College Students And Stress: Learning To Cope

Updated February 10, 2020

Ah, college. It's new, it's exciting, and it's downright stressful. Leaving everything that is familiar to you and going off to an unknown place with unknown people can in itself be a trigger for stress. On top of that, the pressure of maintaining good grades, needing a job to pay for high tuition rates, and trying to juggle both school and a social life can be too overwhelming to many people. While this period of transition can be a time of high stress, it can also be some of the best years of your life. By understanding your triggers and finding small ways to alleviate them every day, you can survive your college years and create memories that will be fond of looking back on.


What is stress? What are the physical and emotional symptoms?

Stress is the body's 'fight or flight' reaction to external stimuli. It's a natural human reaction when faced with situations that may be challenging, dangerous, or overwhelming. While stress affects people in different ways, there are a handful of common physical and emotional symptoms to look out for.

Physical symptoms

  • Twitching or shaking
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Irregular periods
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Unusual weight gain or loss

Emotional symptoms

  • Restlessness
  • Lack of patience
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Reduced desire to participate in hobbies or activities you once enjoyed


What are your triggers?

Understanding the underlying causes of your stress is one of the first steps in alleviating it. Take some time to think about your past week and the times in which you felt stressed or overwhelmed.

Being away from friends, family, and a familiar home

For many college students, going to university is the first time they are truly living away from friends, family, and the home that has been familiar to them for so long. Everything is new - the food, the environment, the people, the living arrangements. It's a drastic change, and so much new stimuli can be overwhelming.

When stress overwhelms you, often the first thing you want to do is go to a close friend or family member for support. Since they are no longer physically around, the closest you can get is calling them on the phone or speaking via video chat. This physical separation can be tough during the first few months.

How to cope

It's going to take time to accept that the support group you are used to isn't as readily available as it once was. It may help to fill your new space - whether a dorm room, apartment, or share house - with mementos from home. Decorate your bed with your favorite blanket from home, college your walls with photos of friends and family, or spray a fragrance that promotes nostalgia. This way, your surroundings won't feel as unfamiliar.


Working a part or full-time job to pay for tuition

Let's face it; college is expensive. While some people are receiving help from family, many students are facing the cost of tuition all on their own. This means that they need to pick up a part or full-time job on top of all of their classes. Moving out of your parent's house also means you have many more bills to pay. Food, electricity, recreation, textbooks - it's all on your plate now.

How to cope

Time management skills are necessary when juggling both a job and full-time college courses. Ensure that your employer knows that you are attending college, and is willing to be flexible when you need shifts switched to study or rest. Keep both a wall calendar and a daily planner to keep your weekly schedule organized - color coding is even better. Make a note of due dates of important assignments and exams, and plan your work schedule around the extra time needed to fulfill those duties. The more organized you are, the more you will feel as though you have control over your life. It's important to schedule in time for rest as well! While your schedule may be busy, it's important to take time to breathe and recharge every once in a while.

The pressure of receiving good grades

One of the most common sources of stress for college students is the constant pressure to succeed academically. You're paying a lot of money to learn and succeed, so anything less than a perfect score can make you feel as though you're wasting a lot of time, effort and money. High school isn't always the best at preparing you for the academic demands of college courses, and often it's difficult to manage the first semester.

How to cope

Even if you have been a straight-A student your entire life, the college may be the first time that you receive a less than adequate grade on a test or assignment. While this may be disheartening at first, it's important not to let it ruin the rest of your semester.

  • Study as much as you can. Even if you don't have hours to commit, try to refresh your knowledge after every class for five or ten minutes to commit it to memory. Make flash cards and view them every time you are sitting on a bus, waiting for an appointment or have a few spare moments.
  • Get enough sleep and maintain a healthy diet. Living off of a few hours of sleep and flooding your nervous system with caffeine with only exacerbate the symptoms of stress.
  • Familiarize yourself with the testing environment. If possible, try to study in the same room that you will be taking the test. Certain sounds, scents or visual images from the environment can help trigger your memory when the time comes to take the test itself.

Thoughts on plans

Up until now, your entire life has been planned out for you. You went to elementary school, then middle school, then high school, and now you're in college. Plans have been based around school holidays, and you've built memories based on different semesters of school. But what happens after you graduate? What was once filled with structure is now just a blank page. You may feel pressure to go into a certain field, you may not have any ideas of what you want to do, or you may be worried about paying back student loans.


How to cope

Rid yourself of all expectations. When was the last time something went exactly as planned? No matter how much you may think you have everything planned out, anything can change in an instant. Thinking about what sort of job you will have, what sort of relationship you will be in, and what your financial situation will be years from now is pointless if you do nothing to prepare for the future now.

Give yourself a general idea of how you want to be living your life after graduation, and write down a list of ways that you can begin to work towards that goal. This may be a future career you are striving for, a certain amount of financial independence, or simply a location in which you want to live. Whatever it is, try to make small steps each day to work towards it. Breaking larger goals into smaller steps make them much easier to manage.


You're surrounded by hundreds, possibly thousands of new people. There is so much potential to make new friends, develop romantic relationships, and connect with professors that may help you further your career down the road. Many people leave deep, meaningful friendships at home to go off to college. It may seem like too much of an effort to start meeting new people, having small talk and slowly developing a deeper friendship. In times of stress, you want someone you can count on - not the stranger living in the dorm room next door.

How to cope

This is one problem that only time can solve. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to make tons of friends quickly - the best relationships take time. You may meet someone tomorrow that you instantly connect with, or it may take you a whole semester to find someone who you feel comfortable around. Focus on yourself first - take courses that interest you, pick up a new hobby, or spend time around the local student center. If you start focusing on your interests, there's a high chance that you will meet others that share those same interests. Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to new people or invite others out for a cup of coffee. The connections you make in college may end up being stronger than any others you have felt before.


If you feel as though the stress of college is too much for you, you are not alone. Contact one of the licensed professionals at BetterHelp to find out what you can do to alleviate your stress.

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