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February 14, 2019

Student Success

Stress in college students: how to cope.

Three students studying, coping with stress

A college student's guide to stress.

College is an exciting time, full of new challenges that continually drive you to expand your horizons. While some of these experiences can be thrilling, others may simply leave you feeling stressed. In fact, many college students feel stress while going to school. Only 1.6 percent of undergraduates reported that they felt no stress in the last 12 months, according to the National College Health Assessment (NCHA).

Being able to manage stress is crucial for your academic success and personal well-being in college. Luckily, this guide from Western Governors University will provide you with information about how to recognize different kinds of stress, various sources of stress for college students, as well as tips for coping in a healthy way. If you are able to identify and understand stress, you will be able to ensure your time as a student is rewarding and enjoyable.

What is stress?

Stress is a normal and necessary part of life. It is your fight-or-flight response to challenges you see in the world. This natural reaction has certain physical effects on the body to allow you to better handle these challenges, such as increased heart rate and blood circulation. While it can manifest differently for each individual, the National Institute of Mental Health notes that everyone feels stress at some point in their lives, regardless of age, gender, or circumstance.

Though it is a universal human experience, the American Institute of Stress (AIS) notes that defining and measuring stress is difficult because “there has been no definition of stress that everyone accepts” and “people have very different ideas with respect to their definition of stress.” They also state that a definition of stress is incomplete without mention of good stress (called eustress), its physical effects, or the body’s instinctive fight-or-flight response.

Researcher Andrew Baum, however, created a succinct, unique definition. He determines that stress is any “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes.” For the purposes of this guide, we will use Baum’s definition of stress.

Acute stress.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), acute stress is the most common type of stress that every person will experience during the course of their life. It arises quickly in response to unexpected or alarming events to help you better handle the situation at hand. Typically, it fades quickly, either on its own or once the stressful event is over.

Acute stress doesn’t often lead to serious health problems. In certain situations, it can actually be a positive experience; for example, riding a roller coaster can cause acute stress, but in a thrilling way.

This type of stress occurs frequently and is easy to identify. Some signs of acute stress include:

  • Stomach pain, such as heartburn, diarrhea, or acid stomach.

  • Heightened blood pressure and heartbeat.

  • Shortness of breath or chest pain.

  • Headaches, back pain, jaw pain.

Because it is so common and lasts for a short amount of time, acute stress is usually simple to manage and treat.

Episodic stress.

When acute stress occurs frequently, it is classified as episodic or episodic acute stress. People who suffer from episodic stress are almost always in “crisis mode,” are often irritable and anxious, and may be prone to constant worrying. Essentially, people with episodic stress are often overwhelmed by it and have difficulty managing it.

Symptoms of episodic stress are the same as acute stress, but they can be more extreme or occur constantly. Some signs of long-term episodic stress according to the APA are:

  • Constant headaches or migraines.

  • Hypertension.

  • Heart disease.

People who suffer from episodic stress typically accept this kind of stress as a normal part of life and may not be aware of how detrimental its effects can be. The APA notes that it may be difficult for sufferers of episodic stress to get treatment because they are so used to feeling its effects and accept them as normal.

Chronic stress.

Chronic stress is a form of stress that occurs over a long period of time and that can have serious effects on your physical and mental health. Unlike acute stress, which can be exciting, chronic stress is dull, constant, and seemingly never-ending. It often arises in response to situations that feel hopeless and beyond your control, such as a troubled marriage, a toxic job, or poverty.

Chronic stress is, perhaps, the most dangerous type. This is the kind of stress that can lead to complicated, permanent health problems, such as heart attack, stroke, and suicide. Unfortunately, recognizing that you are experiencing this kind of stress is difficult because most sufferers are used to feeling this way. You may have grown comfortable living this way. Treating chronic stress can be challenging, and almost always necessitates the help of a professional to make long-term progress in recovery.

Stressed college student

Signs and symptoms of stress.

Stress isn’t just a physical reaction; it can also affect your emotions, behavior, and cognition. Just as everyone is stressed by different things, everyone experiences its effects in different ways.

Certain signs of stress can be confused with other ailments. Be sure to understand how it affects you so you can correctly identify when you are experiencing stress. Some of the most common signs and symptoms include:


Feelings of agitation or irritability.

Inability to relate.

Lowered self-esteem, loneliness, depression.

Feeling overwhelmed or out of control.


Tension headaches and other muscle pains, such as in the jaw.

Chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath.

Stomachaches, pains, nausea.

Shakiness, clammy or sweaty hands, tinnitus.


Sudden change in appetite.

Avoidance of tasks and responsibilities.

