Regardless of how many credit hours you’re taking in a semester, managing stress in college is never easy. Not only is there stress that comes with handling your course workload, but there’s social stress, emotional stress, and other forms of personal stress that can weigh you down over time.
While it may be impossible to completely eliminate the things that are stressing you out, there are effective ways to help you better manage and overcome feelings of stress while in college. Much of these practices are rooted to cultivating resilience. It’s a defining characteristic of many of the world’s most successful people. But becoming a resilient individual is not an overnight transformation. It takes discipline and practice. However, in applying some of these tips to your day-to-day routine, you’ll notice profound changes in your ability to manage college stress, and rather immediately.
A common characteristic across most successful college students is the ability to effectively stay organized with assignments, projects, and exams. Diligent planning and organizing will pay dividends in managing stress while avoiding feelings of being overwhelmed. Procrastinating to study until the last minute, or failing to submit an assignment on time, can create stress that could otherwise be avoided. This kind of stress can have residual effect, as later in the semester these mistakes can leave students scrambling to make up lost ground.
One the most traditional tools for planning and organization is to use an actual planner or calendar system. This can be a tangible planner book that you pencil in all of your assignments and due dates. A digital alternative is use the suite of Google apps online, specifically Calendar. The nice thing about Google Calendar is that you can set reminders and notifications to let you know when is something is due. For instance if you know you have a big test in few weeks, you set a notification to email you when you’re 5 days out from test day.
If you’re not getting adequate hours of quality sleep, then your performance will suffer in all aspects of your life. Likewise, if you’re diet is poor or your nutrition is off, both your mental and physical performance suffers.
College students in particular need to be mindful of their diet. It’s all too convenient to opt for something quick and easy at the expense of nutrition. Overtime, a poor diet can lead to diminished cognitive functioning, weight gain, and poor dietary habits. Additionally, vitamin and nutrient deficiencies can wreak-havoc on the body, causing a lot of physical and mental stress. Conversely, students who are conscious about eating healthy are likely to perform better in many aspects of their lives. They’re often sharper mentally, physically more active, and better organized with their lives as a whole.
Next to diet and nutrition is sleep. Sleep is one of the most important variables that influences a number of systems impacting how we operate. However the relationship between stress and sleep is that the former (stress) has a massive impact on how well we sleep. According to research distilled by the American Psychological Association, “More than one-third of teens (35 percent) report that stress caused them to lie awake at night in the past month.” This information, which can be found here, highlights a number of compelling points about the relationship between stress and sleep, thereby reinforcing the need for college students to minimize and manage stress.
Physical activity has been considered vital for maintaining optimal mental health, and as result, its been shown to reduce stress. Studies show that exercise is very effective at improving alertness and concentration, reducing fatigue, and enhancing overall cognitive function. Conventional wisdom holds that exercising at a low to moderate intensity makes you feel energized and healthy. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) "Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects."
When stress begins to affect the brain, with its numerous nerve connections, the body itself can feel the impact. In turn, it stands to reason that if your body feels optimal, so does your mind. Exercise produces endorphins (which are feel good hormones in the brain that act as natural painkillers) which reduce stress and can also improve one's ability to sleep.
Interestingly parallel to some of the previous tips, meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, and even deep breathing can enable your body to produce endorphins. So there's strong overlapping evidence that supports exercise (as well as mindfulness and cold exposure) as effective means to mitigate stress. For college students, these tools can be strong weapons in your arsenal to becoming a more resilient and stress-free individual.
Mindfulness is a natural quality that we all possess. While it may seem like some heightened-state of awareness that requires hours of meditation to achieve, mindfulness is available to us in every moment, if we take the time to appreciate it. Best defined by Mindful.org, "(Mindfulness is) becoming more aware of where you are and what you’re doing, without becoming overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around you."
When we practice mindfulness, we're practicing the art of creating space for ourselves—space to think, space to breathe, space between ourselves and our reactions. In turn, we can better manage how stress affects us throughout the day. Big projects, unexpected assignments, social drama—things that typically induce feelings of being overwhelming are embraced with less reaction.
So how does one practice mindfulness? There are a number of overlapping techniques, but most practices center on returning your attention again and again to the present moment, which is rooted to your breath. Our minds are wired to get carried away in thought. Mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the breath. Yes, meditation or sitting quietly and drawing your attention to your breath is one common way to practice mindfulness. But our breath-focused attention can also be practiced while running, exercising, doing Yoga, or other forms of movement. Ultimately, it comes down to being more conscious of your breath throughout the day, especially when faced with stressful moments that might feel overwhelming.
This last tip might seem like crazy and painful, but if you’re feeling stressed out, taking a cold shower one the quickest ways to enhance your state of being. The primitive challenge of exposing oneself to cold has been shown to provide a number of incredible benefits, beyond stress-relief. From aiding in fat loss and sleep quality to strengthening the nervous system and immunity, there has been a wealth of scientific research supporting the many benefits of cold exposure. In turn, it’s become a more mainstream and widely known practice, as some of the world’s top performing athletes and entrepreneurs swear by cold exposure.
In terms of stress, exposing yourself to a brisk cold shower is a form of stress in itself. But it’s a natural form of stress that instantly shocks the system into a conscious state of deep breathing and mindfulness. According to Joseph Cohen, who has compiled a number of research studies supporting the benefits of cold exposure, “Nobody wants to get in a cold shower. Getting under freezing cold water every morning trains your brain to do things it doesn’t want to do if the rewards are big enough. This attitude then translates to other areas of your life.”
Not only is taking a cold shower one of the most effective means to cultivate resilience and conquer stress, but it’s also one of the most effective (and natural) antidepressants. According to an abstract on PubMed.gov supporting the hypothesis of using cold exposure for depression “Exposure to cold is known to activate the sympathetic nervous system and increase the blood level of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline and to increase synaptic release of noradrenaline in the brain.”
Norepinephrine is an adrenal hormone that enables individuals to feel more "up" naturally, and the increased production of beta-endorphins (or "feel good" molecules) can give a sense of well-being. Overall, taking a cold shower, even for just a few seconds, is worth trying.
At the end of the day, effectively managing stress is all about how well you prepare and react to things in life. There’s no avoiding the stress that comes with a big exam. But we can control how we react to it and plan for it. These five tips will enable you win the long-game in managing college stress, all while giving you a few effective techniques to help win the day.