Stress is a “nonspecific response of the body to any demands made upon it.” (Murff, p. 102) Stress, when it is sufficiently severe, can cause psychological damage, as the body is exposed to heightened conditions for too long a period of time, making their behavior less effective. College students are often privy to “a unique set of stressors which can affect their daily experiences.” (Murff, p. 102) In college, there are multiple sources of stress that cause stress due to the ambiguity and strain that each role places on them.
Symptoms of stress include obsessionalism, absent-mindedness, and depression, and homesickness can also be included in a college context. (Dyson & Renk, p. 1232) Stress has an adverse effect on the level of happiness experienced by a student in college life, and as such must be minimized in order to create a more positive and nurturing experience for said student. While optimism and pessimism in an individual’s personality can affect the varying levels of stress that are experienced, stress occurs in college students all the same (Schiffrin & Nelson, p.38).
The college experience creates incredible stress on students, which affects their GPA scores, their sex lives, and their own sense of happiness. In this paper, the reasoning behind this argument will be explained, and potential solutions will be posited.
When a new student comes to college, they are placed into a dramatically different environment than they are used to. They are no longer living with their parents, instead living in dormitories in close proximity with a number of other students their age. Their academic workload is much more difficult and frequent than in high school, and there is greater pressure among their peers to hang out in social situations. As students have not formed the coping skills necessary to deal with incredible levels of stress, these experiences can be very detrimental to their mental health (Murff, p. 103).
Freshmen are going through emerging adulthood, a phase in which adolescence is extended through higher education, and they focus primarily on finding themselves and sorting out their identities. They wish to separate themselves from their family and become a person in their own rite, and take on many roles in order to do that, such as getting a job and education (Dyson & Renk, p. 1231).
Adaptation is defined as adjustment from one environment to another; this most certainly occurs with college students. There are all manner of new problems and concepts that they must deal with, and the pressures that are placed upon them from multiple fronts can lead to stress (Dyson & Renk, p. 1232). Freshman in particular have an incredibly tough time adjusting to college life, as there are stressors that remain from home. The loss of constant contact with their family and old friends from high school can wear on them, as there are few people they can connect to from their old life.
Some other sources of stress in college life often come from eating and sleeping changes, test pressure and financial issues, and many more. Those problems are universal, but women and ethnic minorities have an added set of stressors placed upon them, including racial and sexual inequalities in the classroom and among peers, as well as sexual harassment and racial antagonism (Murff, p. 103).
Sexual behaviors in college students can also be affected by stress. Those with higher stress levels tend to have a lower level of agency, which is the belief that one is a unique individual and must be cared for. This can lead to more risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviors in order to reduce stress, such as unprotected sexual activity. This phenomenon can cause a danger, as an increased number of sexual partners can lead to a greater likelihood of acquiring a sexually-transmitted disease. When someone has a lower level of stress, they can gain a greater level of happiness and agency from fewer sexual partners (Magurney & Bagwell, p. 92).
Academic self-efficacy is the perception of a student as to whether or not they can perform the tasks placed on them in an academic environment, such as college. People with low academic self-efficacy experience greater levels of stress and anxiety related to their schoolwork than those who believe they can handle the workload (Zajacova, Lynch, & Espenshade, p. 679). Self-efficacy, depending on the levels found in a person, can make people look at an external demand as a challenge or a threat – those with high levels of self-efficacy see a challenge, those with low levels see a threat. (p. 680) This visualization of an assignment as a threat leads to incredible stress levels among a college student who does not believe they are up to the task put toward them. As a result, there is a direct correlation between self-efficacy and stress.
Academic grades and stress are very closely linked – when someone’s self-efficacy is low, stress sets in, and it does not permit the student to have a clear head or a proper sense of time management.
