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From Distress to De-Stress

Here are the key stressors and coping strategies for college students.

Key points

  • A survey reports more than 60% of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health issue.
  • Some key challenges affecting students’ academic performance are stress and excessive computer/phone use.
  • Some coping strategies include communication (friend, family member, therapist), exercise, and journaling.
Monstera Production / Pexels
Source: Monstera Production / Pexels

Over the past several years, I have taught sociological understandings of the self in a freshman-level seminar class. I have asked students to—anonymously—write down their top three to five stressors. Additionally, they briefly note ways that they cope with these stressors.

An analysis of students’ responses from the fall 2018 through spring 2023 semesters reveals themes and patterns that reflect findings from national studies focused on college students and stress. By considering both the types of stressors students identify and their coping strategies, we can gain a greater appreciation for what our students are facing and perhaps also recognize and build upon healthy coping strategies.

Student self-report data collected formally at my university indicate that the key challenges affecting students’ academic performance are stress, excessive computer or internet use, sleep difficulties, mental health issues, disability, and homelessness (2021 College Student Health Survey Report). Such challenges are interconnected, and stress could be viewed as both a contributing factor and an effect. When I posed questions to my students about their top stressors, the most frequently appearing stressors included the following:

  • School Work/Future – With respect to schoolwork, responses emphasized the pressure to “understand it, get it done, and perform well.” The statement, “What will I do after graduation?” was repeated, in various forms, by many of the students.
  • Money/Finances – That is, “making money, managing money, paying bills.” As noted by one respondent (and illustrative of other statements): “Having to spend more money than what I’m making.”
  • Relationships – Namely, getting along well with important people in their lives (family, friends, partners, roommates). Additionally, a major stressor identified by one student (and that is representative of others’ statements as well) was: “Not being able to help my family at home.” This comment succinctly highlights the challenges of both weathering familial financial setbacks and being available to help and provide care for loved ones. Responses also consistently revealed stress over not having enough time to spend with family members, partners, and friends. This, of course, ties into the final theme.
  • Time Management – That is, balancing work/school/family demands. A particular quote about the pressure imposed by time constraints is telling: “Some days I want to be able to not look at the clock and just do what I want all day.”

A particular comment describing stressors that was an outlier but is nonetheless troubling was the following: “existential dread.” On the other hand, given where these young adults are at in the life course (as well as the current state of affairs in the world) this may very well be an expected, normative feeling-state, albeit hopefully not an enduring one.

It is important to note that the themes in the types of stressors that students listed were consistent over the five-year period in which I collected these data. However, in the semesters directly following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new theme emerged in students’ responses: Pain. Among students who listed “pain” as a key stressor, in some instances, they specifically indicated the type of pain. For example, some students described physical pain, such as a recent injury or chronic health issue.

More typically, students described their pain as “psychological” or “emotional.” The deleterious effect of the pandemic on individuals’ mental health and well-being generally, and on young people more particularly, is well documented. This is especially taxing on college students who have been adjusting to remote learning, coping with solitude, losing jobs—or continuing their employment in jobs that pose a great risk of contracting COVID-19. Added to all of this, of course, is the constant concern over the safety and well-being of loved ones.

Journalist Rainesford Stauffer (2021) provides an insightful observation:

Students weren’t just going to school during the pandemic, a feat hard enough: They were working or attempting to find work after experiencing job loss…navigating getting their basic needs met as multiple resources shutdown around them, parenting, taking care of relatives or loved ones, among other responsibilities.

In the essay, The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses, Mary Ellen Flannery cites the Healthy Minds survey, which reports that more than 60 percent of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health problem.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated individuals’ mental health struggles, but the crisis in mental health is not new. Focusing on U.S. college students, Jessica Colarossi (2022) notes that students’ mental health has been on a consistent decline for the past several years. Colarossi cites research (conducted by Sarah K. Lipson and colleagues) indicating that increases in anxiety and depression during the height of the pandemic are better understood as the “continuation of a troubling trend rather than a singular spike.”

As cited above, Stauffer’s recent (2021) book (An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional), examines the intense pressure young adults are under to make their lives extraordinary—pressure, she contends, that is fueled by concerning features of late capitalism. The experiences of young adults (including the author) described in the book draw attention to the very real stressors facing our young people and, in so doing, can be seen as a call to rediscover and reclaim the “ordinary,” which in fact is where we create and sustain meaning.

Returning to the data from my students, it is significant to highlight some positive, hopeful signs. Along with asking students to jot down their top stressors, I also asked them to share some ways they cope with these stressors. The vast majority of responses represent healthy coping strategies. Themes in the data include:

  • Communication (i.e., talking to a close friend, family member, therapist)
  • Exercise
  • Journaling
  • Meditating
  • Eating Well
  • Turning off the Phone
  • Making “to-do” Lists

Additionally, students noted various decompressing kinds of activities, such as taking deep breaths, listening to music, reading, artwork, resting, watching television shows, playing video games, and getting out in nature. Very few responses suggested coping strategies that have the potential to be unhealthy or dangerous.

In those few cases, using substances (alcohol, marijuana, caffeine) was the modal response. Some responses also point toward the use of avoidance techniques. For example, one student wrote: “Don’t think about it”; another stated: “Distract myself,” and one student simply wrote down: “Disassociation.” By far and away, however, most comments demonstrate healthy coping strategies. Consider the following statements:

  • “Go with the flow more.”
  • “I just live life.”
  • “I’m still young, so it’s OK to not have answers.”
  • “Practice confidence and love me.”

At least among the students in this seminar class who submitted responses—i.e., 86 students, for a 44 percent response rate—there are many examples of positive ways of managing stress. Fortunately, colleges and universities across the country are working on increasing resources for students. Academic institutions hopefully strive to be what psychologist Ruthellen Josselson referred to as “holding environments”—that is, places where students are given guidance and support in the face of challenges. In such an environment, effective coping strategies can be developed and built upon in ways that have a lasting positive effect.


Colarossi, Jessica. April 21, 2022. “Mental Health of College Students Is Getting Worse.” In Boston University’s, The Brink.

Flannery, Ellen. March 29, 2023. “The Mental Health Crisis on College Campuses.” NEA Today.…

Josselson, Ruthellen. 1995. The Space Between Us: Exploring the Dimensions of Human Relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stauffer, Rainesford. 2021. An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 230.

2021 College Student Health Survey Report. Boynton Health at the University of Minnesota.…

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