Like many college students, Sarah Nadzan, a junior telecommunications major at Youngstown State University, has a complicated relationship with stress. On one hand, she says she relies on it for motivation.
“I need the stress to do things, to have that deadline looming over me,” she says only half-jokingly. “Like, ‘Come on, you gotta do your thing, Sarah.’ It helps keep me like keep on track.”
On the other hand, stress can be overwhelming. Nadzan, who works as a line cook, said she had to leave work during finals week this term due to lightheadedness, nausea and fatigue.
“It’s like a fever but without the hot part,” she says of how stress manifests physically for her. “I’m just super out of it.”
Finals are finally over and Nadzan, 23, is feeling much better (a visit to a campus Puppy Palooza de-stressing event, where she petted dogs from a local shelter, also helped). But Nadzan’s ability to bounce back from stress was hard-won: she had to leave college for four years after enrolling the first time around because stress exacerbated underlying mental health issues.
“I am very proudly blunt about it, because I have bipolar disorder, and that is definitely one that will screw up your everything when not getting help for it,” she says. “So when I went to school for the first time, chronic stress was a very big issue for me. I was not getting treated for a lot of things I really needed to be treated for.”
She describes “2023 Sarah” as less stressed. “I am getting the help I need, which makes a universe of difference.”
Concerns About Chronic Stress
Nadzan certainly isn’t alone in having suffered from stress, acute or chronic, or mental health concerns more broadly. That’s based on findings from the new Student Voice survey of 3,000 two- and four-year college students at 158 institutions concerning health and wellness.
- Six in 10 respondents have experienced acute stress, defined as a dramatic physiological and psychological reaction to a specific event.
- Some 56 percent of students, meanwhile, have experienced chronic stress, defined as a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period of time.
- Twelve percent of students report experiencing neither acute nor chronic stress.
Chronic stress among students may be particularly worrisome, since it’s linked to a variety of mental and physical health problems. And while rates of acute stress are relatively consistent across subgroups of students in the survey, some groups report chronic stress at elevated rates. These include students with physical disabilities or chronic illnesses—69 percent of whom have experienced chronic stress in college—and students with mental health conditions, 78 percent of whom have felt this.
There is also a clear connection between Student Voice respondents’ experiences with chronic stress and how they rate their mental health, with better mental health correlated with less chronic stress:
- Eighty-six percent of students who rate their mental health as poor (n=477) have experienced chronic stress while in college.
- Sixty-seven percent of students who rate their mental health as fair (n=989) have experienced chronic stress during college.
- Forty-five percent of students who rate their mental health as good (n=1,053) have experienced chronic stress in college.
- Thirty-nine percent of students who rate their mental health as excellent (n=438) have experienced chronic stress during college.
Seli Fakorzi, director of mental health operations at the virtual health and well-being provider TimelyCare, says that “when we describe stress, sometimes to students, it’s that alert stage that sees your body in fight or flight.” But whereas the feeling generally dissipates after stress from an isolated event, chronic stress is a different story.
“A lot of students experience a level of chronic stress and the exhaustion that comes with it,” Fakorzi explains. “It’s prolonged for a period of time, and students feel like they have control over it. That’s when it’s starting to affect their daily life. It starts to affect the way they eat, they sleep, how they’re interacting their thoughts, their feelings, and the actions and decisions they’re making can really be harmful.”
Colleen Conley, associate professor of clinical psychology and director of the Improving Mental-health and Promoting Adjustment through Critical Transitions (IMPACT) lab at Loyola University Chicago, underscores that there’s “certainly a connection” between stress and psychopathology. Take the diathesis-stress model for understanding mental health, for example, she says, in which stress combines with underlying vulnerabilities for mental disorders, resulting in manifestation of symptoms.
Even absent a clear mental health disorder, Conley says students under stress may experience subsyndromal symptoms, where “they’re experiencing some form of impairment—and impairment is a really important feature we look for.” From a clinician’s perspective, she adds, even students who don’t meet the full criteria for a mental health disorder but who feel “stressed or distressed” benefit from mental health services.
