I vividly remember November of 2018, the year before I started college. I was sitting in my kitchen at 11:00 pm, breathing heavily into a bag as my dad tried to calm me down. I had 13 essays to write for college applications, 2 scholarship applications to fill out, and all of my regular homework to finish as well.
On top of all of that, I was petrified about making the biggest change of my life — moving away from my family and the comfort of home to start college. As that winter went on, I got my work done, but I felt buried under the pressure. I became sad and withdrawn. I had always said that I liked to be stressed, that it motivated me. But now, I was convinced something was wrong with me.
Eventually, my mom took me to see a therapist. After about 20 minutes with the therapist, she put her notebook down and reassured me that everything I was feeling was normal–nothing was wrong with me. I was about to go through a major life change, and it was okay to be stressed. I just needed to learn to cope with it. I breathed a huge sigh of relief that day.
As I sat down to write this article, I wondered whether other students had had similar experiences. With a single google search, I was overwhelmed with countless stories of student after student. Students who felt buried under work, financial obligations, or personal relationships. Students who thought they weren’t normal for feeling the way they were feeling. Students who had to seek help due to the stress they were under. All of us are dealing with stress everyday. But what exactly is it? And at what point does it become too much?
What is Stress?
Stress is the body’s natural response to changes. When we encounter a change, or a stressor, the autonomic nervous system reacts by releasing stress hormones that help us to respond quickly. Once the stressor is removed, the body returns to normal. A certain amount of stress can be a good thing. It keeps you alert and prepared to adapt to new circumstances. However, when this stress is prolonged, it can become detrimental.
There are two major categories for stress: Eustress and Distress. Eustress is the positive stress you feel when there is a task you know that you can accomplish. It may be challenging, but it is a challenge that you are motivated and excited to tackle. Eustress is beneficial for your health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being. On the other hand, Distress is the stress you feel when you are overwhelmed and feel unprepared or unable to meet the demands you are facing. Distress can become harmful to your health in many ways, especially when it continues for a long period of time.
With the ever-increasing demands of today’s academics, college students are disproportionately affected by distress and its symptoms. This problem has only worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent survey, 81% of students are reporting heightened stress in the past year. Students are dealing with many different factors that can lead to prolonged stress, including:
- Academic competition
- Financial stress
- Worries about employment after graduation
- Being away from home for the first time
- Social stress of finding new friends
- Lack of sleep
- Questions of sexuality
- And more
These factors do not work alone. Stress starts with a stressor like one of the ones listed above. Then, many other factors interact to create the stress we feel. How we interpret the stressor, our body’s response, our emotional response, and our ability to cope all affect our personal experience with stress.
The combination of all these factors can create harmful consequences for students (physically, emotionally, and behaviorally):
- Aches and pains
- Trouble having sex
- High blood pressure
- Shallow breathing
- Trouble sleeping
- Decreased productivity
- Worsened eating habits
As I’m sure any college student knows, stress is everywhere. All of the symptoms and feelings above are normal and common. The trick is to understand what is happening and to cope with these feelings effectively. When we start to do that, stress won’t seem so daunting anymore.