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Health & Safety

The Difference Between Stress and Anxiety (and How Your Student Can Manage Both)

Lori Bender

Is there a difference between college stress and anxiety? What is your guess? And how do you know when to be alarmed and when to simply encourage your student to keep on keeping on?

Anxiety and stress remain the top reasons college students seek mental health support. Since 2008, the number of college students diagnosed with generalized anxiety has doubled. Sixty-one percent of college students in a recent national survey that collected data from more than 100,000 students from all over the country said anxiety was their main health struggle.

When it comes to college stress and anxiety, it can be hard to tell if a student is struggling with “just” stress or if this is diagnosable anxiety that needs attention from a professional.

There is a difference between stress and anxiety. Neither can be considered “bad” (though they can be emotionally and physically debilitating) and both can be helpful. The key is to understand how each affects the mind and body and learn how to manage their effects. This ability is critical for success in college (and in life).

When college students practice effective self-management skills and create a stress management “plan” that includes useful stress-reducing strategies and techniques, the manifestation of the symptoms and what we call those symptoms might not matter.

The Mixed Messages of Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are tricky. They send mixed messages, and feel differently on different days.

One day, stress can be a friend and a motivator to meet the demands and expectations of college life. Another day, stress can move the dial to register in the body as panic, angst and uncertainty — stopping all movement and plans.

While it's safe to say that most college students experience stress and anxiety, some are affected more negatively than others. Keep in mind that students can feel anxious and be able to identify a stressor. And a student can feel stress and not feel anxious. The two states are not mutually exclusive.

In "Beyond Stress," included in The Age of Anxiety, a special edition of Time Magazine, Mark Heid offers a definition: “Stress is the cause or source of anxiety, while anxiety is the brain and body’s response to that stressor.” In other words, stress is when we perceive something (a test, or a problem in our personal life) as a threat, while anxiety is "the emotional response the interpretation elicits.”

It's worth noting that anxiety and stress are necessary to our survival. They can protect us from potential harm. They send us messages to rethink thoughts and behaviors. They can help us focus and perform better in the short term.

However, when stress isn't properly tended to, it can become overwhelming and morph into anxiety. And when anxious feelings and thoughts remain constant after the stressor leaves (the test is over, the relationship issue resolved), and disrupt the ability to function daily, anxiety most likely has become a diagnosable anxiety disorder.

We can help our students by recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety, talking to them about self-management strategies, and encouraging them to seek counseling on campus if necessary. The university and its staff want your student to be healthy and successful just as much as you do.

Signs and Symptoms

Some signs and symptoms of both stress and anxiety are:

  • Changes in moods; irritability
  • Reports of sleep and/or appetite changes
  • Reports of energy and motivation changes
  • Missing deadlines and assignment due dates
  • Getting sick often
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Reports of feeling “out of sorts” or “out of balance"
  • Excessive worrying, panicky feelings, feelings of impending doom

(Note: this list is not exhaustive and only qualified professionals can diagnose anxiety disorders.)

Completely getting rid of stress when you are a busy college student is impossible. The human stress response feels every test, quiz, social interaction, deadline, thought of money, sense of missing home, and expectation as a threat. This is the face of the college anxiety epidemic.

One critical part of helping college students manage their mental and emotional health is that they learn and practice self-management skills. Share these tips with your student.

Guidelines for Self-Management

1. Assess how stress and anxiety make you feel.

You can make stress work for you and not against you by learning what makes you feel stressed. Is it:

  • Being late? Failing to manage time?
  • Misuse of time (not handling disruptions)?
  • Feeling pressed for time?
  • Worrying about money?
  • Procrastinating?
  • Lack of good sleep?
  • Someone’s comment igniting your low sense of esteem?

You know what sets you off. Go to extremes to eradicate these triggers. Stay clear of people, places and situations that cause you distress. Plan, organize, prepare, be solution-focused, find validation of your worth. Do whatever it takes to prevent stress because once the cycle starts, it becomes more difficult to interrupt.

All of this requires consistent effort and practice. Of course you will have slip-ups; give yourself grace and move forward. High self-expectations and disappointment just propel you further into the stress cycle.

2. Manage stress effectively once it starts negatively affecting you.

Understand what prevents you from feeling the heaviness of stress and break the stress cycle. You can figure out what practices, strategies and techniques work the best for you. Proactively talk with your professors on a regular basis, make time to be alone, prioritize social time, incorporate fitness into each day, journal, join a prayer group, put down devices to study, ask for help, move your body to burn stress hormones, engage in a hobby outside of academics.

Make a tool kit of activities to use as soon as you feel the emotional, mental and physical effects of stress. Do some cognitive training with your thoughts and feelings because there will be days that grades, relationships, worrying about the future, and worrying about the past will debilitate you. Managing stress, because you are a human being with an active stress response, is as needed in life as brushing your teeth or paying your bills.

3. Recognize when stress becomes anxiety and intervene.

Stay ahead of stress. Just because stress and anxiety are present in your daily life doesn't mean you're doomed. Anxiety is a messenger. It can tell you lies, but the underlying message is that something needs to change or be done to make you feel better or to feel safe.

Anxiety is lessened with an action plan. Actions that disrupt or change the cause of anxiety end up being the most effective way to lessen the intensity. This might look like tweaking your daily schedule, making a change in a relationship, asking for payment options, talking about something that worries you, or lessening your expectations of yourself.

Accepting that anxiety is present and will not injure you is extremely beneficial. Being present with the angst and not fighting it is crucial in getting it to subside.

Help Your Student Be Proactive and Self-Aware

College students may think that tending to stress and anxiety is extra work and that they don't have time to nurture the discomfort. They are not wrong, in a sense. But, just like with most things in life, the investment they make in self-care and prevention will be paid back many times over in improved mental health.

The body and brain need help when the human stress and anxiety responses are in action. Your student can start by taking care of the four basic physical and mental needs. The brain and body need movement, nourishment, sleep and relaxation.

Mindfulness practices, apps (Sanvello, DARE, Headspace, CALM, MIndshift, Roots), self-help workbooks, volunteering, pets, alone time, and nutritional supplementation can also help.

And as always, encourage your student to reach out to professionals. Life coaches for college students are becoming more popular as the anxiety epidemic continues.

Help is available. They never need to feel alone.

Lori Bender, MSW is a licensed stress management coach for teenagers and college students. She founded Students Stress Less Coaching LLC, a virtual stress and anxiety management service for students, five years ago and has worked with students across the country. She is also creator of “Everything but Books – 8 Skills to Self-Manage and Thrive in College.” Lori has two passion projects in her community, Dress for Success and The Phoenix – Rise, Recover, Live. Lori has been married to the same dude for 30 years, moved with him to six different states, and has grown two awesome kiddos with him. Plants, hikes, workouts, and quiet time are her chosen de-stressors. Oh, and shopping and eating.
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