Whether you are an entering freshman or further along in the journey, you probably face more stress during college than ever before. Just look at what is on your plate. First up, there are the academic demands of classes, homework and exams. Then come socializing, sports, clubs and other extracurricular “musts.” You also may be dealing with homesickness and learning to live independently for the first time. Throw in a part-time job, volunteer work, roommates and maybe a romantic relationship, and it’s no wonder you feel spun out. College stress can take you for a wild ride. Will you let it? We prepared a stress management series to help you not just survive but become the person you strive to be.
What causes college stress?
„Only things that are important to us can stress us,” explains Jacob Drachenberg, a Free Athlete and Berlin-based stress management expert who experienced his own episode of stress-induced burnout while in college. In other words, if following a healthy diet is important to you, yet you cave and eat a pint of ice cream in one go, you will get negatively stressed about it. People who set high standards for themselves - in academic achievement, athletic performance, personal relationships - have the potential for high stress levels, he says. That describes a lot of college students. At the same time, stress is unique, complex and very individual, adds Drachenberg. Take 500 college students, and you will have 500 different stress profiles. Everyone has their own set of sense of priorities and responses to stress.
Learn about stress, learn about yourself
The uniqueness of stress means that everybody has to develop their own plan to manage it. Stress can be a teacher and motivator, however, if you learn to use it in the right way. Drachenberg calls this “stress competence.”
It starts with getting to know yourself. He recommends spending the first two semesters doing just that: discovering who you are, who you want to be, what kind of life you want to lead. Learning what stresses you out most is part of that process, as is accepting that you are not an expert at adult life yet. Just because you are in college does not mean that you know how to juggle all the balls without letting some fall. There will be some failures and I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-I-am-doing moments, but remember that everybody screws up when they are learning to do something new. “Don’t try to be a perfectionist. Take time to gain experience, do some prototyping,” he advises.
Stress regulation...and bananas
An important part of stress competence is learning to use stress to your advantage but not letting the stress level get so high that it works against you. One area to prototype is how to use stress to boost performance. “Stress gives us a lot of power and energy. It can bring focus and concentration,” says Drachenberg. If you are extra-stressed, for example, it might be the perfect time to work out. Our own survey shows that nearly half of Americans who exercise at least 2-3 times per week say it relieves stress. We argue sweating should be on your list of top priorities - you’ll look better and blast away tension. Similarly, a certain amount of stress can help you concentrate during classes and study sessions. Nothing makes the mind focus up like the pressure of a looming midterm exam.
But you can get too much of any good thing, and it’s no different with stress. Bananas are healthy, but eat 20 at once and you’ll consume a harmful amount of fructose. Get too stressed, and you will also suffer. Anxiety, overthinking and overeating - these are warning signs of overstress, warns Drachenberg. When this happens, it is time to get back into balance.
Why wasting time is sometimes good for you
So, how do you maintain stress at a healthy level? You already know that working out regularly helps get rid of built-up tension. Learning to schedule your time and commitments helps a lot, too, yet not necessarily for the reasons you think. Yes, good planning lets you pack all the priorities into your day, but just as importantly, argues Drachenberg, it allows you to work in much-needed down time. Some people might consider an hour or two of social media binging as wasted time, but he disagrees. „Worrying about wasting time is actually a stress factor.” If you are staying on top of your studies, keeping up with your job and social commitments, and exercising regularly, then you can (and should) enjoy a break when possible. This is not a recommendation to stay in bed drooling on your smartphone all day, obviously. Rather, it is an understanding that knowing when you need to relax is part of stress competence. Sleeping and eating well are also important to maintaining a balance between good and bad stress.
College is the best time and place to decide who you want to be and to make it happen. Whatever your goals - to be stronger, healthier, smarter, happier, etc. - you have a better chance of achieving them now than at any time. Just make sure stress helps you, and doesn’t hinder you, from getting there.