In Over Your Head: Dealing with College Stress

Students don't have to go through stressful times alone. Here are a few resources that can help when they feel like they're in over their heads.

The anxiety knotted up Rebecca McAlexander’s chest and stomach. Tears fell as she opened up her weekly agenda. Midterms, five hours a week at an internship, a campus job, a sorority executive position, and other obligations screamed at her from the page.

An overwhelming work schedule took over Rebecca’s life as a junior at the University of Maryland. While she eventually found a balance, most college students can relate to her stressful calendar. About 33% of freshmen feel overwhelmed, according to the 2013 Cooperative Institutional Research Program Freshman Survey.  

But students like Rebecca don’t have to go through stressful times alone. Here are a few resources that can help when they feel like they’re in over their heads.

Academic services

For students in need of more one-on-one time, academic resources such as writing centers are available to help them learn how to manage their time, develop effective study strategies, and make better connections to a subject area.

“I was losing sleep over this huge paper I had due. I tried numerous times to start it but just stared at the screen,” says Sophie Weiss, a junior at the University of Maryland. “I knew I needed help, so I went to the writing center on my campus. The center helped me so much with my paper that I now structure the majority of my papers the way the counselors at the writing center taught me. I got a huge, fat ‘A’ in red on the top of that paper.”

“Oftentimes I see students who use the same study strategies they used in high school, but this does not work in college,” says Leagh Anderson, a learning community associate and the supervisor for the language and writing centers at Pennsylvania State University.

“Instead of memorizing isolated facts, I suggest to students to talk about it with a study partner,” Anderson says. She also suggests sitting in the front of the class and taking notes with a pen and paper. “The act of writing and listening is an example of an orienting task and can help a student connect to the subject. Also, writing down key phrases and checking notes with other students can help connect a student more with the material.”

Anderson also helps students look at their schedules in order to identify unnecessary stress. If a student were having a difficult semester or a hard time with a class, she would ask, “Is everything you’re doing really worth it?” She would then ask about extracurricular activities, jobs, and classes and see if the student could drop anything.

“I would suggest to students to not take on more than they can handle,” she says. “Take a time-out, or maybe drop a class. I want to ease their guilt and ask the student what is important in life. If a class is too hard for them, the important thing is not that one three-credit class.”

If the class was required for a student’s major, she would suggest taking it in the summer. “While it is not financially great, I am thinking about the student,” Anderson says. “Then I help them go through that process of revisiting the semester.”

Stress management and counseling

Colleges and universities often provide mental health services to students experiencing depression and anxiety, as well as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and trauma. Therapy with master’s-level therapists, group therapy, substance-abuse treatment, medication evaluation, and management with psychiatrists may also be offered.

“We commonly see depression and anxiety cases related to academic problems,” says Jeri Boliek, a triage coordinator for the Mental Health Service at the University of Maryland. “When students are suffering with depression, it affects their ability to sleep, eat, and concentrate, which takes a toll on their academic performance.” Boliek assesses students on an urgent basis for safety and risk and determines the level of care needed for those students.

“Students often do not realize that they are getting in over their heads,” says Boliek. “For people who have never experienced depression, they don’t recognize the symptoms. Students probably do not seek services as often as they need them. This is due to not recognizing the problem, the stigma of seeking mental health, or low energy and inability to reach out.”

Social situations

A college’s social setting can also be a source of stress for students. “I see lots of freshmen that feel they threw their semester away from partying and look back with regret,” says Jackie Daniels, coordinator of the OASIS alcohol and drug prevention and intervention center at Indiana University.

Available to undergraduate students dealing with addiction or substance abuse, OASIS is also a resource for high-risk users, moderate-to-responsible users, and students in recovery. The center is made up of two highly trained teams—the intervention team and the prevention team. The intervention team helps students who are in trouble with the University and are mandated to the campus conduct system. They also help guide students who are curious about their own substance use. The prevention team conducts presentations, programs, campus-wide initiatives, and guidance for alcohol and drug awareness.

“What we do is we try to validate their experience. We understand that it is not just one transition into college, but a transition every semester. I understand the perspective and feel like I get it,” says Daniels, who struggled with drug and alcohol use in college and eventually got treatment.

Students who are feeling overwhelmed also come to the center. “When students are feeling this way, we understand that it might not all be from alcohol and drugs. We look at the student holistically and look at who they are,” says Daniels.

The center is there to get students back on track. “Students need to build structure into their own lives. Balance the perspective of their life and write it out. Make a plan and commit to it. Take baby steps and focus on the moments and what the student can do today. Then a student will feel less stressed,” she says.

On the other hand, when Daniels does see a student who turns to alcohol or drugs, she challenges them with a homework assignment: “I ask students to track what their day is like and what goes on during their days and nights. Describe what the environment and the people are like they are surrounding themselves with. A lot of the time after doing this, students realize they are drinking more than they expected,” she explains.

Students should never feel like they are going through college alone. The available resources on campus can help them through stressful times and, most importantly, give them a place to turn to when college gets difficult. “It is all about how much a person can balance,” says Daniels. “Because once they find that balance, relief will come.”

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