What Is Duck Syndrome? Do You Have It?

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Duck syndrome comes from the idea that a duck can look calm while gliding on the water's surface while paddling frantically just below the surface to stay afloat. 

Many identify with this imagery because they feel they must maintain a calm façade while struggling to keep up with others. Duck syndrome is not a mental illness nor a formal mental health diagnosis. 

However, the feeling of "paddling frantically" while maintaining a calm external demeanor is a real experience, and it may be caused by underlying mental health concerns or stress. Often, college students experience the duck syndrome phenomenon due to stress during school.

It can be hard to show a calm demeanor when you’re struggling

Where did the concept of duck syndrome originate?

The term "duck syndrome" is thought to have been coined at Stanford University (duck syndrome is sometimes called Stanford duck syndrome). It describes the phenomenon where college students may appear calm and composed on the surface, like a calm duck gliding on water, while they're actually struggling beneath the surface to keep up with the pressures of their college experience. 

Some students may appear as though they effortlessly glide through their lives, juggling academics, extracurricular activities, and social lives with ease. However, this façade often hides the reality of the challenges they face and the effort they put in to meet high expectations. 

Friends and peers may unknowingly contribute to the culture that creates duck syndrome. For example, they might project an image of success, happiness, and achievement on social media or in conversations. However, this can create a cycle of self-doubt and comparison.

Symptoms of duck syndrome

Duck syndrome is not a clinical diagnosis mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, it is associated with common signs and symptoms that are similar to symptoms of stress, including:

  • Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Comparisons that assume others are more in control than you are
  • Feeling nervous
  • Physical symptoms, including low energy, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, clenched teeth, nausea, or dry mouth
  • Cognitive symptoms, including constant worrying, forgetfulness, racing thoughts, difficulty focusing, and poor judgment
  • Behavioral changes, including changes in appetite, procrastination, increased use of substances such as alcohol or drugs, or nervous behaviors like fidgeting or nail-biting

Risk factors for duck syndrome

Because duck syndrome is an informal concept, the risk factors associated with it aren't necessarily scientific. However, there are indicators of why some students face the mental health symptoms associated with duck syndrome in college:

  • The transition to college life can be stressful as students experience increased demands from academic, extracurricular, and social changes while learning to live away from their families for the first time.
  • Viewing certain social media content may lead to comparisons and make students feel like others have an easier/more desirable life.
  • Pressure from the self or family to maintain unreasonable standards may cause individuals to become stressed. 
  • Students with limited resilience or who are used to parental intervention may find it difficult to independently learn to cope with new college-related stressors.
  • A competitive collegiate environment may fuel feelings of stress.

Duck syndrome cannot be diagnosed, but mental health concerns can be addressed

While there are no official criteria to diagnose what is considered duck syndrome, effective screenings for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are prevalent on many college campuses. 

Although many campuses offer peer-led support organizations for students having difficulty coping with the demands of college, it may be time to consult a mental health professional if you have symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns.

Signs or symptoms of anxiety may include the following:

  • Intense feelings of worry that interfere with relationships, school, work, or other areas of life 
  • Worries or fears that you feel helpless to cope with
  • Physical symptoms such as tremors, sweaty palms, or headaches
  • Feelings of impending doom or dread
  • Panic attacks (in some cases) 
  • Shallow breathing or a feeling that it is hard to breathe

Signs or symptoms of depression may include the following:

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness 
  • A loss of interest in pleasurable activities 
  • Sleep disturbances 
  • Trouble thinking or concentrating 
  • Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or failure 
  • A significant change in appetite or weight 
  • Suicidal thoughts or urges

Mental health concerns are common among college students

Feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress may be common on college campuses, and according to one study, numbers continue to rise. Additionally, research suggests feelings of psychological distress may be most intense during students' first year of college. 

While anxiety and depression have various causes, certain circumstances typical to college life may heighten these conditions. Triggers of mental health concerns in college may include the following:

  • Feelings of loneliness 
  • Academic stress
  • Pressure to overachieve 
  • Increased time spent on social media and other screen use 
  • Too little sleep, resulting from activities like late-night studying or socializing 
  • Caffeine, alcohol, or drug use 
  • Feeling uncomfortable or lost without family support 

Mental health conditions and concerns are a reality for many students. However, effective treatments are available. Consider reaching out for help if you're experiencing these concerns. 

It can be hard to show a calm demeanor when you’re struggling

Managing at college: Self-care tips for duck syndrome

There are proactive steps that students can take to support their emotional and physical health during school. 

Try a new time management strategy

Time constraints within your schedule may add significantly to feeling overwhelmed, but effective time management strategies may help. Some students feel it's helpful to keep a planner for budgeting time around assignments, work, social obligations, and essential tasks. Doing so may help you prioritize time for things of high importance, avoid the unexpected, and budget time for breaks.

If you struggle with focusing, you might try a focusing app, such as the app, "Forest," which can plant real-life trees around the world whenever you focus on the app. It also allows you to plant digital trees, which you can view as visual proof of your time spent on assignments. If you leave the app while the timer is on to browse another site, the trees will not be planted. 

Use effective study methods 

Using tips for smart studying may help you save time, minimize academic stress, and learn more effectively. For instance, you might try studying intensively for shorter amounts of time before taking a break or mentally revisiting the main points of each class as you leave.

Engage in relaxing or enjoyable activities 

Doing things you enjoy without guilt or pressure may keep stress manageable and boost your mood. These can include talking to a friend, walking, or practicing relaxation techniques. You may also benefit from a few minutes of meditation or mindfulness daily. Studies show that frequent meditation increases your brain capacity. 

Practice self-compassion 

Several studies suggest that self-affirmations have benefits across threatening situations. Affirmations may decrease stress, increase well-being, improve academic performance, and make people more open to behavior change. 

If you feel overwhelmed, it may be helpful to stay mindful of your feelings and adjust your internal narrative to focus on your positive attributes instead of the things you feel you need to improve. You might try writing down or stating affirmations daily, such as the following: 

  • "I am doing my best, and I'm proud of myself".
  • "I am a good student".
  • "I work hard".
  • "I can't wait to graduate".
  • "I am working to respect and care for myself, which is enough".
  • "I did such a good job last semester". 

Take care of your physical health 

Eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, limiting caffeine, and engaging in regular physical movement may contribute to mental health. In addition, studies show a clear connection between quality sleep and mental health.

Counseling for duck syndrome 

Duck syndrome does not have specific treatments. However, there are effective treatments and strategies for addressing stress, time management, anxiety, depression, and other concerns that many college students may face. Many colleges and universities offer resources for students seeking mental health care on and off campus. 

Licensed mental health professionals may diagnose mental health disorders with practical treatments such as therapy, medication, behavioral changes, or a combination. 

For students who prefer to speak to a therapist online instead of in person, studies cited by the National Center for Health Research suggest that online therapy is as effective as in-patient therapy for treating symptoms of anxiety, depression, and trauma.

If you're ready to take the first step, consider reaching out to a therapist on an online platform like BetterHelp. Online platforms may be more affordable than traditional counseling for college students just starting out in adult life.  


Some individuals find it challenging to initiate honest discussions with others regarding their mental health, which may cause barriers to support. Feeling calm on the surface but exploding with feelings underneath may cause you to feel isolated, lonely, or confused. 

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing what is known as duck syndrome, or if you have other mental health concerns, consider reaching out for help from a licensed counselor. Support is available.

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