According to the American College Health Association-2020, 88% of students reported a level of academic stress that caused moderate to high distress.1 However, school-related stress and worry do not have to weigh you down. Adopting a balanced healthy lifestyle, adjusting your mindset, and establishing positive connections can make your academic experience less uncomfortable and more rewarding.
Signs & Symptoms of Stress In Students
Whether you thrive off academic pressures or struggle keeping up, the reality is that prolonged periods of stress will likely cause adverse effects on your physical and mental health including headaches, fatigue, and irritation. As such, it is important to understand how you respond to academic demands, and how this stress impacts your overall well-being.2,3,4
Here are common physical signs and symptoms of school-related stress:2,3,4,5
- Muscle tension
- Chest pain
- Involuntary twitching
- Feeling fatigued
- Trouble sleeping
- Digestive problems
- Changes in sex drive
- Weak immune system (getting sick more often)
- Unusual weight fluctuations
Here are common mental and emotional signs and symptoms of school-related stress:
- Becoming easily irritated or on edge
- Having less than normal patience
- Emotional burnout
- Feeling uninterested in things/activities that used to be enjoyable
- Difficulty concentrating or focusing
- Uncontrollable worry
- Feeling depressed or helpless
- Feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with daily responsibilities
Here are common behaviors and unhealthy ways of coping with school-related stress:
- Procrastinating or not completing assignments or other responsibilities
- Skipping class
- Avoiding interacting with friends/peers
- Not getting along with others
- Lashing out, frequent angry outbursts, or hostile behaviors
- New/increased consumption of alcohol/drugs/smoking
- Excessive use of games or social media
There are numerous factors that contribute to school-related stress and these vary depending on the person. Some of the most common issues students face are adjusting to a more independent lifestyle, challenging schoolwork, deadlines, new responsibilities, interpersonal relationships, finances, and more. Having so much going on may leave students with little time to focus on anything else, but ignoring their stress or turning to short-term solutions like self-destructive behaviors can significantly hurt their academic performance and exacerbate stress.4
A New Challenge—The Pandemic
There is evidence of a mental health decline among the young adults who make up most of the student population.12,13 This population is further challenged by an unprecedented new threat — the pandemic. As a result, in less than a year, students’ stress has grown exponentially.
According to the American Psychiatric Association 2020 survey on stress, 87% of young adults in college reported that “education was a significant source of stress.” Looking ahead, 67% say that the coronavirus pandemic makes planning for their future “feel impossible.” This lends credence to the theory that school stress is an evolving area of study that needs continued support and investigation.17
5 Ways to Deal With Stress at School
There are many practical strategies you can use to manage your academic demands and increase your resiliency to diffuse stress, such as adopting or improving healthy habits, practicing self-care, organizing your time and space, adjusting your frame of mind, and developing supportive social bonds. All of these things methods can help you cope in a healthier way.2,3,4,5
Here are five tips on how to deal with stress at school:
1. Start With the Basics of Caring for Yourself
Reassess your eating habits, sleeping patterns, and involvement in physical activity. Making modest adjustments in these areas can produce optimal (short-term/long-term) outcomes and increase your ability to better cope with academic pressures.4
- Sleep: Improving or maintaining healthy sleeping habits is of utmost importance to sustain a fast-paced educational lifestyle and the stress it brings. Develop a sleeping routine and try to get at least 8 hours of quality sleep every night to sharpen your brain functioning, enhance learning, boost your mood, and relieve your stress.6
- Nutrition: Research shows a link between a high-quality diet, mental health, improved cognitive functioning, and reduced stress levels.7,8 Moreover some studies have suggested that a healthy dietary intake can slightly improve academic performance.9, 10 Whenever possible, avoid high consumption of caffeine, and eliminate sugar and alcohol from your diet.5
- Exercise: Regular physical activity is proven to positively contribute to mental fitness, cognitive functioning, improved mood, and better sleep. Just 30 minutes daily of moderate-intensity activity (like taking a mindful walk in nature) can boost your mood, relieve stress levels, help you cope with academic rigors, and decrease your likelihood of developing anxiety or a depressive disorder.5,11,12,13 When the semester gets hectic, time for exercise should be protected, not sacrificed.
2. Organize Your Schedule & Space
Having too much on your plate and not enough time to tackle everything can lead to a great deal of stress. Try to efficiently structure your time and plan ahead to ease your stress and increase your academic success.
