Stress in college students

Danielle Schultz—Staff Writer

It was midterms week—Wednesday night at 10:50 p.m., when Dordt junior Julius Mwale woke up from his three-hour nap. It was the only sleep he would be getting that night, thanks to the four papers and three exams he had scattered throughout the rest of the week.

Down in Southview’s computer lab, Mwale decided to start on the biggest assignment first: a six-page paper for microbiology. Five hours and lots of research later, that paper was completed. At this point in the night, though, Mwale was beginning to feel tired. He took a shower to revitalize himself for his next project: a three-page biology paper.

The rest of the night brought more homework mixed with yet another shower and a coffee break to stay awake. Mwale left for his 8 am class like usual, but it would take two more nights to complete the rest of his workload. Over those three nights, he would only get nine hours of sleep.

This is the story of many college students, especially during midterms, when stress is high. MedlinePlus defines stress as a “feeling of emotional or physical tension [that comes] from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.” All college students are familiar with stress and many even see it as normal. In the last decade, however, universities have reported growing levels of stress among college students.

First, it is important to distinguish between negative and positive stress, said Dordt director of student health and counseling Beth Baas. There are two categories of stress: acute stress and chronic stress. Acute stress is short-term and situational, while chronic stress is long-term and lasting.

Acute stress is something every person will experience at some point in their life, and it often has positive effects, like motivating you to complete an assignment on time or helping you to avoid danger. In contrast, chronic stress is a result of a bigger problem and often brings negative effects, like the development of physical illness, anxiety or increased conflict. The mixture of acute and chronic stress may also cause problems.

“You might feel like…you’re managing your big stressors fine—relationships that are difficult, maybe a money situation—but then you get that big build up of those little stressors—“little” being term papers that are all due in the same day, and finals a week later—and that makes you not able to handle the big stuff,” Baas said. “That’s kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

But are stress levels in college students really growing?

Looking back, overall stress levels for college students between 2010 and 2015 rose 30 percent, according to the American Psychological Association. Through their National College Health Assessment in 2015, the American College Health Association reported that three out of four college students (32.2 percent) had experienced “at least one stressful life event in the last year.”

But this trend of growing stress levels in college students was not reflected at Dordt during those years. According to Baas, Dordt participated in the National College Health Assessment in 2006 and 2015. In 2006, when students were asked if they felt that their academic performance was impacted by stress in a negative way, 26.1 percent said “yes.” In 2015, only 23.7 percent answered the same.

These results may have been due to an increased awareness of mental health. Like other university counseling centers at the time, Dordt’s Student Health and Counseling services stepped up to meet the growing needs of students across campus. Today, Dordt’s two counselors encourage students to manage stress by developing a healthy lifestyle that includes balanced eating and exercising, time management, fun, relaxation techniques and positive thoughts and attitudes. Unhealthy ways of coping with stress, such as drinking, procrastinating, or over-sleeping, are replaced with healthier activities, such as listening to music, playing with a pet, or catching up with friends.

One way Dordt has specifically differentiated its counseling and health services from other universities can be seen in its waitlist length. While other colleges often waitlist students up to a month for counseling services, the waitlist for Dordt is only one to two weeks. Just this year, Dordt also increased the number of counseling hours available to students to meet new demands.

Looking at more current reports, growing levels of stress alone in college students seems to have slowed. A 2017 report from Pennsylvania State University instead states that the growth of anxiety and depression in college students has become a new trend. Because anxiety and depression are often a product of stress, it is hard to tell how deeply the two are interrelated.

The National College Health Assessment for the Fall of 2018, which Dordt did not participate in, recently reported that 34.1 percent of students experienced stress that had impacted their academic performance. This number has not changed much since 2015’s 32.2 percent, which supports the conclusion that stress in college students is no longer growing at such a fast rate.

Ultimately, Dordt hopes to combat stress by preparing students, especially those studying social work or psychology, to help others in the future.

“If you are a human being living before the face of God, you are going to have stressors,” Dordt psychology professor Mark Christians said. “What I am trying to teach our students is that you can’t always eliminate the stressors, but you can control how you respond to the stress. Stress doesn’t have to be an uncontrollable outcome that simply wreaks havoc on our life.”

Christians notes that three healthy responses to stress include practicing new coping skills, mentally preparing for the stressor and repeating healthy coping exercises and social interactions. These responses often help make a new stressor ordinary and un-stressful. Because every person is unique, it is important to remember that individuals will respond to the same stressors in different ways depending on past experiences and cognitive interpretations.

This is also true of midterms week. All students can relate to a flood of papers and tests, but each one deals with it differently. While some students plan out their assignments weeks ahead of time, other students, like Julius, find themselves staying up late scrambling to finish huge assignments before class. Either way, it is often hard, or even impossible, for students to prevent stress during that time.

“The day I reach a breaking point,” Mwale said, “I’ll go to Dordt Student Health and Counseling. I know this is definitely not healthy, but it works.”

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