According to the Student Voice data, 58 percent of students who’ve experienced chronic stress during college haven’t accessed any of the following mental health resources through their college or university: on-campus counseling, telecounseling, referral to an off-campus therapist, urgent counseling for a time-sensitive issue or a hot line.
The rate is 48 percent for students who’ve experienced chronic stress who also say their mental health is poor, meaning that half of students suffering chronic stress and poor mental health may be struggling without professional help.
Academics a Top Stressor
Conley, among other researchers, has found that college is an inherently stressful environment, given that students face so many new responsibilities and stressors (not the least of which is living away from home for the first time for many). Academics prove stressful, for students, as well. A January survey by TimelyCare found that academics is students’ third-biggest stressor, following their own mental health and personal finances.
Asked about their biggest academic stressors, in particular, Student Voice survey respondents say exams, pressure to do well, balancing school and other obligations, essays or papers, and getting a bad grade—in that order.
Rounding out the top eight stressors are homework or readings, pressure to decide on a career, and group projects.
Major appears to factor in here, with exams being a major stressor for 69 percent of students in the natural sciences, 54 percent of students in the social sciences, and 37 percent of arts and humanities students (versus 59 percent of students over all). Among arts and humanities students, balancing schoolwork and other obligations, pressure to do well and essays or papers rank more stressful than exams.
Mental health matters in identifying stressors, too. Among students who rate their mental health as excellent, pressure to do well is the No. 5 academic stressor (affecting just 25 percent of these students) instead of the No. 2 academic stressor that it is for the group as a whole—or the No. 1 factor that it is for students who rate their mental health as poor (affecting 52 percent of this group).
For Alyssa Schoff, who worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Learning Center as a peer tutor for two years and recently graduated with degrees in biomedical engineering and biology, the biggest academic stressor was pressure to do well, or “the amount of pressure I feel to succeed.” Schoff plans to attend medical school and knows “that my academic performance will have an impact on my future opportunities, and I always worry that even a small mistake could derail my goals. This is especially true for exams and presentations but can even extend to smaller assignments like quizzes or homework assignments.”
The idea of disappointing the “teachers and family members who believe in me and support me” also made already difficult course load more stressful, she adds.
Another data disaggregation difference: among LGBTQIA+ students surveyed, exams are a major stressor for 55 percent of students. That’s compared to 69 percent of straight students. Relatively more LGBTQIA+ students report balancing schoolwork and other obligations and pressure to do well as stressors, however.
Community college students are more likely than four-year college students to cite balancing schoolwork and other obligations as a stressor, at 45 percent versus 38 percent, respectively.
When Stress Impacts Student Success
Stress isn’t all bad. Evolutionarily, it helps us respond to threats. And it can be motivating, as Nadzan from Youngstown State points out. (She’s not alone: an April Student Voice survey found that while students generally want more flexible deadlines, they don’t want them to be eliminated, and half of students say they rely on deadlines to stay motivated and on track.)
Conley also cites the Yerkes-Dodson law, which proposes that some level of stress helps people reach peak performance.
But in addition to triggering potential health problems, too much stress appears to challenge student success. In one widely reported student survey from March by Gallup and Lumina Foundation, four in 10 students said they’d considered stopping out altogether in the past six months, with emotional stress being the biggest reason among undergraduates. (Per Yerkes-Dodson, too little or too much stress results in reduced performance.)
In the new Student Voice survey, a quarter of students say that stress is negatively impacting their ability to focus, learn and do well in school a great deal, and half say it’s negatively impacting academics some. Not quite a quarter say stress isn’t impacting their academics too much. Just 4 percent say stress has no negative impact on their academics.
Again, mental health matters—as does chronic stress:
- Thirty-seven percent of students with fair or poor mental health (n=1,466) say stress is impacting their academics a great deal.
- One in three students who’ve experienced chronic stress in college (n=1,670) say stress is negatively impacting their academics a great deal.
Schoff of UNC Chapel Hill says the finding that three in four students’ focus and success are negatively impacted by stress “aligns with a lot of what I’ve heard from my friends and students I’ve tutored, and definitely aligns with my own experience. There have been several times during my undergraduate career where stress has made it difficult to focus on tasks and remember what I’m supposed to be doing.” When she’s not prioritizing her own mental health, she shares, stress zaps her motivation to do work, even for classes or topics she finds interesting.
