Chapter 41: Stress and Mental Health

Lumen Learning

Causes of Stress

As a student, you’re probably plenty familiar with the experience of stress—a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension. What you may not know is that it’s a natural response of the mind and body to a situation in which a person feels threatened or anxious. Stress can be positive (e.g., preparing for a wedding) or negative (e.g., dealing with a natural disaster).

Stress can hit you when you least expect it—before a test, after losing a job, or during conflict in a relationship. If you’re a college student, it may feel like stress is a persistent fact of life. While everyone experiences stress at times, a prolonged bout of it can affect your health and ability to cope with life. That’s why social support and self-care are important. They can help you see your problems in perspective… and the stressful feelings ease up.

Sometimes stress can be good. For instance, it can help you develop skills needed to manage potentially challenging or threatening situations in life. However, stress can be harmful when it is severe enough to make you feel overwhelmed and out of control.

Strong emotions like fear, sadness, or other symptoms of depression are normal, as long as they are temporary and don’t interfere with daily activities. If these emotions last too long or cause other problems, it’s a different story.

Signs and Effects of Stress

Physical or emotional tension are often signs of stress. They can be reactions to a situation that causes you to feel threatened or anxious. The following are all common symptoms of stress:

  • Disbelief and shock
  • Tension and irritability
  • Fear and anxiety about the future
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Being numb to one’s feelings
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Loss of appetite (or increased appetite)
  • Nightmares and recurring thoughts about the event
  • Anger
  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Sadness and other symptoms of depression
  • Feeling powerless
  • Crying
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
  • Trouble concentrating

It’s not only unpleasant to live with the tension and symptoms of ongoing stress; it’s actually harmful to your body, too. Chronic stress can impair your immune system and disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, leading to increased risk of numerous health problems, including the following: [1]

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways of coping with the stressors in your life.

Ways of Managing Stress

The best strategy for managing stress is by taking care of yourself in the following ways:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. They may seem to be a temporary fix to feel better, but in the long run they can create more problems and add to your stress—instead of taking it away.
  • Consider how you are balancing life, work, school, and family. Depending on where you are in your life, one of these may need to take priority. For example, when you have a major deadline, you might not be able to see your family and friends for a few days. When you are done with this school commitment, you can re-balance and let friends and family take priority for a couple days.
  • Prioritize and schedule your commitments. These may change week by week, but having a schedule and knowing where your weekly priorities are will help you feel in better control of your life, which, in turn, will mean less stress.
  • Find support. Seek help from a friend, family member, partner, counselor, doctor, or clergy person. Having a sympathetic listening ear and talking about your problems and stress really can lighten the burden. Teachers, professors, and advisors can also help you manage your school schedule if you are feeling overwhelmed with coursework.
  • Connect socially. When you feel stressed, it’s easy to isolate yourself. Try to resist this impulse and stay connected. Make time to enjoy being with classmates, friends, and family; try to schedule study breaks that you can take with other people.
  • Slow down and cut out distractions for a while. Take a break from your phone, email, and social media.
  • Take care of your health as best as you can. Here are some things that can help protect your health:
    • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
    • Exercise  stretch, or do breathing exercises regularly
    • Get plenty of sleep
    • Try a relaxation technique, such as meditation or yoga. Does your campus have a “mind spa”? Here’s one at Portland State University: https://www.pdx.edu/health-counseling/mind-spa. If your campus has something like this, check out what relaxation support they offer.
    • Maintain a normal routine

Finally, practice self-compassion. You don’t have to be perfect all the time. You don’t have to get everything done all the time. This video offers some suggestions for how to practice self-compassion. If the self-care techniques listed above aren’t enough and stress is seriously interfering with your studies or life, don’t be afraid to get help. The student health center and college counselors are both good resources to help you manage stress in difficult times.

Video: Self-Compassion

 

Activity: Reduce Your Stress Level

Objective

  • List healthy ways of managing stress that fit your current lifestyle.

Directions

  • Identify at least three things you currently do to cope with stress that aren’t working or aren’t good for you.
  • Identify healthy replacements for each of them, and write yourself a “stress-relief prescription” that you plan to follow for one week. Try to include one stress management technique to use every day. At the end of the week, reflect on following prompts:
    • Which ineffective or unhealthy coping strategies did you set out to change and why?
    • Which stress-relief techniques did you try during the week? Were any of them new for you? Which ones were most effective?
    • How much do you think stress affects you in your current life at college?
    • Do you feel like you have it under control or not? If not, what else might you do to reduce your stress level?

This TedxTalk by Shawn Anchor covers happiness related to good health and better work. An important aspect he includes is how our brain performs when under stress.

Video: The Happy Secret to Better Work, Shawn Anchor TED Talk

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Original:

All rights reserved content:

  • Self Compassion. Provided by: The School of Life. Located at: https://youtu.be/-kfUE41-JFw. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

Public domain content:

License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

Adaptions: Removed quote and images, relocated learning objectives. Added Shawn Anchor Ted Talk. December 2021: Removed meditation video, added video on Self-compassion. Revised content for cultural appropriateness.


  1. “Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk,” Mayo Clinic, 2016, accessed April 27, 2018, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.

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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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