By Simone Figueroa, Co-Founder and President U-Thrive Educational Services
No one will argue that college (and life in general) is going to be stressful. According to a study of nearly 67,000 college students at 100 different campuses across the United States, “three out of every four college students reported at least one stressful life event within the past year — involving everything from social relationships to personal appearance to problems with family. Twenty percent said they experienced greater than five stressful life events within that same time frame” (Brown, 2018).
Stress is a natural part of life and according to Dr. Alan Schlechter, U-Thrive Educational Services Co-Director of Curriculum Development and key contributor, it occurs anytime something you care about is at stake. Because of this, the goal at hand is not to eliminate stress, but rather to learn how to successfully cope with it. When students develop a healthier relationship with stress, they score higher, perform better, and even though they still feel stressed, it doesn’t bother them as much as their stressed-out peers.
One of the most effective ways to help college students manage stress is to help them to recognize that it is perceived. Thousands of years ago, our fight-or-flight response was triggered by life-threatening situations that posed an imminent threat to our existence. Evolutionarily, we have not evolved to be able to adequately decipher life-threatening versus non-life-threatening stressful events (such as having three midterm exams on the same day) and our fight-or-flight response still gets activated. This is why mental stresses can still trigger physiological responses such as sweaty palms, racing hearts, and pits in our stomachs. Research conducted by Jeremy Jamieson from the University of Rochester (2016) has shown that students who were educated on the benefits of stress arousal (such as sweaty palms, increased heart rate, etc.) prior to taking an exam improved their performance. In other words, by helping students to understand that stress responses can be helpful, their perception of their ability to handle stressful situations increased.
Other research conducted by Allison Wood Brooks from Harvard University (2014) has shown that feeling nervous/anxious and feeling excited trigger similar physiological responses in the body and thus, we can use this knowledge to our advantage. Whether it’s before an exam, performance, job interview, or date, one simple but extremely effective way to get out of a negative stress cycle is to repeat the phrase “I’m excited” to oneself. Doing so helps to shift from a fight-or-flight response to something known as the challenge response. According to Kelly McGonigal (2016), “when the stressful situation is less threatening, the brain and body shift into a different state: the challenge response. Like a fight-or-flight response, a challenge response gives you energy and helps you perform under pressure. Your heart rate still rises, your adrenaline spikes, your muscles and brain get more fuel, and the feel-good chemicals surge. But it differs from a fight-or-flight response in a few ways: You feel focused but not fearful. You also release a different ratio of stress hormones, including higher levels of DHEA, which helps you recover and learn from stress.”
Another way to help college students manage their stress is to help them shift their mindset from “stress is harmful” to “stress is helpful” by recognizing that there is such a thing as a good amount of stress. At the beginning of the 20th century two Harvard scientists, Yerkes and Dodson, conducted an experiment designed to determine the conditions that allow us to learn best. From this study they learned that if one has the right amount of stress, that is not too little or too much, they can learn a lot faster. In other words, an optimal amount of stress can accelerate learning. When one understands that stress can be a “friend”, they tend to do better on standardized tests. It is important to note that the optimal amount of stress is unique to each individual, but hopefully this encouraging research helps to reframe how to think about and relate to stress.
This article was adapted from key concepts taught by Dr. Alan Schlechter from U-Thrive Educational Services Life Skills for Thriving Program Module on Stress and Resilience.
About the author
Simone Figueroa is the Co-Founder and President of U-Thrive Educational Services, an organization that brings mental and emotional wellness programs to college students to help them manage stress, become more resilient, and thrive throughout their undergraduate experience and beyond. Simone graduated top of her class from Columbia University with a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology in Education with an emphasis on Mind-Body Medicine and completed her undergraduate education at the University of Florida with a Bachelors degree in Finance, Cum Laude. During her studies at Columbia University, Simone took a year long practicum in Positive Psychology and became fascinated with and quickly saw a need for Positive Education, which led to the start of U-Thrive Educational Services. Simone lives in Tucson, Arizona with her husband, Isaac, and her dog, Diesel, and has a passion for traveling, being active, hiking, and spending quality time with family and friends.
Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144-1158. doi:10.1037/a0035325
Brown, I. M. (2018, September 6). 3 out of 4 college students say they’re stressed, many report suicidal thoughts: Study. Retrieved 2020, from https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/college-students-stressed-report-suicidal-thoughts-study/story?id=57646236
Jamieson, J. P., *Peters, B. P., Hangen (Greenwood), E. J., & Altose, A. J. (2016). Reappraising stress arousal improves performance ane reduces evaluation anxiety in classroom exam situations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7, 579-587.
McGonigal, K. (2016). The Upside of Stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. NY, NY: Avery.