by Madison Adams, photos by Candi Chiu
“It’s like putting this weight on your shoulders and having to drag yourself everywhere to do anything.” That’s how Utah State University student Drew Gagon describes his typical encounter with school-related stress, a common phenomenon for students across the nation. “I feel tired, anxious and nervous most of the time I’m stressed, and I think about every single detail about every single assignment or test,” he said. “(Stress) makes me think I have too much going on and that I can’t handle all of it.”
The “emerging adult,” as developmental psychologists would say, is undergoing drastic changes that can be very traumatic and disorienting and can evoke a great deal of stress. This stress, if mismanaged, can lead to depression, anxiety, and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts or actions. That’s what a study from the University of Missouri-Columbia has shown, supporting that daily hassles and stress, not just major negative life changes as was the focus of previous research, contribute significantly to the feelings of hopelessness that lead to suicidal thoughts and actions.
Charles Bentley, outreach coordinator of USU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), said a variety of factors (including a rigorous course load, friend and family relationships, work and financial responsibilities, and extra curricular commitments) can cause stress for college students. Jamey Salvesen, a USU senior, said she experiences stress on nearly a daily basis. “That’s just the definition of college life, I think,” Salvesen noted.
According to an Oklahoma State University study of stress in college students by Timothy Baghurst and Betty C. Kelley, it is the way a person perceives stress that corresponds to the negative effects of stress. “People who sense that they have the ability and the resources to cope are more likely to take stressors in stride and take action constructively,” publication authors write. If a student continues to view stress as overwhelming, over time it can lead to negative psychological effects, such as anxiety and depression. When asked about his perception of stress, Gagon remarked: “I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’m constantly saying, ‘Why don’t I get this? Why can everyone else do this and I can’t?’”
A study from the University of Kentucky had similar findings. Students who use “maladaptive coping strategies,” such as denial, self-blaming, substance abuse and giving up, reported depression and anxiety significantly more than students who do not. When asked via email what factors help a student to effectively cope with stress, Baghurst replied, “Personality plays a large role, but so too does a student’s training. … Students who have not been taught how to cope with day-to-day stressors in college [by their parents, teachers, peers, or someone else] are going to struggle more.”
USU’s Bentley tells students whose stress has escalated to depression or anxiety to not be afraid to seek help. “If you had a toothache would you go to a dentist? If you had a health problem would you go to a medical doctor? The answer would probably be yes. … I think mental health is the same way. It’s just another aspect of health that we sometimes need help with.”
For USU students, such help can be found for free on campus. CAPS, located in Taggart Student Center 306, is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Services are free for students enrolled in six or more credits at the Logan campus. CAPS offers individual therapy which focuses on stress management, including incorporating relaxation skills; group therapy which is skills-based and teaches integral strategies for dealing with anxiety; one-time drop-in workshops; reach peers, who are undergraduate students trained to teach coping skills on an individual basis; as well as online resources such as recorded lectures and reading materials to a student seeking help, Gagon stated, “You are not alone. There are other people trying to get help.”
While everyone experiences stress differently, Bentley said time management is a key component of managing stress and can prevent stress from escalating. “If there are multiple demands on a student’s time, stress has a way of building up and compounding itself,” he said. The Academic Resource Center (ARC), located in Taggart Student Center 305, is a skills-based office equipped with tools to help students manage their time and plan for academic success. Specialists in the ARC can help students map out their semester, creating a calendar marked with all major assignments and tests for the semester. Then, they break down the student’s weekly schedule—which may include class times, clubs, job hours, sports, and other activities—and find time for homework and studying. If a student needs further help, they can work on a variety of skills, such as effective study habits and stress management. Su Lin Nelson, learning specialist and instructor for the ARC, said, “Sometimes when students have the right skills, it’s amazing how attitudes change.”
While most people immediately associate stress with mental strain, stress has a physical component, Baghurst said. Feeling stress for long periods of time can lead to a variety of problems such as high blood pressure and heart rate, nausea and lack of sleep. To effectively manage this stress, Bentley suggests doing the “basic things such as getting good nutrition, staying hydrated, getting good sleep. …If you’re doing well in these areas, it usually prevents stress from getting overwhelming.”
Salvesen said exercise is an often neglected stress management tool. “(Exercise) definitely takes a lower priority. I know it would make me feel better, but I don’t think of it as something that I have to fit in like I should.” The Oklahoma State University study found that physically fit participants were able to recover more quickly from a stressor than those who were not. “Not only does exercise improve one’s overall physical health, but it has been also shown to improve academic performance,” Baghurst wrote. “In other words, studying for 2 hours may be less effective than studying for 1.5 hours and getting 30 minutes of exercise.”
The study also found that exercise was most effective in reducing stress when paired with relaxation techniques, such as meditation or “power naps,”defined by the National Sleep Foundation as “a short nap of 20-30 minutes,” which may work to ease stress by improving one’s mood, alertness and overall performance. However, the National Sleep Foundation also states that naps should not extend past this period of 20-30 minutes because a nap that is too long or taken too late in the day can be counterproductive by affecting a person’s sleep schedule.
Gagon found that social support is another effective stress reducer for college students.“What honestly helps me the most,” he said, “is always having someone to talk to that will tell me ‘no, you can do this; you’ll be okay.’” Bentley agreed: “If someone has a person they can confide in or talk about whatever they’re struggling with, that’s often very helpful.”
While there is no quick fix to stress and each person’s experience with stress is different, Gagon says determining what is causing the stress, staying active and healthy and keeping organized can make an impact on overall stress levels. Both Bentley and Nelson agree that stressed students should employ stress management techniques before it gets out of control. Nelson stated, “It’s like if you catch a cold early on and start with some Vitamin C and some good nutrition and extra water, you can maybe lessen the impact of that sickness, rather than waiting until you’re deathly ill and going to the doctor … but it’s never too late to start.”