Student Expectations About Who Should Help
Who has a responsibility to help students alleviate stress? Many students apparently see professors as the front line of support: more than four in 10 students over all say professors have a responsibility to help. Three in 10 students say it’s only their own responsibility, and the same share of students say campus counselors bear responsibility. About a quarter of students each cite advisers and peers.
Fewer than two in 10 students say administrators have a responsibility to ease their stress. Same for teaching assistants. Residential life staff, athletic coaches, tutors and other staff are even less popular options.
There are big differences between institution types, though, with 45 percent of four-year college students saying professors have a responsibility to help ease stress compared to 33 percent of community college students. Regarding campus counselors, 31 percent of four-year college students say they should help, versus 23 percent of community college students. Advisers and peers are also less cited options among two-year college students than four-year college students.
Community college students are much more likely than four-year students to say easing stress is only their own responsibility, however, at 46 percent versus 29 percent.
Students taking all their courses online also appear to expect less of professors in this way than do students taking all their courses in person.
What Students Suggest Colleges Do to Ease Their Stress
What if students were in charge of supporting undergraduate health and wellness at their institutions? Asked in the Student Voice survey what they’d do first to reduce students’ stress levels, respondents proposed ideas including:
- Promoting existing campus resources
- Proactively checking in with students about stress
- More study and mental health days
- Help with building executive function skills such as planning
Some individuals’ comments:
- “I think the best way to help stress is by having teachers provide stress-management options at the beginning of the class that the campus offers because, to be honest, I have no clue what the campus offers to help with stress,” says one student at a public university in Missouri. “I assume they have counselors [here], but I wasn’t informed about them or what they can help with.”
- Another student, at a private university in Iowa, questions “the culture here,” which is to “always be busy and be involved in a million different clubs and jobs.” The same student advocates giving students more time to study for finals, not just “one day off.”
- At one public university in Wisconsin, a student urges, “Check in on students more frequently. I don’t think college students get checked in [on] enough, on a personable level, so that they are able to fully express their stressors and other aspects of life contributing to their overall health and wellness.” The student says that check-ins from friends, advisers or professors always “provide wise feedback and wisdom, [and] this helped reduce so much stress for me because it felt like a type of outlet.”
Nadzan says that during exams, activities like Puppy Palooza and arts and crafts offered by campus groups really do help her reduce stress—although she proposes that they be available during midterms, as well. But in the interim, making time to relax is crucial to staving off chronic stress.
“A big thing for me is hobbies, hobbies, hobbies. I do live streaming, and I have a set schedule,” says Nadzan, who also plays bass. “Really just something to get your mind off of the stress. It’s so helpful.”
Schoff adds that she keeps a list of relaxing activities at the ready on her phone.
“When I’m in a bad place with stress or mental health, it can be hard to think of a good way to slow down and take care of myself, so that list has been a great way for me to organize successful coping strategies to use later.”
Yet more than anything, Nadzan says, “the No. 1 overall thing that I wish I could tell more people is ‘You are not defined by your grades. Your worth as a human being is not your grades. You are perfectly fine as a person, even if you can’t pass, like, organic chemistry, right?’” (Nadzan is speaking from experience as someone who struggled with chemistry when she was first enrolled in college as an engineering major; she says telecommunications suits her better.)
Conley, at Loyola, whose current work focuses on mental health interventions—including those embedded into courses, advising or routine services, and those led by peers and staff as well as mental health professionals—lists mindfulness and wellness advising as just two promising practices for helping students address stress.
The big picture is that colleges and universities must do what they can to “normalize and routinize these services,” she says. This means putting mental health and stress reduction resources in academic spaces, residence halls, advising and more.
The alternative is having “a reactive model where we wait for students to recognize and identify that they need help and then to get themselves to a treatment center—and that’s so many hurdles,” Conley says. “Let’s make it easier.”
How is stress impacting students, from your vantage point? Are you or your institution doing anything to reduce or otherwise address student stress? Tell us about it here.