Beating the College Blues...Stress Reduction Tips and Strategies for College Students

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Betty C. Carlson, EdD

Beginning college is an exciting experience for most young people, coupled with some anxiety about leaving home for the first time and being on one's own. In the college dorm, there is no one around to tell you to do your homework, get to bed at a decent hour, get off the telephone, or eat a healthy breakfast before leaving for class. The thrill of being independent also carries with it the reality of being independent - you are responsible for yourself in ways you may have never imagined. Considerations implicit in being responsible for yourself include such things as managing your time effectively, organizing your schedule to meet your school and personal obligations, identifying and using personal and academic resources appropriately, and learning to understand and meet your own needs in the context of living and interacting with people who - up to now - were probably strangers. Most young people have learned to achieve some of these skills before college, but few have been wholly responsible for themselves prior to leaving the home environment.

Stress is a natural and inevitable occurrence in college life, particularly in the first semester away from home. Exposure to new experiences, demands on one's time, and a variety of new choices to make all combine to create stress for the college student, even one who is excited and ready to jump into college life with both feet. After the novelty and excitement of the first few weeks of school wear off, many students find themselves overwhelmed, overscheduled, and overloaded with class work, studying, and maintaining a personal life. Often a crash occurs around midterm evaluations, when the realization of “too much to do in too short a time” hits home. Stress, fatigue and anxiety can combine to make college a miserable experience.

The tips and strategies to manage stress for college students are arranged in three distinct parts: Part 1 deals with taking care of yourself physically. Part 2 presents information about managing academic and school-related demands. Part 3 gives ideas for taking care of your psychological and emotional needs, particularly when you're feeling overwhelmed.

Part 1: Taking Care of Yourself

A key part of managing or reducing stress is taking good care of oneself physically. This includes engaging in regular exercise, strenuous enough to work up a sweat and to discharge tension that builds up as you go through the day. Pick something you enjoy doing that you will stick with over time. Sports, jogging, and resistance training all can help you stay fit as well as reduce tension in your body. A second part of taking care of oneself physically is to eat healthy, nutritious foods, avoiding junk food as much as possible. Many college students, away from home for the first time, make unwise choices and deprive their bodies of needed nutrients. Poor nutrition results in lowered stress resistance, which saps energy reserves and can result in fatigue and illness. The third part of taking care of oneself is getting enough rest and sleep. Many students try to get by on little sleep, cramming for exams and trying to catch up on school by pulling an “all-nighter”. This may work in the short run, but sleep deprivation can lead to impaired thinking, poor decision-making, illness, and a generalized inability to accomplish everyday tasks. Getting enough sleep is a key way to replenish your energy reserves, so that stress doesn't take its toll on you.

Part 2: Managing Academic Demands

Managing the academic demands of college requires a commitment to organizing one's time, schedule, and priorities. Many students, overwhelmed at the opportunities available for social interaction and new friendships, over schedule themselves for activities and commitments. Often, the academic side of college life suffers, as the structure of academics in college puts the responsibility for success on the student. Typically, attendance is the student's job; most professors do not seek students out to find out why they didn't attend a lecture. Cutting a class may be easy; no detention is assigned if you fail to come to class on time. Students need to make it a priority to attend every class every time, and to be on time. Get to know your professors. Seek appropriate advising to plan your course load and schedule; ask for help if you need it. Take advantage of learning centers, tutorial help, and other supports such as learning labs or taped lectures (sometimes available in the library). Find out the hours for the computer center, library, learning center and other resources on campus before you need to use them. Most importantly, don't procrastinate on projects or papers that will require significant effort. It is generally a helpful idea to use a monthly planner to schedule the parts of large projects across the semester, so you build in time to do each part thoroughly and well. Putting assignments off until the last minute is a guaranteed stress producer and usually results in poor quality work. Many professors won't accept work that is late, or if they do, significant penalties may be incurred. Thinking through what you want to accomplish each semester and identifying your academic goals early will help you manage the demands the academic side of college presents.

Part 3: Managing Psychological and Emotional Needs

After the first excitement of new living arrangements, new friends, and a new sense of independence wears off, many college students experience feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and inadequacy. College life presents demands that tax the emotional and psychological reserves of students as they try to figure out who they are, how to “fit in” in the new environment, and how to be successful in their academic endeavors. Some students feel homesick for familiar people and places; the effort required to adjust and adapt to college can be overwhelming. It is important to identify early the available resources for when you need someone to talk to, confide in, or ask questions. Most colleges have services available through the counseling center, the student affairs office, or the student health service. Dormitories may have a Resident Advisor, who may be able to assist you or direct you to the appropriate source for help. Find out what services are available and how to access them early; it's easier to get help quickly if you know where to go and how to seek it out. For many students, it is helpful to be reassured that their feelings of loneliness or anxiety are normal and expected as part of the college experience. Don't be afraid to seek counseling assistance if you are experiencing these feelings; they are part of the adjustment process and are normal. Getting help for dealing with feelings is a productive way to manage emotional or psychological stress and can assist you to feel more in control.

Starting college can be an exciting experience, filled with new people, opportunities, and challenges. Learning to manage stress well can help you enjoy yourself while gaining the benefits an advanced education can offer.

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