Some argue that the stress of college life is no more intense than in normal life – stressors can adversely affect the productivity and anxiety levels of people in other industries, such as the health care profession. Burnout happens often among people in their own professions, as they are “constantly bombarded with a number of environmental and psychological factors” (Murff, p. 103).While nontraditional students have stressors dealing with family issues, as they are most often older students who have already started their own families, traditional students get the majority of their stress* from academia and the college social experience. It can also be argued that there are more social opportunities readily and easily available for college students, due to the closely-knit campus environment that allows for effective access to new people and more opportunities to become acquainted. The social activities on campus offer stress relief for those who are interested in such activities, and there are a number of authority figures, such as teachers and school counselors, who can ostensibly provide mentorship and guidance for students who are dealing with emotional problems.
In counterpoint to that, the unique nature of college, as well as the experience being a young adult’s first real exposure to true independence and adult levels of anxiety, makes it an incredibly stressful experience to the college student. This is normally the young adult’s first exposure to this level of stress, and as such they are not as well equipped to handle the stress as adults who have entered the workforce. They often have few friends, they do not have their family to lean on, and there is less privacy with the shared dormitories that many college students are required to live in during their initial period in college.
In order to deal with the stresses that college students have to go through, coping strategies must be used. These are “attempts to alter events or circumstances that are threatening” (Dyson & Renk, p. 1233). Coping strategies can include either proactive, problem-focused strategies, such as compartmentalization and strategy, or avoidant strategies like denial, wishful thinking, and self-distraction. The former type of strategy is often found in male students, whereas female students use the latter type of strategy, which is connected with negative outcomes in terms of education and grades.
Another negative phenomenon that is observed as a coping mechanism for stress in college students is stress-eating, particularly at night. There has been a direct correlation found between stress and night-eating syndrome. Night eating syndrome, or NES, is a condition where the hectic schedule and erratic sleep patterns of a college student dealing with constant deadlines often leaves them eating little during the morning, and a lot at night. This can lead to weight gain, and makes no measurable difference on the stress level of the college student over time (Wichianson, Bughi, Unger, Sprujit-Metz, & Nguyon-Rodriguez, p. 238).
Stress-identification programs are very useful in allowing students to address their stressful experiences and find better coping mechanisms for them. Strategies such as stress management seminars are very useful, in that they educate students on stress and show them the best ways to reduce stress. If someone has appropriate coping mechanisms created from these programs, they are less likely to let their stressors affect grades and their anxiety levels (Murff, p. 103).
Another potential solution for coping with stress is physical activity – for the most part, college students in particular are not keeping up with regular daily recommendations for proper diet and exercise. Due to not leading sufficiently active lifestyles, stress can also set in from that front. Research has shown that physical activity tends to relieve stress in most people, and is a recommended addition to the lifestyle of a college student in order to maintain appropriate physical and mental acuity (Nguyen-Michel, Unger, Hamilton & Sprujit-Metz, p. 186).
In conclusion, it can be argued that college life presents a number of stressors that can wreak havoc on the mental and emotional well-being of the student. Freshmen students are faced with a number of stressors related to life adjustments, including being away from most or all of the people they have grown up with. They are given all the responsibilities of an adult, as well as a rigorous academic schedule, making it doubly tough to adjust to this new, hectic environment.
This stress can manifest itself in a number of ways, from a lack of sleep to poor eating habits, not to mention sexual dysfunctions and a tendency to seek out more sexual partners and take more risks regarding protection. Most of all, stress can affect academic performance, as someone with low self-efficacy will experience great anxiety about not being able to do an assignment, and merely view schoolwork as a threat to their grade, not to mention their time and energy. While some college students can manage to channel their stress into problem-solving and remove the threat or meet the challenge of the assignment, some students can attempt to avoid it through procrastination and denial, which leads to lower quality schoolwork and diminished grades.
In order to meet these challenges, coping mechanisms must be adopted. First and foremost, healthier eating and a more active lifestyle are necessary to deal with stress, as it keeps the body properly nourished and energetic. Stress-management education is also important due to its ability to teach coping strategies to those who may not be aware of them. Above all, a positive attitude and optimism is an effective barrier to stress. With the help of these coping strategies, the intense stress that college students typically feel due to their situation will be more than manageable.
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