
  3. AIS (2014). 2014 Stress Statistics. Weatherford, TX: American Institute of Stress.
  4. APA (2014). Stress in America Survey: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits? Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  5. APS (2015). Stress and Wellbeing: How Australians are Coping with Life. Melbourne, Victoria: Australian Psychological Society.
  6. Badrick, E., Bobak, M., Britton, A., Kirschbaum, C., Marmot, M., & Kumari, M. (2007). The relationship between alcohol consumption and cortisol secretion in an aging cohort. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 93 (3), 750–757. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2007-0737
  7. Blume, C., Garbazza, C., & Spitschan, M. (2019). Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep, and mood. Somnologie, 23, 147–156. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11818-019-00215-x
  8. Chae B. & Zhu, R. (2015). Why a messy workspace undermines your persistence. Harvard Business Review.
  9. Goldman, B. (2017, September 28). How “love hormone” spurs sociability. Stanford Medicine News Center.
  10. Jackson, E.M. (2013). Stress relief: The role of exercise in stress management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 17 (3), 14-19. https://doi.org/10.1249/FIT.0b013e31828cb1c9
  11. Kim, D.Y. & Camilleri, M. (2000). Serotonin: A mediator of the brain-gut connection. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 95 (10), 2698-709. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1572-0241.2000.03177.x
  12. King, L.A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27 (7), 798-807. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167201277003
  13. Lupien, S.J., McEwen, B.S., Gunnar, M.R., & Heim, C. (2009). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behavior, and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 434-445. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2639
  14. McMains, S., & Kastner, S. (2011). Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in the human visual cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 31 (2), 587-597. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3766-10.2011
  15. Meier-Ewert, H.K., Ridker, P.M., Rifai, N., Regan, M.M., Price, N.J., Dinges, D.F., & Mullington, J.M. (2003). Effect of sleep loss on C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker of cardiovascular risk. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 43 (4), 678-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2003.07.050
  16. Schulenberg, J. E., Johnston, L. D., O’Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., Miech, R. A., & Patrick, M. E. (2019). Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2018: Volume II, College Students and Adults Ages 19-60. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.
  17. Stress Management Society (n.d.). How stress affects us. Stress.org.uk.

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