The term “stressed out” is one that many college students use to describe themselves. Some students use the term so much as to render it meaningless. When you say that you are “stressed out,” what are you saying about yourself? And, more to the point, what is it about your usual coping style that just isn’t working?
Stress is an individual’s response to the demand for change. On a college campus, you are continually bombarded with demands to change — your behavior, your academic performance, your career or major choice, your values. Faced with these demands, you may seek to resist changing yourself while also trying to manage the stress so that it does not manage you.
Is all stress bad? Should you strive to stamp stress out of your life completely? The answer is no! Stress serves some very useful purposes in our lives. Did you know, for example, that stress is essential for learning? Research on learning and stress levels shows that learning takes place under conditions of moderate stress. So, your goal is not to do away with all of the stress you experience; your goal is to keep the stress level at a moderate level, neither so low that you are bored nor so high that you are overwhelmed.
How do you keep the stress level moderate and manageable? All of us use coping strategies to keep stress manageable. The best coping strategies are those that are not destructive but healthy ways to prevent stress from increasing or strategies for reducing tension when the stress level builds up beyond a moderate level.
Destructive strategies to reduce stress include using tobacco, drinking alcohol to get drunk, and taking illegal drugs or overusing prescribed medications. All of these strategies can bring short-term relief but at a high cost to both the mind and body. One of the least effective strategies is to do nothing about a problem, thinking it will go away. Of course, it rarely does — the professor notes poor attendance, late papers, and missed exams, the insensitive friend becomes disrespectful and even abusive.
One of the healthiest ways to manage stress is to plan for stressful times, like course registration, midterms, and the end of the semester. Before those times come, build your support system of family, friends, and study partners. Try to lead a healthy life with good eating habits and regular sleep patterns.
During times of stress, use tension relievers so you can continue to perform to the best of your ability. Work out your anger and frustration with physical activity. Talk with people who “feed” you emotionally. Meditate, read, or get in touch with your spirit through nature or your religious faith.
Sometimes, your usual coping strategies do not reduce your level of stress to manageable levels, your friends say you are starting to be a burden to them, or you may feel as if you are going crazy. That would be a time that you may want to talk with someone you can trust, like a coach, resident advisor, or counselor. Most colleges, however small, have a counseling center where you can talk about your concerns in confidence with a mental health professional who can help you to learn how to manage the stress in your life.