The effects of stress on college students

By: Beth Casteel

With midterms coming closer to being a reality for students, more and more worn textbooks, open notebooks and an alarming amount of empty coffee cups can be seen littered around students as they cram for their upcoming exams.

As the midterm season comes and goes, the feeling of stress may continue to linger for some. Whether it be due to a student’s current course load, work and trying to juggle it all with their personal life, stress is a feeling that isn’t uncommon for college students across the world.

In fact, a recent study from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 85 percent of college students across college campuses have felt overwhelmed and “stressed out” by the tasks they’ve had to do in the past year.

While mental health and the amount of stress students face in college are things that have been topics of conversation in years past, that previous percentage doesn’t show signs of lowering anytime soon.

There may not be a clear-cut solution to the growing degree of stress and mental health-related cases revolving around college students, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that can help limit the stress and lower the stigma surrounding mental health issues across college campuses.

In order to help limit the stress and end the stigma surrounding mental health, it’s important for students to understand what those words and phrases actually mean. Furthermore, it also is pressing to know what mental health and stress means to them.

According to, mental health includes our “emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” It can affect a whole slew of things, including how we think, how we handle certain situations and how we feel at any given moment.

Mental health can be different for everyone. It is something that every person deals with, from childhood through adulthood, and while everyone deals with mental health, not everyone has to deal the more severe issue, counterpart to mental health.

As noted, mental health in general deals with a person’s state of well-being. While it broadly covers the state of an individual’s overall health, it’s important to realize that there is another, more serious, side of mental health and that’s mental illness.

A mental illness, much like its counterpart, affects how people think, feel and interact with those around them. Unlike mental health, having a mental illness tends to affect one’s ability to function throughout the day.

Mental Health America cites that there are more than 200 forms of mental illness people can be diagnosed with. The most common the site found were disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Those illnesses aren’t uncommon, either. A finding from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from some anxiety disorder, which is the most common mental health problem on college campuses.

With these disorders being something that many people deal with, especially on college campuses, knowing how these disorders came to be can help students better understand them.

The real cause of a mental health disorder is not known, there are a few factors that doctors have found through research that help suggest the cause of certain disorders. The factors can be broken into three main factors: biological, psychological and environmental.

To some degree, certain mental illnesses have been linked to biological factors. These can include genetics, prenatal damage, infections that have led to brain damage, poor nutrition, serious brain injuries and long-term substance abuse.

Psychological factors could also contribute to a mental illness. These factors could be a loss of a parent or important figure at an early age, neglect and some form of trauma suffered at an early age, like emotional or physical abuse.

Lastly, there are environmental factors that could point to someone suffering a mental illness.

These factors are more so life stressors that can trigger some form of a mental illness, like death, low self-esteem, major life changes, social expectations and a difficult family life.

Of course, these factors aren’t exact causes of any given mental illness, but studies have found that they can be a direct cause.

While mental health and mental illnesses can be difficult to understand, Claire Campbell, the Director of Cleveland State University’s Counseling and Academic Success Clinic (CASC) found that it’s important for college students to have a basic understanding of what mental health really is, and how they can handle it.

“All of us, to some extent, understand what physical health is, right? But, mental health is invisible on many levels,” Campbell said. “Most college students are distressed about something. It is a stressful time in life and development because there are so many complicated factors that can affect the way that we’re able to regulate our emotions and how we’re able to cope with stress. So, our mental health is as important, if not more important than our physical health.”

Campbell continued on to say that while mental health can, at times, be more pressing than physical health, what students should really try to achieve is finding a balance where mental health and physical health are both attended to.

While mental health is overarching, there is one common problem that most college students face, and that is stress. Hearing the phrase, “I’m stressed out,” isn’t uncommon at a college campus. So, for most of the college population, stress is not a foreign feeling, and it is something that has continued to worsen over the years.

“For college students, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health keeps track of symptoms reported at college counseling centers across the country,” Katherine Oh, the Director at Cleveland State’s Counseling Center, said. “They continue to report increases in depression and anxiety and higher rates of suicidal ideation, self-harm, and previous suicide attempts among college students, compared to a few years ago.”

With school, work and finding time for a personal life, college students can have it rough. While most of us know the feeling of being overwhelmed and “stressed out,” not all of us know what stress actually is.

Oh explained that stress is essentially a reaction we have to some sort of change that requires us to respond or adjust in some way. By doing this, our bodies adjust accordingly and try to help us respond to the feeling of being stressed adequately.

While a certain degree of stress can actually be viewed as a good thing, an overwhelming amount is not, and according to Oh, students should know what type of stress they’re under. There are three types of stress that people typically face: acute, episodic acute and chronic.