Increased use of alcohol, smoking, or drugs.

Nervous behaviors such as fidgeting or nail biting.


Being forgetful and disorganized.

Inability to focus or concentrate.

Constantly worrying.

Incessant stream of thoughts.

Difficulty with memories.

Keep in mind that these are just a few of the many signs of stress; the AIS identifies fifty of them, and notes that there may even be more effects that we haven’t been able to recognize yet.

Understanding stress.

Whether you attend college online or in-person, you will most likely face new stressors during your time at school. As you begin to notice how you and your body react to it, you may come to recognize symptoms that only appear in certain situations. Understanding the type of stress you are experiencing when you encounter these challenges can help you overcome them without feeling drained.

Dr. Karl Albrecht, a social scientist and management consultant, outlined four main varieties of stress: time, anticipatory, situational, and encounter. While these different types can be experienced in many different situations, from the workplace to the home, they are especially relevant to the life of a student.

Time stress.

Time stress occurs when you feel worried about time, and more specifically, when you don’t have enough time to accomplish all necessary tasks. People often experience this when they fear they can’t meet their deadlines, or will be late to a meeting or appointment.

As a student, you may feel time stress in several different ways. You may worry about being late to your classes as you learn the geography of your campus or if you have to get home and log onto your computer for a lecture after running errands. You may also panic about the heft of your workload or the quality of your work for class, which can be a difficult adjustment, whether you’re attending college for the first time or returning after a break.

Anticipatory stress.

Anticipatory stress occurs when you feel anxious about the future. When some people experience anticipatory stress, they may be nervous about a particular upcoming event; for others, it may simply be a general sense of uncertainty about what’s to come.

You may feel this kind of stress in both a vague and concrete way during your studies. If you feel anxious about a forthcoming test, assignment, or presentation, you are experiencing a more concrete form of anticipatory stress. If you have a sense of dread or fear of uncertainty about your future in general, that is a more vague manifestation. Students may feel this kind of stress more frequently as they get nearer to graduation and are making decisions about their life after college.

Situational stress.

You experience situational stress when you are in an upsetting or alarming situation that you cannot control. Unlike time-related and anticipatory stress, this kind of stress happens suddenly and with little — if any — warning. In fact, you may not have anticipated the situation at all.

For students, this type of stress can arise in a number of different circumstances. It may come from something as minor as forgetting your words during a presentation, or as major as a phone call about a family emergency. This kind of stress can occur during a number of situations, from receiving a poor grade on an assignment, to arguing with a friend, to nearly hitting a car in front of you on the road.

Encounter stress.

Encounter stress results when you feel anxious about seeing certain people, either alone or in a group. You may not enjoy spending time with them or have difficulties communicating with them. Whatever the reason, there is something about this person or group that makes you anxious. Encounter stress can also occur if you have spent too much time with others and feel burnt out, even if you like being around them.

Students may feel encounter stress in situations ranging from intimidating professors to unfamiliar classmates. Further, you might only experience this feeling with a person for a limited amount of time. For example, you might dread seeing your roommate for the first time after an argument, but the stress may disappear after you resolve the issue.

Male stressed college student

Causes of stress in college.

Though everyone experiences it differently and has their own distinct stressors, researchers have found that many college students share several common sources of stress. Whether you major in business or education, you likely share at least one common stressor with your peers. From worries about your health to concerns about your life after graduation, here are some of the most common causes of stress in college students:


In a survey conducted by the APA, 63 percent of adults cite “health-related concerns” as their number one source of stress. For college students, in particular, worries about or issues with health might be a major stressor because of how it can impact academic performance. The NCHA reported that the academic performance of nearly 30 percent of students was impacted by a physical ailment, ranging from allergies to bronchitis.

Regardless if the cause is a simple cold, mental health condition, or chronic illness, one thing remains the same: when you’re sick, it can be difficult to keep up with your studies. If you are contagious, you should avoid attending class (unless you are a distance learner or can sit in on the lecture at home), which means missing out on important information from your professor. Even if you aren’t contagious but are simply feeling under the weather, you may not have the energy to focus on the lectures and assignments.

If a particular illness is going around your campus or community, try your best to avoid contact with anyone who is contagious and wash your hands frequently. Everyone gets sick on occasion; accept that, despite your best efforts, you might too. If you do catch something, take care of yourself and rest as much as possible before resuming your normal activities.

Balancing work, school, and family life.

In college, you have to figure out the right balance between work, family, and school. The academic load in college is often larger and involves more complicated work than in high school. Attempting to keep up with that, on top of your job and family responsibilities, can add additional stress to your daily life — especially if your family and work obligations are so demanding that you fall behind with your schoolwork.

