Stress is an inevitable part of life. However, stress and its effects may be more prevalent among certain populations, such as college students. This may be due to stressors caused by a significant number of new experiences that happen nearly all at once.

Going to college is often the student’s first time living away from home, first experience with dormitory life, first serious relationship, first-time handling a great deal of freedom. The list goes on and on. Many students are not prepared to manage their own schedules, or something as simple as figuring out what to eat or how to do their laundry.

College freshman, in particular, can be unprepared for the major academic differences between high school and college coursework. Often, students don’t realize that getting accepted by a college or university is only the beginning. Once students enter college, they may find that college-level coursework requires significantly more effort than high school and that they are no longer ranked at the top of their class.

It may come as a surprise that their fellow students are just as motivated, competitive and hardworking as they are. The combination of demanding coursework and pressure to excel can be a major cause of stress. This stress is compounded if the student is seeking scholarship funding or must keep grades up to maintain existing scholarship awards. Although financial aid and student loans are available for many students to cover immediate college costs and living expenses, they are still faced with the stress of mounting expenses they will have to pay back following graduation.

In addition to academic and financial stress, college students are constantly juggling multiple responsibilities – school, jobs, family, social activities and more. The stress of managing priorities often makes students feel as if their life is spinning out of control.

The overwhelming amount of pressure may cause student “burnout” and can result in an increase in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and other harmful ways of coping. Social media use – prevalent among college students – has also been related to feelings of loneliness and depression because students use it as a substitute for face-to-face personal interactions and more meaningful relationships.

How Prevalent Is Stress in College Students?

According to a recent study from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California in Los Angeles, students’ self-rated emotional health dropped to 50.7%, its lowest level ever and 2.3 percentage points lower than the entering cohort of 2013. Of the students who participated in the survey, 9.5% reported “frequently feeling depressed” and reflected behaviors of disengagement. These students were twice as likely to show up late to class and fell asleep more often in class.

They were also “frequently” bored in class and less involved with their fellow students, study groups or initiating a group project. The study also reports that students with a lower level of emotional health generally are less satisfied with their college experience. Many of them struggled to develop a sense of belonging even after four years of enrollment.1

A recent study suggests that 32% of college students showed symptoms consistent with a mental health diagnosis and of those, 64% did not receive mental health services.2 The major factors which contribute to the underutilization of mental health services are:3

  1. Many students were not aware of or were unfamiliar with service options
  2. Skepticism with mental health treatment
  3. Worries that parents would find out they sought help
  4. Lack of perceived need with the belief that stress is normal in school.

If stress is normal, why do you feel so bad?

The threshold for stress tolerance varies among individuals. It is true that some students can thrive on a certain amount of stress, but everyone is different.  If you find yourself constantly experiencing the following symptoms, it may be a sign of stress overload.4

Physical Symptoms Emotional Symptoms Cognitive Symptons
  • Muscular tension
  • Colds or other illnesses
  • High blood pressure
  • Indigestion
  • Ulcers
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Mood swings
  • Forgetfulness
  • Unwanted or repetitive thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating

College is a new and exciting place where the future is opened up to you. It is also a place full of challenges and changes. With change comes stress and this sometimes leads to the need for help.

Some stress management techniques such as physical exercise, meditation, journaling and deep breathing are effective tools for alleviating and managing stress. In addition, many college campuses offer free counseling services to their students. Students can also seek assistance from academic advisors, career counselors, or school psychologists.


  1. Eagan, K., Stolzenberg, E.B., Ramirez, J.J., Aragon, M.C., Suchard, W. R., & Hurtado, S. (2014). The American freshman: national norms fall 2014. Retrieved from
  2. Nordberg, S. S., Hayes, J. A., McAleavey, A. A., Castonguay, L. G., & Locke, B. D. (2013). Treatment Utilization on College Campuses: Who Seeks Help for What?. Journal Of College Counseling, 16(3), 258-274.
  3. Eisenberg, D., Golberstein, E., & Gollust, S. E. (2007). Help-Seeking and Access to Mental Health Care in a University Student Population.Medical Care, (7). 594.
  4. University of Florida, Counseling and Wellness Center (n.d.). Stress and college students. Retrieved from