Acute stress is categorized as quick, once in a while stress that is usually easy to manage. It’s stress that is your body’s reaction to a new challenge or demand, pulling out the human body’s fight or flight response, but typically isn’t a lingering feeling.This type of stress is usually something small, like going to a haunted house or getting a flat tire on the way home.

The next type of stress would be episodic acute, which is acute stress that happens frequently. Those who experience this type usually have a lot going on and they don’t know how to manage these newfound responsibilities they have placed on themselves.

As Healthline notes, people who can be viewed as “worry warts” or people who are on the pessimistic side of things also tend to have this type of stress. Episodic stress can usually result in irritability, depression and anxiety. While it can have sort of longer-term effects, the stress usually ceases for a little bit before starting back up.

The last type of stress most people can feel is chronic stress. This particular type of stress usually results from acute stress worsening over time or it could be the result of being in an unsafe or unstable situation, physically or financially.

Whether it comes from being in an abusive environment to not having enough money to support yourself, this type of stress usually impacts a person’s physical and mental well-being while also creating long-term consequences.

As the types of stress get more easily defined, knowing what can cause stress is something else entirely. As a whole, academic workload, financial issues, family and personal relationships can all be a root cause of stress.

Another interesting factor that some might not think about when it comes to feeling stressed is seeing the types of things covered in the news.

“Stress appears to be getting worse for all generations across the country,” Oh said. “Negative events in the news can also create stress and uncertainty, like when we hear about violence against women or mass shootings.”

While there are root causes of stress for everyone, there can also be a difference depending on where one is in life. For example, a freshman in college could be experiencing different stressors as opposed to a senior.

With both being transitional periods, Oh explained that for first year students, it can be difficult to adapt to the standards  needed for college. Seniors, on the other hand, can be stressed about life after graduation and being able to prove to others that they can “make it” as an adult.

Campbell had similar thoughts on the matter, sharing that each level are at a different point in their academic careers. While each brings their own set of stresses, Campbell added that developmentally, the differences could bring a new dynamic to the academic stress levels.

“Both are similar in that they’re transitions, but you also want to think about that developmentally. Mentally, a senior is farther along in the [sense that they] know how this all works,” Campbell said. “They’re older, and there’s a significant amount of important brain development that’s still going on when you’re 19 and 20 versus being in your mid twenties.”

While stress can be caused by various things, and at very different levels, trying to understand and define mental health, mental illness and stress can still feel overwhelming. But, once an individual has a basic understanding of these issues, finding ways to deal with any of them can be much easier.

Campbell shared that finding a way to get your physical health and your mental health in some sort of alignment can help your body’s overall function. Noting that people aren’t just heads or bodies, the two need to work in a way that allows them to work optimally together.

Physical health can be a little easier to pin down than mental health, finding a balance between the two is something that Campbell highly recommends. Finding a “menu of choices,” is one way of getting to that healthy balance.

The menu, Campbell explained, is a person’s way of finding things to do that help them feel empowered and less stressed. Whether those “menu” options be things like physical exercise, making sure one’s body is well nourished and well slept to finding activities to do and disconnecting from technology.

But, she warns, that actually doing these things can take commitment and there has to be ways to mix our menu up for it to be sustainable. So, she suggests that when students are making their menu, to find several options that help them best destress.

To go off of what Campbell suggested, Oh from the Counseling Center shared that aside from basic self-care and health expectations, setting a realistic schedule for school and work can also act as a buffer for stress.

She continued that having some sort of support for one’s specific “identities and goals” could be helpful to help limit stress too.

Oh also added that being around people striving for similar things, by joining a club or getting involved in the community, can help add the support that is needed when dealing with stress.

Building that sense of community is something Oh explained is extremely important, especially when it comes to those affected with mental health issues.

“It’s always good to talk about stress with friends and family who are supportive,” Oh said. “Social support helps all of us recover better from any stress we face. If we find our lives are chaotic and constantly stressed or we have a situation of chronic stress, then seeking some professional help is best. Therapists can help us set better limits and make good choices about how much we’re trying to do.”

While having someone to turn to is important when finding ways to cope with stress, both Campbell and Oh recognize that it can sometimes be difficult going to people to get help. Especially when it comes to mental health stigmas.

Stigmas, can be determined in two distinct types: social and perceived. According to Psychology today, social stigmas can be classified as attitudes and behaviour that discriminate against those who have mental health problems due to labels they’ve been given.

Whereas, perceived stigma, or self stigma, are ones that are given by the person suffering from the mental illness. These types of stigmas usually have the person know the stereotypes against them, and agree with them.

While these stigmas are still surrounding mental health, both Campbell and Oh feel as though the perception of mental health has gotten better in years past.

“The perception of stigma is greater than the actual stigma. So if we talk about it as if it’s not a stigma, and be more open about mental health, then it will become more normal,” Oh said. “I do think the stigma is reduced now, especially among college students.”


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