On the Campus

Emerging Adulthood and Adolescent Life

Stress in College Students

With all that happens, how could students NOT be stressed?

Psychological stress among college students has been getting a lot of attention recently, thanks to articles this year in the New York Times, Huffington Post, and Inside Higher Ed. Research on student stress goes back at least half a century, to David Mechanic's 1962 book Students Under Stress, which was on graduate students. Student stress research seems to have really become vigorous in the 1980s, however. One of the first research studies I ever worked on investigated student stress. In 1983, during the fall term of my senior year at UCLA, the professor of my survey-research course, Christine Dunkel-Schetter, had the class conduct a phone survey of stress on campus.

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Think about what many college students go through. Leaving the family home, feeling intense pressure to obtain high grades in connection with career aspirations, taking final exams, trying to establish a romantic/social life, dealing with (often very high) costs of college and possibly working at a job during the school year. What kind of jobs (if any) students can get after college also remains tenuous given the multi-year recession. On top of all that, students in many parts of the U.S. must deal with snow and subfreezing temperatures that, in the words of a colleague who once taught in Buffalo, leave students "really dragging by December."

I ask you: Considering the above, how can college students not be highly stressed out?

Some will argue that college students are in many ways advantaged, compared to those who don't or can't attend a university. Point well taken, but that shouldn't diminish the stress experienced by students.

The New York Times article reports on Fall 2010 national findings from UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute -- based on students' reflections on their senior year of high school -- showing record levels of poor emotional health among incoming first-year undergraduates (UCLA press release). The actual survey questionnaire is available here (when the new page opens, scroll to "Questionnaire" under "The Freshman Survey").

Researchers understandably want to keep their questionnaires as short as possible, to encourage participation. Because the UCLA survey probes many different areas (e.g., politics, values, in addition to school-related matters), the measures of stress and emotional health are limited to isolated items. On a checklist of feelings and behaviors experienced during the past year, for example, appears the item "Felt overwhelmed by all I had to do," to which participants reply "frequently," "occasionally," or "not at all." Elsewhere in the survey, respondents were asked to rate themselves on a set of traits, including "Emotional health," compared to what they would see as the average person their age. Though brief measures may be necessary in some studies, I would recommend a more extensive one, such as the Undergraduate Stress Questionnaire developed by my friend and colleague Chris Crandall.

The Inside Higher Ed article focuses on studies of stress at Columbia University and the University of San Diego, which aimed to identify types of stress that different subgroups of students (e.g., according to field of study, race-ethnicity, sexual orientation, and holding a job while going to school) considered most pernicious. Examples of findings from USD are that "black students are the most stressed out by disrespectful remarks and property damage; campus climate is the only stressor with significantly worse impact for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) students than heterosexual ones; and students who hold jobs report much higher levels of stress from their families, finances and time management."

In addition to sources and experiences of stress, there is also a great deal of research on how people (including college students) attempt to cope with and manage the stress they're under. One general typology divides coping into two broad categories: problem-focused (attempting to tackle a problem directly at its source, such as asking one's dormitory Resident Assistant for a room change to escape a bothersome roommate) and emotion-focused (attempting to manage one's emotions, e.g., by putting things in perspective, when one cannot or chooses not to address the underlying source of the problem). As an example of stress-coping research, this 2009 article examines male and female college students' strategies for coping with stress.

What can be done about stress? The University of Georgia's University Health Center offers an online resource entitled "Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students." It offers modules on several specific topics, such as sleep, healthy relationships, and time-management. In addition, the University of Illinois's Counseling Center provides several stress-management tips for first-year students. At my university, Texas Tech, the Student Counseling Service has similar resources as at other institutions. Plus, rubberized stress-relief squeeze toys in the shape of the university's Double-T logo are available.

With the help of family, friends, and perhaps campus stress-management resources, many students are able to keep their stress levels relatively under control or even thrive in the college setting. However, for some students, the challenges and frustrations of campus life appear to lead to severe emotional problems. I address this topic in next month's column.

Alan Reifman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University.

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