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Getting Ahead of Stress This Semester — 8 Strategies for Students

Lori Bender

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As a professional stress management coach for college students, I have recently held sessions with multiple clients who are feeling overwhelmed. The most common causes of stress that we address are worries about establishing a new routine, meeting multiple deadlines,  and managing time.

In addition, some of these students share that feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, and pressure to succeed cause them to emotionally unravel.

Stress in college is pervasive (some might say inevitable). According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 85 percent of college students surveyed felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point during the school year.

Parents and supporters understand that the college experience is not only about attaining academic credentials but also about learning how to manage life. One of the most critical ways to manage life is to learn to manage stress and regulate emotions.

What IS stress exactly, and what does it do to our brains and bodies?

When the human mind perceives normal adjustments to college as threats, the human stress response is activated. Students experiencing the biochemical, physical and emotional effects of the response may describe them as anxiety, exhaustion and hopelessness.

Fortunately, this human stress response is an amazing mechanism for safety and survival. We need it to alarm us in certain life or death situations.

The confusing part is: Our brains can’t decipher levels of threats. Feeling overwhelmed with college is registered in the brain the same as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car.

While preparing for a rigorous semester of college is not the same as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car, the stress response may automatically activate just as it would in a real life or death situation, leading a student to perceive college life and all that it entails as equally stressful.

It is somewhat normal to feel threatened by the pressure to perform and succeed; however, it is not necessary for these perceived ideas to cause extreme discomforts such as sleep disturbance, negligence of self-care, poor food choices, feelings of helplessness, inability to focus and concentrate, inability to regulate and monitor distractions, digestive issues, headaches and body tension.

Some amounts of college stress are necessary to study productively, maintain motivation and accomplish tasks, but the negative effects of stress shouldn't disrupt daily living and thriving. By simply learning the science of stress and what is an actual versus a perceived threat, students can learn to effectively manage the pressures of college so the demands don’t seem as unbearable.

Students can learn how to monitor thoughts and reactions to the perceived threats and better manage the symptoms.

They can become more aware of what aspects of college life are intimidating and frightening and learn to relax and observe those thoughts. They can monitor distractions, balance life outside of class, and effectively manage time. All of these deactivate the stress response.

To sum up, it is critical to learn how the mind and body respond to stress and to help them adjust by creating a daily routine of mind and body maintenance practices.

Here are eight practical, tried-and-true approaches that can help your college student disrupt the naturally occurring stress response as they embark on the new semester.

1. Make a study schedule.

Write it out, draw it, color it, mind map it, keep it visible. Include:

    • Study breaks, sleep, stretching, deep breathing, hydration, fun activities!
    • 1.5–2 hours of study per class, then break.
    • Switch classes for the next 2-hour study session (“chunk it”).
    • Use “backwards planning” if this works for you.
    • To make the best use of your study time, be aware of what distracts you. When you feel your thoughts getting stuck, or moving away from the material at hand, bring yourself back into the "zone" by moving.
    • Pay attention to time wasters: cell phone, friends, Netflix, podcasts. This includes being aware when you procrastinate.
    • Acknowledge perfectionist thinking and eliminate it.

2. Determine your ideal study spot and times.

  • Pick the place you feel the most productive, calm (not cozy), and focused. Keep going to this spot for the next few weeks to train your body and brain for study mode.
  • What time of day/night do you study best? Start noticing when you are most focused. Use this time slot to prepare for your most difficult — and most boring — classes.
  • Do not study in your bed or other comfortable places. Stay alert.
  • Cramming and last-minute studying induces panic.
  • “All nighters” are counterproductive to proper brain functioning for recall, memory and focus.

3. Hydrate.

Reduce or eliminate sugar drinks, caffeine and alcohol — Gatorade, energy drinks, teas (the kind with added sugar) and sodas included.

4. Breathe.

Practice “4-7-8” deep breathing daily (watch the YouTube video, and do the exercise just four times to get the beneficial effect), and try “square breathing," too. Use breathing apps.

It only takes ten minutes to engage your diaphragm and activate the calm part of your nervous system. This also helps with many body functions.

5. Nourish.

Foods rich in vitamins B and C, iron and magnesium (such as oranges, broccoli, avocados, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, berries, grass-fed beef, salmon and sunflower seeds) are helpful in reducing the effects of stress and strengthening the nervous system. Adrenal glands lose these when you experience stress. Magnesium also helps in the production of serotonin throughout the day.

Read "How to Eat Right on a Campus Meal Plan" and then share the tips with your student!

6. Attend to self-care.

  • Attend to how often and how much you move your body. A short walk, jumping jacks or push-ups will suffice if you can’t fit in a work-out.
  • Engage in a fun activity — frisbee, basketball, a dance or fitness class.
  • Take an extra shower a day during exam weeks.
  • Brush your teeth an extra time a day. Get a haircut. Pamper yourself with some really nice body lotion.
  • Take advantage of on-campus exam stress-reducing activities (massages, pet therapy, food giveaways, games and crafts, etc.)

7. Intentionally focus on sleep quantity and quality.

  • Sleep helps recall, memory, focus and concentration.
  • Try not to nap during the day.
  • LEDs stimulate the brain. Turn them off 30 minutes prior to sleep.
  • Aim for eight hours each night (no less than seven).
  • Write your day’s accomplishments and tomorrow’s to-do goals right before bedtime. (Keep a writing pad beside your bed.)

Click here to find easy ways you can help your student get a better night's sleep in the dorm.

8. Fill your brain with these mantras:

“I am right where I need to be. With this comes tough times. I am tough enough and I will be just fine.”

“I am on a journey and will embrace the mountains, the valleys and the peaks.”

“I am thankful every day for the opportunity to go to college. In four years, I will have grown exponentially and will contribute to society in ways I never imagined.”

More helpful resources:
Facts About Mental Health and College Students from the ADAA
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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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