Student Life

Student Health Center - Health Information


Stress in College

Stress is something that most people know well and experience often. It's unavoidable. Stress comes from events that you consider to be positive-a job promotion or vacation- as well as from negative events-loss of a loved one or relationship difficulties. It's your personal response to situations and circumstances that cause you to feel pressure.

Using the analogy of a rubber band, positive stress is just the right amount of stress needed to stretch the band and make it useful. Negative stress snaps the band. Common stressors in college life include: greater academic demands, adjusting to living on your own, financial worries about school and future job prospects, time spent away from family and enjoyable activities, exposure to new people and ideas, and relationship stress. These stressors can all stretch the rubber band, drawing you closer to your snapping point.

Stress may be short term (acute) or long term (chronic). Chronic stress is often related to situations that aren't short-lived, such as relationship problems, loneliness, financial worries or long workdays. You may be able to handle an occasional stressful event, but when stress occurs regularly, the effects multiply and compound over time.

Stress produces a variety of physical, psychological and behavioral symptoms. And it can lead to illness- aggravating an existing health problem, or possibly triggering a new one, if you're already at risk of that condition.

Stress may produce the following health effects:

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Suppresses Immune System

The hormone cortisol produced during the stress response may suppress you immune system, increasing your susceptibility to infections. Studies suggest the risk of bacterial infections such as tuberculosis and step throat increases during stress. Stress may also make you more prone to viral infections such as a cold or the flu.

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Increased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease

During acute stress your heart beats quickly, which makes you more susceptible to heart rhythm irregularities and a type of chest pain called angina. Increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to daily stress gradually injure your coronary arteries and heart. Increased blood clotting from persistent stress also can put you at risk of a heart attack or stroke.

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Worsens Other Illnesses

Other relationships between illness and stress aren't as clear-cut. However, stress may worsen your symptoms if you have any of the following conditions:

Asthma. A stressful situation may make your airways overreactive, precipitating an asthma attack.

Gastrointestinal problems. Stress may trigger or worsen symptoms associated with some gastrointestinal conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome or heartburn.

Chronic Pain. Stress can heighten your body's pain response, making chronic pain associated with conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia or back injury more difficult to manage.

Mental Health Disorders. Stress may trigger depression in people who are prone to the disorder. It may also worsen symptoms of other mental health disorders, such as anxiety.

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Signs and Symptoms of Stress

Your first indication that your body and brain are feeling pressured may be associated symptoms of stress-headache, insomnia, upset stomach and digestive changes. An old nervous habit of nail biting may reappear. Another common symptom is irritability with people close to you. Occasionally, these changes are so gradual that you or those around you don't recognize them until your health or relationships change.


  • Headaches
  • Grinding teeth
  • Tight, dry throat
  • Clenched jaws
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pounding heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Muscle aches
  • Indigestion
  • Constipation or Diarrhea
  • Increased perspiration
  • Cold, sweaty hands
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent illness


  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Feeling of impending danger or doom
  • Depression
  • Slowed thinking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling of helplessness
  • Feeling of hopelessness
  • Feeling of worthlessness
  • Feeling of lack of direction
  • Feeling of insecurity
  • Sadness
  • Defensiveness
  • Anger
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Apathy


  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Impatience
  • Argumentativeness
  • Procrastination
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Increased smoking
  • Withdrawal or isolation
  • Avoiding or neglecting responsibility
  • Poor job performance
  • Burnout
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Change in religious practices
  • Change in family or close relationship

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Short Term Strategies for Managing Stress

Relax where you are. Take 4 deep breaths. Sitting in a comfortable position, place your left hand over your navel and rest your right hand over your left. Breathe deeply through your nose, feeling your hands rise as your abdomen fills with air. Still inhaling, count to three and feel your chest expand. Hold your breath momentarily, then exhale. Repeat four times, but stop if you become light-headed. (See Relaxation Techniques Below)

  • Take a break. Walk around the block or get a breath of fresh air to clear your head. Stretch at your desk. Go somewhere private to regroup.

  • Take stock. . Ask yourself whether it's worth being upset over the situation. You can choose to stay calm and ignore it. If the issue/situation is important, confront it directly by talking it out with a sympathetic friend, journaling, or writing it out in a letter that you won't send.

  • Prioritize. List all the things you feel you need to do in order of priority. Only do the top few. The rest can be first priority tomorrow. If this seems too difficult, you may have too many commitments. Remind yourself that no one can do it all.

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Long Term Strategies for Managing Stress

Seek your own stress level. Strive for excellence within your limits. Be realistic. Don't expect perfection from yourself or others.

  • Choose your own goals. Don't live out choices others have made for you. Set your own goals and expectations. Expect some problems reaching your goals and realize that you can solve most of them with practice.

  • Become part of a support system. Let friends help you when you are under too much stress and help them when they're overloaded. Talking problems over with a friend or family member can help lower stress.

  • Take care of yourself. Exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, and get enough sleep. (See Sleep link on this website for tips for a good night's sleep). Avoid alcohol or drugs as a way of coping, they only mask problems and exacerbate the issues later.

  • Take time for yourself. Make yourself a priority. Do something at least once per week just for fun. Plan quiet time.

  • Manage your time through organization or prioritization. Take a few minutes each night to organize the next day. Always keep your keys, glasses, and class supplies in one place to avoid last-minute panics. Consider making a weekly schedule that includes time for work, friends, exercise, and relaxation time. *Set priorities and learn to say no.*

  • Anticipate potentially stressful situations and prepare for them. Decide whether the situation is one you should deal with, postpone, or avoid. If you decide to deal with the situation, practice what you will say and do.

  • Think positive. The mind-body connection is strong. Whenever you think about possible negative outcomes, your mind sends signals to your body to prepare for danger. This leads to tension, stress, and anxiety, regardless of whether the event happens. Therefore, thinking positively can decrease your body's stress response.

  • Accept change. Change is an inevitable part of life. Try to be flexible when change occurs. Avoid making negative predictions about possible outcomes. Rather, imagine potential positive outcomes.

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Relaxation Techniques

Choose 1 or 2 techniques to master and then practice using them, both when you're stressed and when you're not. You might be surprised to find a noticeable difference in how relaxed you feel even when you weren't feeling stressed before.

  • Deep Breathing: A simple relaxation exercise that can be used in almost any situation. Take slow, deep breaths, breathing from the diaphragm and exhaling slowly. With each breath your body will relax a little more. Many advanced relaxation techniques include deep breathing.

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: You will need to be seated or lying down in a comfortable position for this exercise. Pick a time and place where you will not be interrupted for 20 minutes or so. Now alternate tensing and releasing groups of muscles throughout your body. Some people start at their feet and work up, covering all muscle groups in their body, while others target only specific areas that feel tense.

  • Passive Muscle Relaxation: This is similar to progressive muscle relaxing, but you will not tense your muscles first. Move through each part of your body focusing on feelings of comfort and relaxation in all muscles of that area. As your move from head to toe (or vice versa), you allow those feelings of relaxation to deepen and spread.

  • Meditation: This form of relaxation has been practiced in many cultures for many centuries. Rest in a comfortable position in a fairly distraction-free environment, focusing your attention on only one thing. This can be a mantra (a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself), a sound (e.g., wind or running water), or something visual (e.g., a candle flame, a spot on the wall, or a pleasing photograph). The goal is to learn to refocus your attention each time you become distracted.

  • Imagery or Visualization: With this form of relaxation, you will be using your imagination to create a visual image of a relaxing, soothing, or healing place or thing. Walk yourself through each detail of this image paying close attention to the sight, sound, taste, action, or texture in order to make the experience seem as real as possible.

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