Here are some general tips to help you organize your schedule:4
- Analyze how you spend your time
- Identify time wasters
- Develop a realistic time-management system that aligns with your lifestyle
- Set specific goals
- Prioritize tasks and responsibilities
- Assign a certain amount of time to each activity including schoolwork, chores, friends, job, and self-care
- Implement your objectives and commit to maintaining consistency
- Address procrastination if that’s a recurrent issue
- Learn new ways to calm anxiety before a test
Structure Your Space
Similar to your schedule, your environment can influence your mood and state of mind. Students may find it difficult to concentrate on schoolwork due to external factors like noise, interruptions, uncomfortable study areas, and/or disruptive roommates/family members.
Reduce your environment-related school stress by making these changes:14
- Identify the changes you need to make in your environment and address them
- Declutter and organize your study area/space to improve your attention span and encourage you to be more productive
- Eliminate distractions like the TV or your phone that can interfere with your ability to focus
- Communicate with your roommate/family member (if they are a source of distraction)
3. Practice Self-Care & Relaxation Techniques
It’s important to set time aside to engage in self-nurturing and relaxation techniques or activities. When prioritized, self-care can significantly reduce your stress, improve your mood, and help you unwind mentally and physically.3,5
Here are some effective relaxation techniques:
- Breathing exercises: Diaphragmatic breathing is the easiest and most effective method to elicit a relaxation response and ease stress. This basic self-soothing technique can be done anywhere at any time.3,4,5
- Meditation: Reduces stress, boosts mood, increases concentration, enhances creativity, and promotes quality sleep.15
Students who meditate demonstrate less stress and increased resiliency and positive emotions.Evidence also suggests that mindfulness meditation can improve memory and ability to focus too.16
- Have fun: Regularly reward yourself with something that is fun and brings you joy. It can be as simple as listening to music, taking a bubble bath, reading a book, getting a massage, or something well-planned like going on a vacation or trying a new hobby. Whatever you choose, stick with it. Doing so will keep you balanced, preventing burnout and promoting a healthy routine.
4. Change Your Mindset
High levels of stress can contribute to the development of a negative mindset. Conversely, when you have an overall positive mentality or frame of mind, you can deal with school stress more effectively and ultimately, achieve academic success.14
Here are some tips to change your mindset for the better:
- Accept your stress: This doesn’t eliminate stress; instead, it opens the path to new solutions and possibilities
- Remember, not all stress is bad: Try to be flexible and let stress motivate you to grow and perform better
- Adjust your internal dialogue: Develop positive beliefs about your abilities
- Acknowledge your strength: Rather than being critical of yourself, practice positive affirmations
- Set realistic expectations: Focus on progress not perfection.
- Adopt a growth mindset: Embrace challenges, apply efforts, learn from mistakes, and perform better in the long run.
5. Establish & Lean On Your Support System
Build meaningful social connections and surround yourself with a network of people/resources that serve as a buffer between you and your stress. Your support system can help you manage strong emotions, withstand stress, and relieve mental strain.2,3,5,8,14
Here are several ways to seek and establish a supportive network:
- Reach out to those around you: You don’t have to carry the burden of stress alone. Talk to a trusted friend, relative, fellow student, or professor. They can provide moral support and/or offer sound advice to make stress a little more bearable.
- Access organizations: If you feel you cannot connect with anyone, there are resources you can turn to, including community programs, places of worship, and non-profit organizations. You can also explore support groups, text lines/hot lines, and self-help workshops.
- Contact the professionals: Discuss your levels of stress with a primary care physician (PCP). If necessary, they can refer you to a mental health clinician, counselor, or therapist. You may also want to investigate your school’s counseling center.2,3
When to Seek Professional Help for School Stress
If you feel that your stress with school is interfering with your academic performance, impairing other aspects of your life, causing you to cope with drugs or alcohol, or triggering periods of severe sadness, anxiety, self-harming thoughts/behaviors, you should be assessed by a mental health professional.3,12,13
School-related stress is common amongst the student population, and college students are often at risk for developing a chronic mental illness or psychological issues related to mood, anxiety, suicide, and addiction.12,13
How to Find a Therapist
You may be able to access your school’s counseling center for assistance or a referral to an appropriate behavioral health service.2 You can also explore an online directory to look for a therapist who is the right fit for you.
Additional Resources On How to Deal With School Stress
If you are experiencing challenges with school stress, you are not alone. This is a relatively common affliction, although everyone’s experience of it may be unique. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources available on how to deal with school stress.
Here are several organizations dedicated to the wellness of students’ mental and emotional health:
Dealing with School Stress Infographics