For non-traditional students, in particular, achieving that balance can be difficult. While traditional students may be worried about missing another call from their parents, if you are a non-traditional student, you may have children of your own to take care of. You may have to focus your energy on financially supporting your family or caring for your sick children, instead of school.

  • Create a daily schedule of all your appointments, classes, and shifts at work.

  • Schedule a regular time to call or see your family members.

  • Prioritize the tasks you need to accomplish; start with the most important one and end. with the least urgent.

  • Learn to say “no” when you are too busy.

These strategies can help you establish boundaries between the different areas of your life, in order to give each one the attention it needs. Keep in mind that it’s also important to be able to adapt to new concerns and demands. You may feel stressed to a greater extent if you feel like you can’t make necessary adjustments to your plans.

Class scheduling and credit load.

Scheduling your college classes may stress you out. Trying to sign up for the courses at times that work well for you, and making sure you’re taking all your necessary prerequisite classes, are just a couple of the many factors that you need to consider.

For some students, this may be the first time they have to create their own schedules. You may not know how many credits you should be taking, or what class times are best for your academic performance. You might get frustrated with yourself after a few weeks of classes if your schedule is not what you hoped it would be.

  • Reach out to an academic advisor who can help you make a plan.

  • Ask someone more experienced in your major about their experience.

  • Look ahead at classes offered in future terms to determine which would be best to take now, and which ones you’d prefer to take later.

  • Look at what you have previously done to see what kind of schedule structure works best for you.

If your schedule is overwhelming, remember that it isn’t permanent. Your current classes will end, and you will have to build an entirely new schedule in a few short weeks or months. Use that opportunity to make a schedule that’s better suited to fit your needs.

Costs of colleges/finances.

Over the past few decades, the cost of college tuition at traditional schools has risen notably. Combined with other expenses — like the cost of housing, food, and books — students may feel stress over their finances while they’re in school. Even if you qualify for aid, receive help from your family members, or work during the school year, you may still feel anxiety about money.

Students may feel further stress because of loans they have to pay off after graduation. The debt you acquire can be a burden before you complete school, because it can affect your finances for years after, as well as during, college.

Carefully consider the overall cost of your tuition before you select which school to attend; schools vary by the tens of thousands of dollars when it comes to tuition, so look carefully at the fees at certain schools, and pay attention to how tuition is charged (i.e., is it a flat rate per semester, or is charged based on credits)

  • Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see what kind of loans, grants, or aid you may qualify for.

  • Create a budget and stick to it.

  • Work part-time while getting your degree to offset some of your expenses.

  • Consider going to school part-time so you can work full-time and reduce school-related costs.

Always keep in mind why you chose to pursue a degree in the first place, and remind yourself that it can lead to better job opportunities after you graduate. Experts still believe that, in the long-term, college is worth the investment.

Grades and exams.

Academic performance is another stressor that you may encounter as a college student. You may feel pressure to get certain grades in your classes due to a number of factors, such as meeting the expectations of others, or your desire to go on to a master’s program. You may study frequently, but get so anxious about taking an exam, that you find yourself unable to do well (or in some cases, to even take the test).

Further, balancing your classes, family responsibilities, work schedule, and social life can be hard due to the increased workload and greater difficulty of college courses. In some classes, tests or projects also make up a large percentage of students’ grades.

  • Ask a tutor, friend, advisor, or professor for help if you’re having trouble with an assignment or class.

  • Break large assignments down into smaller, more manageable parts.

  • Change your mindset from achieving a certain grade, to learning as much as you can, or performing to the best of your ability.

  • Manage your time well and don’t procrastinate on your assignments, especially if it counts for a large portion of your grade.

Conquering school-related anxiety can be tricky, as you are constantly surrounded by your stressors and equally stressed classmates. However, you are at school to learn and grow, not to get straight A’s on your report card. Focus on getting your education instead of on getting certain grades.

Preparing for post-graduation life.

For many students — traditional ones in particular — being in school is comfortable. The prospect of life after college can be daunting simply because it is unknown and unfamiliar. For even the most well-prepared student, the unpredictability of life outside of school can be anxiety-inducing.

Your stress may be amplified if it seems like all of your friends and peers already have a post-graduation plan that they seem confident about. You might feel anxious if you don’t have any idea what you want to do; on the other hand, you may question decisions you’ve already made about your future.

  • Don’t compare yourself or your post-graduation plans to your peers, classmates, and friends.

  • Remind yourself that many of your friends likely also feel fearful of their own futures.

