What Is Duck Syndrome & Are You Suffering From It?

By Stephanie Kirby|Updated April 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Kay Adkins, LPC

The term "duck syndrome" originates from the idea that a duck can look calm and mild-mannered while gliding on the surface of the water yet is paddling frantically just below the surface to stay afloat. You can't see the intense, constant work of paddling, just the calm gliding. Some people experience this feeling. They may appear calm and seem to be gliding through their life and effortlessly meeting their demands, but in reality, they are frantically trying to keep up and stay afloat. This is sometimes called "duck syndrome." Duck syndrome is not a mental illness, nor is it a formal mental health diagnosis. However, the feeling of "paddling frantically" while maintaining a calm external demeanor can be very real.  

 Where and How Did "Duck Syndrome" Hatch?

Duck syndrome is often called Stanford Duck Syndrome because the term is thought to have been coined at Stanford University. Duck syndrome is often used to describe college students who give the allusion of gliding effortlessly while frantically trying to keep up with life's demands. They may put pressure on themselves to succeed or feel they must meet high expectations. Eighty-seven percent of college students have reported feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

Symptoms Of "Duck Syndrome"

While duck syndrome is not a legal term, there are symptoms that people may feel when they experience overwhelming stress but are trying to put on "a brave face"—or even one that looks like everything is perfect and effortless. Symptoms of stress include:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed or like things are spiraling out of control.
  2. Difficulty relaxing and quieting the mind.
  3. Feeling bad about yourself, lonely, or comparing yourself to others and believing that everyone else is doing better.
  4. Feeling nervous.
  5. Physical symptoms include low energy, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, clenched teeth, nausea, or dry mouth.
  6. Cognitive symptoms include constant worrying, forgetfulness, racing thoughts, difficulty focusing, and poor judgment.
  7. Behavioral changes include 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 precise. However, there are indicators of why some students face emotional challenges in college:

  1. The transition to college life can be difficult as it can be when students are learning to live away from their families for the first time and experiencing the significantly increased demands from academic, extracurricular, and social changes.
  2. Social media may play a factor if students view content that leads to feelings that other people's lives are perfect and effortless.
  3. Family or self-pressure to be high achieving or perfect may place unreasonable demands on students.
  4. Students who have not learned resilience or are used to parental interventional may find learning to cope on their own with increased demands or disappointments difficult.
  5. A competitive environment can fuel feelings of stress or be overwhelmed.

Can Duck Syndrome Be Diagnosed? No, But Mental Health Concerns Can Be Addressed

There are no official criteria to diagnose what is considered to be "duck syndrome." However, there are very effective screenings for mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, prevalent among college students. There are also helping support systems for students who aren't experiencing a diagnosed mental health disorder but are experiencing stress or challenges with coping with the demands of college.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that it may be time to visit a doctor if you have symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. Signs of anxiety include worrying so much that it's interfering with relationships, school, work, or other areas of life or having worries or anxieties that are distressing to you and that you feel are out of your control. Signs of depression include feelings of sadness or hopelessness; 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; or suicidal thinking.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thinking, please reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day/7 days a week. It provides free, confidential emotional support for those in emotional distress or suicidal crisis. The number is 1-800-273-8255. There is also an online chat option on the website. Additionally, if you or someone you know is experiencing any crisis, you can connect for free with a crisis counselor at the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Mental Health Disorders and Concerns are Common Among College Students

Psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, and stress, has been shown by research to rise steadily during students' first year of college. Anxiety and depression in college are very common. Research has shown that 63% of college students have felt overwhelming anxiety, and 40% of students reported depression so severe that they had difficulty functioning. While anxiety and depression have various causes, certain circumstances in college may heighten these conditions, such as feelings of loneliness, academic stress, pressure to overachieve, an increase of time spent on social media and other screen use, and too little sleep that can result from activities like late night or all night studying or socializing and caffeine, alcohol, or drug use. Mental health disorders and concerns are a reality, but so are effective treatments. Please reach out for help if you are feeling distressed or in need of support.

Treating "Duck Syndrome"

"Duck syndrome" does not have specific treatments. Still, there are very effective treatments and strategies for addressing stress, time management, responsibilities, anxiety, depression, and more concerns college students may face.

A good first step is to approach the concerns rather than avoid them. So, instead of continuing to "paddle furiously beneath the surface," acknowledging the problems and seeking support, rather than pretending to glide by effortlessly, can be a productive place to start.

Most colleges and universities offer mental health services. They can be excellent resources for students who are seeking mental healthcare both on and off-campus. Licensed mental health professionals can diagnose mental health disorders with very effective treatments such as therapy, medication, behavioral changes, or a combination. And if a student does not have a mental health disorder but is facing other emotional challenges, mental health services can be very helpful as students seek support and healthy ways to learn to feel better.

Managing at College: Self-Care Tips for "Duck Syndrome"

There are proactive steps that students can try taking to support their emotional and physical health:

  1. Time management: Finding enough time in the day to accomplish what you need or want to can be a challenge. Time management strategies can help. For instance, using a planner and making a daily, weekly, monthly, and semester plan can help you avoid the unexpected and plan what you need to do to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  2. Smart study skills: Using tips for smart studying can help you save time, minimize academic stress, and even learn more effectively. For instance, you might try studying intensively for shorter amounts of time before taking a "brain break" and moving around. Another helpful tip is to ask yourself after each class, "What were the main points of today's class?" That can be a way to retain information.
  3. Engaging in relaxing or enjoyable activities: Making time (and not feeling guilty about it) to do things you enjoy can keep stress manageable and boost your mood. These can be simple things like talking to a friend or taking a walk. You might also try relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and mindful meditation.
  4. Self-care, self-awareness, and self-compassion: Try not to be too hard on yourself. If you feel overwhelmed, nervous, stressed, or down, try to be aware of your feelings and develop a plan for how you can begin to feel better. The plan might include scheduling your time to feel more in control, taking a break from non-essential commitments, and consciously making time to relax and get enough sleep.
  5. Take care of your physical health: Eating regular meals made up of healthy, nourishing foods can help you feel better. Hydration can also help, as can limiting caffeine intake. Increasing physical activity can help with stress management and release endorphins—the "feel-good" hormone. Getting regular sleep and enough restful sleep can be important for many reasons, including emotional regulation, memory, learning, and energy.
  6. Start the conversation about how you're feeling: In some environments, admitting vulnerability can be hard. However, being honest and forthcoming about the way you're feeling can offer some relief. It can also help others who may be feeling the same way.

If you are concerned that you may be experiencing what is known as "duck syndrome," or if you have mental health concerns, please reach out for help. Online therapy may be a good option for you.  At BetterHelp, licensed mental health professionals are available to support you wherever you are. They offer affordable, accessible care that can help you feel better and lead a more fulfilling life.

Many people have found BetterHelp to be an excellent resource for therapy:

"Lisa is fantastic; she approaches all of my concerns with appropriate questions and comments; I think she and I connect well. I was concerned because I am a college girl, and sometimes it can be difficult to connect with counselors because many can take things to[o] serious or not remember the day-to-day struggles. Still, Lisa completely validates my college concerns."

Read more about Lisa Masri

"Sirena Blaesser is genuinely kind and generous human being. To have her as my counselor has been wonderful so far. She listens carefully, helps you search in yourself with gentleness, encourages you to acknowledge yourself. The most important thing is that she sees you as a person integrally. She is very patientn[t] and well prepared to lead you and motivate you. Her expertise and experience are remarkable. If you want a kind voice to help you overcome hardships, I will recommend Sirena."

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