Stress in College Students: What to Know

College is innately stressful. From paying for school and taking exams to filling out internship applications, college students can face overwhelming pressure and demands.

Some stress is healthy and even motivating when it arises under the proper circumstances, but this year Americans are experiencing a profound rise in stress levels resulting from the uncertainty and physical dangers of the novel coronavirus, which has claimed more than 223,000 lives in the U.S. alone.

The problem of chronic and unhealthy levels of stress is at its worst among college-age students, according to some research. While most adults report experiencing elevated stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adults ages 18 to 23 are experiencing the highest stress levels, according to August survey findings released in October by the American Psychological Association.

In the study, Stress in America 2020, nearly 90% of this age group reported education as a significant source of stress. College students in the U.S. faced the brunt of many uncertainties following the initial virus outbreaks in February and March as colleges rushed to close campuses, evict students from residence halls and transition to online learning.

Continued uncertainty regarding the 2020-2021 school year and a feeling that planning for the future is impossible because of the pandemic also contribute greatly to stress in this group.

[Read: How College Students Are Managing Coronavirus Stress.]

“Stress is there for a reason. It’s there to help mobilize you to meet the demands of your day, but you’re also supposed to have times where you do shut down and relax and repair and restore,” says Emma K. Adam, professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University in Illinois and a contributor to the APA report.

Without those breaks of relief, heightened chronic stress can become unhealthy and lead to serious long-term health and social consequences, Adam adds. “The (stress) level in this particular generation was really alarming,” she says, pointing to loneliness and uncertainty as two key factors at the root of rising stress levels among adults ages 18 to 23.

Adam also notes that other external factors beyond COVID-19 may be contributing to this stress, pointing to the nation’s racial controversies around police violence and an unusually contentious presidential election.

Experts suggest a range of specific actions and positive shifts that can help mitigate stress in college students:

— Notice the symptoms of heightened stress.

— Build and maintain social connections.

— Sleep, eat well and exercise.

— Seek out help.

Notice the Symptoms of Heightened Stress

College students can start by learning to identify when normal stress increases to become unhealthy.

“Symptoms of stress and anxiety are things like feeling a lack of motivation to do your work or to do the things you normally do, having low energy, and a loss of enjoyment in your day-to-day activities,” says Dr. Alan Dennington, chief medical officer at TimelyMD, a student-focused telehealth service used by colleges and universities.

Loneliness was already common among college students, but Dennington says the coronavirus pandemic has “tightened the strings on that instrument” and notes that students overwhelmed by stress may try to isolate themselves further.

[Read: Ways to Alleviate the Stress of Paying for College.]

Build and Maintain Social Connections

Socializing can help humans release stress. Experts say having fun and finding joy in life keep stress levels manageable, and socializing is particularly important developmentally for young adults.

Achieving this while social distancing measures and mask-wearing dominate the nation’s response to COVID-19 requires some creativity. Experts suggest students socialize safely in person when possible, organize video calls with friends and stay in touch with family members.

“Every single day, we need social contact and social support,” says Paula Allen, senior vice president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell, a human resource services provider that measures the status of mental health internationally. “Reach out to other people. That’s so critical, whether you’re calling someone from home, spending time at home with a friend; it helps buffer stress in a way people underappreciate.”

Talking about feelings of stress can also help college students cope. With so many individuals struggling to adjust to life during the coronavirus pandemic, simply connecting about these stressful challenges can be a source of relief.

Sleep, Eat Well and Exercise

Maintaining healthy habits can help college students better manage any stressor that arises.

“Stick with your routine. Maintain a regular schedule of activities and take care of your usual responsibilities. It helps create a sense of normalcy,” says John MacPhee, executive director and CEO of The JED Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to protect emotional health and prevent suicide among teens and young adults.

“Take care of yourself. Work on sleep and eating and being as active as you can because we know our physical health is protective of our mental health,” MacPhee says.

Getting outdoors and being active can also help students limit their screen time and use of social media, because experts say social media use can ultimately lead to more stress rather than a feeling of contentedness.

Seek Out Help

Colleges typically offer mental health resources such as counseling and support groups for struggling students.

[Read: How College Students Can Find Mental Health Services on Campus.]

These services may be adjusted because of the pandemic, but students dealing with chronic and unhealthy stress should contact their college and reach out to friends and family for support.

Stress exists on a spectrum, Allen says, and accessing student supports and counseling can prevent a cascading effect that results in serious mental health challenges, suicide ideation or turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like problem drinking and drug abuse.

“People overwhelmed with stress or helplessness in managing this situation, those are the strongest red flags that there could be at some point suicidal risk,” Allen says. “We want to make sure we raise the alarm that if we don’t invest in our mental health with the same vigor that we are investing in and protecting ourselves against the virus, it will lead to long-term health implications.”

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Stress in College Students: What to Know originally appeared on usnews.com

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