Arts & CultureCover StoryHealth

For stressed-out college students, it’s important to take a step back



The second floor of the Knight Library is quiet, save for the clacking of computer keys. Movement, however, is abundant, if only you know where to look. There, a young woman sits, chewing absently on her pencil. There, a man stares at a computer screen while tapping incessantly on his thigh. There, a student bites her nails absentmindedly. The sound level may be low, but the stress level is buzzing as everyone studies for tests, writes essays, arranges presentations and, beyond all this, partakes in the practices of common stress-induced habits brought on by being one of the most stressed-out demographics in America: college students.

But nail-biting and pencil-chewing are normal signs of stress, and are not, on their own, a sign of a stress problem. When habits begin to affect everyday life, begin to cripple other aspects of one’s social, academic or personal existence — that is when a student’s stress has taken a mean turn.

A 2012 study by the American College Counseling Association claims that 37.4 percent of college students who seek counseling have severe psychological problems, compared to just 16 percent in 2000. According to a study conducted by The Associated Press and mtvU in 2008, four in 10 students often feel stressed, while nearly one in five claim to feel stress all the time.

In a 2010 survey, “The American Freshman: National Norms,” just 52 percent of incoming full-time freshmen at four-year colleges said their emotional health was above average. In 1985, 64 percent claimed above average emotional health. Reasons for these changing statistics range from the failing economy and shrinking job market to more typical student stresses like pressure to succeed and studying.

Claire* is a University of Oregon senior planning to graduate with a Bachelors of Science with honors in the spring. Her stress has reached such a level that she finds herself reduced to tears nearly every day from the weight of her worries.

“When I cry it’s because I am angry,” she said. “If I’ve been working on the same problem for three hours and not making progress, I feel like I’m really, genuinely stupid and I feel that I’ve let myself down.”

Elizabeth Asta, senior staff therapist for the University of Oregon Counseling and Testing Center, says that stress can manifest itself in many different ways. “For some people, they’re just going, going, going, and it’s hard to stop and pay attention to how stress is impacting them,” she said.

Tension headaches, shortness of breath, irritability, decreased concentration and motivation and, in worse cases, substance abuse, are all maladies Asta has seen affect college students.

“You start to feel that one additional task is a huge feat you have to accomplish,” Asta said. “It’s hard to focus in the same way because you’re not in a relaxed state. People have that running list of worries in their head, and it’s hard to shift from that onto whatever class materials are being presented, or what your best friend is trying to tell you about her day.”

Asta attributes some of the susceptibility of college students to stress to a loss of basic structure from high school to college. In addition to this loss of basic authority, identity development and a rush to figure out the rest of one’s life within a short four to five years can also weigh heavily on the minds of college students.

“There is an enormous pressure to know what you are going to do with the rest of your life when you leave school,” Claire said. “People say that it is okay to not know what you want to do, but there is this unspoken expectation. You are expected to have grad school lined up, or an internship, or a job. I just can’t imagine what I want to do with the rest of my life. That in itself makes me feel unsure and helpless.”

Time management is a key component to managing stress but is also a characteristic struggle for most college students. A 2007 analysis by University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel found that 80 percent to 95 percent of college students procrastinate. Given these numbers, it’s no surprise that undergraduate students find themselves overwhelmed with work and expectations.

Stress at any level can be better managed using techniques that vary from person to person. Asta suggests yoga, meditation, relaxing hobbies and a supportive social structure of friends and family. However, she also encourages students with severe self-critiquing habits to take a step back to analyze and challenge their own thought processes.

“Try to find alternative ways of thinking about yourself that are more kind and more realistic,” Asta said. “Say ‘Wow, there’s a lot of expectation here, it makes sense that it feels overwhelming.’”

“It’s a fast-paced environment, where you’re going from class to class to work to a club meeting. Sometimes it’s hard to take a minute to slow down and pay attention and take a self-evaluation.”

*Name has been changed


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Sam Bouchat

Sam Bouchat