College Students and Stress: A Message to Parents from a College Student

college stress and stress in college studentsA Day in the Life of College Students and Stress

Inhale. Wake up. Manage to get feet from bed to floor, shower, get ready, grab a protein bar, get out the door. Seven minutes to make the nine-minute walk to class; grab a seat, fight to stay awake. Exha- Shoot, I forgot my coffee.

Inhale. Twenty-five minutes before a three-hour lab gives me exactly eight minutes to eat after accounting for the lunch line. After lab, there are fifteen minutes to change into work polo and hope goggle lines fade. Inhale. Scan through email from honors college director and congratulate fellow students for being awarded yet another prestigious scholarship I didn’t know existed. Exhale.

Inhale. I don’t know my grades, but pretty sure my friends are all doing better than me. Exhale. Roommates: captain of varsity soccer team, recipient of a research fellowship, test prepping to get admitted to a dual degree graduate program. Inhale. Still, don’t know what to do with my life. Inhale. I’m taking a year off after college. Inhale. What am I going to do that’s impressive in my year off? Inhale. I can’t relax. Inhale. Tears start to fall. Inhale. Mascara. Exhale. Is running. Inhale. Registration. Exhale. Is in a week. Inhale. Call mom and dad.

college students and stressI always hoped that a sigh of relief would follow the call to my parents, but it usually leads to a non-helpful cycle of further upsetting one another. My parents lovingly insisted that I put too much pressure on myself, but it made me feel like my stress was a “me” problem instead of a college problem. I dismissed their pleas with me as a sign that they just didn’t understand. The more I’ve talked to friends, peers, and parents, the more I’ve seen this trend emerge: college students feel like their parents just don’t get it.

To many parents, the constant stress of their children is something they have trouble understanding, especially if they went to college and don’t recall feeling the same way. To a lot of kids, they feel invalidated by their parents’ lack of comprehending. The frustration of both child and parent is completely understandable, but we have to find some way to talk about a stressful four years of life. Where is this stress coming from? Do parents really not get it, or are children overreacting?

Mental Health and Stress in College Students Statistics

I constantly find I am describing myself as anxious and overwhelmed, and it turns out, I’m not alone. Mental illness in college students is at an all time high and rising every year. 61% of students reported feeling extreme anxiety in the past 12 months, and even more said that they were overwhelmed, according to the 2016 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment. Almost half of students reported feeling their academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle,” and 10% have seriously considered suicide, which is a rate that has risen over two percent in just two years.

stress in college students statisticsThese rates aren’t just self-reported; college counselors are noticing the rise as well. The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors surveyed over half a million counseling directors and reported that the top presenting concern for college students is anxiety. This rate has risen nine percent in six years to just over 50%, followed by depression.

More than a quarter of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness within the last year. Even knowing this, it can be easy to underestimate the prevalence of mental illness in college students because most adolescents and adults with mental illness don’t get a diagnosis, and more than half with a diagnosis don’t even receive help. So the next time a college student is overwhelmed with anxiety and stress about the future, consider that they really may be with a large portion of their peers who need help managing. Usually, statements like ‘you put too much stress on yourself,’ and reassurance like ‘everything is going to be okay’ is only going to be dismissed as invalidating.

Is the Stress Warranted?

Without a doubt, the numbers speak for themselves. My generation sees college as more stressful and anxiety evoking than ever before, with the trend on the rise. The question then becomes whether or not this stress is warranted or really an issue of perception.

college stress and how to handle itI’ve consulted with my peers on this, and most students agree that pressure goes beyond succeeding in academics, and I would argue that the basis of this starts before college. We feel like we need to volunteer on the weekends, hold down a part-time job, and not only be a part of every club, but be the president of it. Asking students why we feel we need everything under the sun on their CV, we will likely answer is needed for a job or for admission to graduate school. When parents protest that it’s not all needed, we roll our eyes and lament over how much more competitive things have become, or how we feel they have become.

In an effort to find some mutual understanding for both parties, I’ll again turn to the numbers. It’s difficult to compare average GPA and test scores from the late 1900s to now due to grade inflation and changing tests, but it would seem that the caliber of college graduates in the 80s to now is relatively the same. The biggest difference is the sheer number of people who are now holding degrees. With more people holding bachelor’s degrees (compare 23% in 1980 to 34% in 2013), comes more applicants for advanced degrees. There are 17,000 more applicants to medical school now than in 1988; from 1990 to 2010 the number of applicants to dental school increased by 134%; over 74,000 students applied to a graduate program in psychology in the past year. With more people in the applicant pool comes more of a need to stand out (cue over-involvement in extracurriculars).

So it does seem to make some sense that college kids today are more stressed than college students 30 years prior. That being said, expectations for advanced degrees and for the job market haven’t changed that significantly in the past decade. Certainly not enough to be entirely responsible for the alarming jump in mental health issues for college students within the last 10 years. Being a college kid today does come with more competition than in generations past, but it also seems like the average student perceives things to be more stressful than they actually are.

stress college student talking with a teacherSo Where Is This Anxiety Coming From?

The anxiety felt by college students isn’t exactly new; it is likely just amplified since the high school college application process. Of all the statistics comparing then and now, the most clear-cut are the declining admittance rates to universities across the country. In just 10 years, the average acceptance rate at the “top 10 national universities” dropped from 17% to 8%. With this drop, the “well-rounded applicant” age has emerged full force.

High school stress is so critical to the understanding of college stress because of the reorganization that the adolescent brain undergoes prior to 18. The teenage brain undergoes a pruning and myelination period, which basically means that certain neuronal connections are strengthened (the ones needed and being used), and other connections are lost so that more cognitive resources can go towards the connections being strengthened. We already know that the teenage brain is more susceptible to stress than the adult brain because of the limbic system, which controls our emotional responses, has more control over teenage behavior than the prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-order thinking and practical decision making.

I would conjecture that the connections being strengthened during this critical time of adolescent development are those associated with stress and anxiety. So now more than ever, even though students are graduating from high school and into college, they’re not graduating from the stress associated with getting into college. Therefore, these emotional pathways of stress and academics have literally been ingrained into the brain of today’s college students.

stress on college studentsWhat Can Be Done?

Firstly, it shouldn’t be believed that mental health concerns for college students start and end in college. The roots for anxiety are planted far before college even begins, so high school should be used as an opportunity to start giving students skills for resiliency. Students should also learn healthy coping mechanisms earlier on, and they should be taught to recognize mental health warning signs so intervention can be introduced when appropriate.

Secondly, I believe if we as college students are ever going to feel understood by our parents, the first step is validation. Even if parents don’t agree with the stress we put on ourselves or the resultant behavior, parents need to think “Freaky Friday” and try to place themselves in our shoes. Parents should recognize that there is an intensity students face today that college students didn’t 30 years prior, and while students should be aware that the overwhelming stress is partly due to our own misperception, it takes time to reframe our perceptions.

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Written by: Annalise Tolley

Annalise Tolley is a rising senior at Elon University.  She is majoring in biology with minors in neuroscience and psychology.  After graduation, she seeks opportunities to teach english abroad before likely pursuing her Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

Some areas of her interest include depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Outside of the classroom, she can be caught on stage with her a cappella group or in the lab doing independent research on the relationship of Heart Rate Variability, music, and anxiety.

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