Originally published on The Huffington Post and republished here with the author’s permission.
Pursuing your degree? Feeling the pressure? It’s that time in the term, when the heat is turned up-between deadlines, exams, and everything in between.
If you are a student of today, you likely have a lot going on in the between. Ideas about “traditional” and “non-traditional” students have flipped, with increasing numbers of students being working professionals, juggling all kinds of demands, who want to earn new and advanced degrees.
But across the board, what unites students of all ages and life circumstances is this: unprecedented stress levels. According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, an estimated 62% report marinating in perpetual, toxic anxiety.
This isn’t the kind of stress that gives us enough juice to perform and stay on task (known as “eustress”). And not the kind that typically comes along with today’s market conditions and rigorous standards. Over half of students are wrestling with the “what if I’m not good enough,” nail biting, running scared, and no room to breathe kind.
It’s no joke. A recent report from the American Psychological Association notes sharp increases in severe psychological problems being reported amongst students.
Stress is a force to be reckoned with. It eats away at us. It erodes our sense of wellbeing. To say that it can disrupt the learning process is a dramatic understatement.
On top of being a major health concern, it is the number one culprit that impedes academic performance and persistence. And this is true for all ages and types of students – from undergraduate to graduate. Stress can make us sick and stop us in our tracks.
Having taught at every grade level in education (yes, from Pre-K through doctoral students), and also worked with them in the therapy room, I’ve seen firsthand the perils we can face at each juncture of development.
When we’re earnestly setting goals and working towards them, fears and doubt creep in. It happens to the best of us, and we don’t necessarily conquer it altogether, either.
I started becoming worried about my students, who are professional adults seeking new and advanced degrees. Like their 18-22 year old counterparts, stress is no stranger, and risk factors for depression and anxiety are sky high. I recently conducted a qualitative study with them to understand how they were defining stress and what, if anything, helped them to keep calm and carry on.
It didn’t take long to discover some good and bad news.
The good: The students demonstrated there are ways around the mental avalanche, and that intense anxiety could be redirected and even harnessed in some situations. This study revealed that prevention is critical, and getting help and engaging in proactive, healthy behaviors made a difference, and was key to avoiding extreme distress.
The bad news: Students were marinating in stress, and they weren’t worried just because of academic pressures, but mainly from their work and personal demands. The stress effected their health, relationships, and self-confidence. They also said their grades were shaky when they weren’t actively working to combat the ill effects of stress.
After countless interviews and discussions from this study, and over the years, I wanted to share five key lessons to keep in mind if you or someone you love is in the throes of college-related stress.
1. Know That Education Is a Privilege
It may be hard to remember when you are battling deadlines, but across the globe, educational opportunity is not a given right – not even close.
Only a small percentage of the world population hold undergraduate, let alone advanced degrees. The fact that you have access to learning is a tremendous resource to cherish.
Education can transform you and allow you to become better equipped for change agency, hopefully in ways that open the doors for greater access and less disparities. Keeping this perspective is vital.
2. Don’t Scratch That Ridiculous Perfectionism Itch
When you are highly motivated and conscientious, you want the A, and often at all costs.
This makes it hard to receive feedback and leaves you on an endless pursuit to hit it out of the park every time. The more you scratch, the itchier you become. Your calamine lotion is knowing that you are at a point in your development. The more you learn, the more you realize there is to discover.
Do your best, but know that you are apt to learn through mistakes, and sometimes you just have to get on base.
3. Resist the Bait of Imposter Syndrome
The feeling “I don’t belong” or “someone is going to find out I’m not as good as they think” happens in and outside the classroom.
Women are at a higher risk for this. So are first generation and minority students. Adult students finding their way back to the classroom worry they “should’ve” been further along, without realizing that life’s variables and the amazing opportunities of today have flipped the notion of “non-traditional student” upside down, with more of us than ever entering in the classroom at every age and stage of development.
Fight the tendency to default to shame or faulty beliefs. You obviously belong. And most of us don’t wear our fears and anxieties on our sleeve. The higher up we go, the more likely the doubts. We’re all scared. It takes time to gain traction and confidence.
4. Become Friends with Time Management
Time management is an integral part of navigating college-related stress. Wasted time leads to disarray.
You don’t necessarily have to completely abandon all tendencies towards procrastination, but make every moment count. The more organized you are, the better.
Make lists, keep a schedule, notice where you can become more efficient. Structure and routines matter. They will leave needed time for rest and play, which will also take you that extra mile.
5. Remember You’re Not Alone
The pressures of college life, at every level, are multifaceted. Seek community, and reach out to your peers, professors, and colleagues.
All institutions have health and counseling departments specifically devoted to offering confidential support. There are a whole cadre of caring experts on hand. And groups like Active Minds are doing a world of good in reducing stigma and creating access.
Luckily, students are more likely than ever to know this, and to reach out. There is power in having a safe place to debrief stress and strategize. This is an included aspect of tuition.
Many employers also provide access through EAP’s (Employee Assistance Programs). Health insurance covers costs of therapy. You don’t have to be saturated with stress to need this. Be proactive. Make use of the many resources available to help you enjoy optimal health, keep your anxiety in check, and maximize your opportunities.
Which of these lessons do you need to put into action first? Doing so will not only help you in the classroom and beyond, but also help you establish critical habits for the long haul after you graduate.
Your accomplishments will likely be even sweeter when you are healthy enough to enjoy them. Grades and reaching goals have their place, but your mental health is always more important than anything else.
Kristen Lee Costa, EdD, LICSW, known as “Dr. Kris” is America’s Stress and Burnout Doc and an award-winning professor of Behavioral Sciences and Education. Her research, teaching and practice interests include individual and organizational wellbeing and resilience. Her book, RESET: Make the Most of Your Stress was named Motivational Book of 2015. Check her out on Twitter @TheRealDrKris.
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