  • Make a decision; it doesn’t matter if you choose to take time off before starting your first job or move to a new city the day after you graduate as long as you know what you’re going to do.

  • Don’t panic if your degree doesn’t immediately result in a promotion or new job offer; be patient and remember that new opportunities are constantly arising.

  • Remember that you can always change your mind and do something different later.

  • Take control of your academic timeline and experience in school, so that your graduation becomes the goal, rather than the deadline for planning your future.

The uncertainty of the future can be difficult to handle, but you aren’t alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your friends, family, professors, or advisors for help and advice as you start to think about what you want to do after graduation.


Your relationships with friends, family members, and significant other can change after you start college. School may be a bigger priority than ever before, and as you navigate the challenges associated with that, you may have less energy to give to your loved ones. Feeling like you aren’t as close to your support system, in addition to dealing with the pressures of school, can create tension in your life.

  • Be sure to communicate clearly with your loved ones about the time you need to devote to your studies and ask for their support and understanding.

  • Don’t start dating just because your peers are; you should only pursue a romantic relationship if you meet someone, and both of you are mutually interested in dating.

  • You don’t have to hang out with people you don’t like or who make you uncomfortable.

  • You can always say “no” to a social engagement if you don’t feel like going.

  • All relationships, romantic and otherwise, take effort to maintain; don’t be afraid to put in that effort, but don’t forget to do things for yourself, too.

Make an effort to only befriend people whose company you enjoy. Your time at college is too short to spend interacting with people who you don’t get along with. Whether you are working in a group project online, or engaging in a class discussion via chat, you have the opportunity to be selective about who you give extra energy to. You can make lifelong friends in college, so try your best to only invest your time and attention into the relationships that matter to you.

Students sitting on steps

Managing stress as a student.

There are many ways you can manage your stress as a college student. Just as everyone experiences stress in their own way, we all have our preferred methods of coping with it. However, not all stress management strategies are healthy, and some may leave you feeling even worse than you did before.

To overcome stress while going to school, it’s crucial to learn how to cope with it productively. After all, you can’t control the stressors in your life, but you can choose how to respond to them.

Unhealthy ways to manage stress.

Though it may be tempting to reach for a cigarette or glass of wine after a difficult day, it may not be the best way to unwind. Smoking, drinking, or using drugs may offer a stress relief in the short-term, but after their effects wear off, you may find yourself feeling more stressed than before. For instance, researchers have found that drinking alcohol can actually exacerbate stress.

When you’re feeling down, your instinct may be to go buy yourself a treat as a pick-me-up. Buying yourself a gift every once in a while is fine, but if shopping or spending money is your go-to method of relief, you may be creating more stress for yourself by putting a strain on your finances or adding objects you don’t really want to your home.

When stressed, you likely either crave comfort food or find that your appetite is gone altogether. Either way, you should try to maintain your regular eating habits when you feel stressed, as eating too much or too little can have a lasting negative effect on your physical health.

It’s okay to take a break from your problem to cool off and think of a new solution, but ignoring it altogether may not be the best idea. You may not be able to let it go entirely and the stressor will likely linger in the back of your mind until you can’t neglect it anymore.

There is no shortage of digital distractions you can lose yourself in to avoid stress. While it’s healthy to find balance between work and relaxation, it’s important to place limits on your use of digital media. The more time you spend streaming content or scrolling through your social feeds, the more you’ll fall behind in your work and add to your overall stress, which will feed this negative cycle of avoidance.

Healthy ways to manage stress.

Perhaps one of the best ways to manage your stress is to simply deal with the cause of it directly. If your busy schedule is making you anxious, sit down and see what you can change. If you’re attending a traditional university, and are finding that it just isn’t going to fit with your scheduling needs, consider transferring to an online university that may be a better fit.


Surround yourself with people who you like to spend time with and enjoy their company. Being around someone who makes you feel comfortable can relieve a great deal of stress, even if you don’t talk about what’s troubling you.


Between your classes, homework, and other obligations, you may find most of your days booked solid with plans, activities, and tasks that need to be done. If you feel overwhelmed by all that you need to do, take a break. Schedule an afternoon where you don’t have to do anything but read your favorite book or watch a movie. You may not be able to drop everything on your to-do list at once, but don’t hesitate to spend some time not doing anything.


You may find yourself needing more support than your loved ones can offer or grappling with stressors that are too much for you to deal with. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help from a professional. Your school likely has many support resources available to help, even if you are an online student.


In college, stress is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to dominate your life. Do your best to understand what kind of stress you’re feeling, what’s causing it, and how you can respond to it productively. By addressing your stress in a healthy way, you are doing all that you can to make the most of your college education.

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