A Student's Guide to Understanding Stress and Intermittent Anxiety

The world is complex, and anyone can feel the effects of stress and occasional anxiety. It can happen regardless of age or situation because everyone is unique. What might be a welcome challenge to one person can turn into a nightmare for another. This is why the effects of stress are so difficult to gauge: It's an intensely personal experience. This is especially true in school environments, where students feel the weight of not only their own expectations but also those of their parents and teachers. What all people have in common, however, is that when stress affects their ability to conduct their life as normal, they deserve support. Without help, students can be cheated of the full social and educational experience they need. Knowing the signs of stress and intermittent anxiety can help family, friends, and teachers know when to offer help.

Stress Facts and Statistics

It's common for students to feel some stress or occasional anxiety related to schoolwork. An upcoming exam, challenging coursework, or a heavy load of homework can create feelings of worry or concern. When these feelings escalate to the point of affecting their lives, it's time for students to get some help. A 2019 Pew survey found that 70% of teenagers call anxiety a major problem in their lives. In its Annual Survey, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors noted stress as a top concern among college students. Of the American college students who sought mental health treatment, nearly half (48.3%) reported some anxiety, depression, or stress. Rates of students reporting that they experience stress have risen steadily over the years.

Signs of Student Stress

Young people undergo many changes as a result of growing up, and it can be challenging to separate common events from those caused by stress. Still, there are some signs to watch for that can help someone know when to reach out. Especially abrupt emotional or social changes can be an indicator of stress. If a normally bubbly and carefree student suddenly becomes withdrawn and sullen, stress may be to blame. There could be other causes for such a reversal, too, which is why it's important to have an open and honest dialog to get to the bottom of it. Physical changes can be another concern. A sudden change in diet, headaches, nausea, or other symptoms may have stress as their root cause. Similarly, an increase in nightmares or an inability to sleep may be brought on by surging stress levels. Since school can be a significant contributor to stress levels, it makes sense to pay attention to the student's relationship with school. A sudden (or gradually increasing) aversion to school can suggest avoidant behavior. For some students, this will manifest as a refusal to go to school, while others may feign illness to stay home. When the student does attend school, grades may suffer because they are preoccupied with their negative feelings. Still others may obsess over every grade, seeking perfection to keep their worries at bay.

Intermittent Anxiety in College

For many students, the beginning of their college experience is the most stressful time. It's often a life-changing event, with home and family life replaced by dorms and strangers. At the same time, many students are feeling the burden of looking after all of their own needs for the first time. The 2018 National College Health Assessment found that more than 60% of college students reported having felt overwhelming levels of stress in the past 12 months. College students who suffer from social anxiety can see its effects increase as they confront more varied social situations than they have in the past. Dorm life can also impair a student's ability to get enough sleep or to find quiet time to relax. These physical stresses can, in turn, affect their mental well-being. In addition, more advanced coursework may require more study and different preparation methods for tests and exams. Students who struggle with test anxiety can experience frequent setbacks as each week seems to bring more new difficulties.

Classroom Accommodations

Students who experience negative effects from intermittent anxiety can be distracted, hesitant to engage with the class or teacher, or even absent from school. Fortunately, these students don't need to suffer these effects alone. School faculty have tools and techniques at their disposal that can help students manage stress and get the most from their time in school. Sometimes, for instance, students just need a break. For students with separation anxiety, one solution is to grant them breaks to contact their parents and check in. Other students might feel overwhelmed when homework is handed out or when challenging new material is presented. Giving them the option to take a break and sit quietly in a room or go for a walk can give them a chance to decompress. These breaks should be short to minimize disruption, but they can be invaluable in helping the student combat negative feelings. Older students could use meditation or grounding exercises to focus their mind and put their stress in context. Friends can help here, too. Using the buddy system can make sure students look out for each other and remind their buddy to use coping mechanisms or reach out for additional help when needed.

How to Cope at Home

The coping mechanisms used in the classroom are often temporary and are focused on getting the student through an acute episode. In the home, the student ideally has more control of their surroundings and can work on stress in a holistic manner. It's important to remember how closely the body and mind are linked. Caring for the body can help the mind to do its work, while neglecting body care can have the opposite effect. The brain is about 70% water, so hydration is important to keep it functioning properly. Drinking sufficient water might not be the solution to all of your problems, but it gives the brain one less distraction to worry about. Adequate sleep is also an important need. Exercise is another coping technique that helps many students. Not only does exercise distract the mind from its problems, but the extra physical activity improves blood flow and releases endorphins, which can ease the negative feelings associated with stress. Sometimes, a hot bath can soothe the body and mind at the same time, alleviating muscle and joint aches associated with tension. For some students, it's beneficial to have a room or area specifically designated for relaxation. This can be any safe space where they can concentrate on deep breathing, grounding exercises, meditation, or writing a journal. Sometimes, getting their feelings out into a journal can help relieve the feeling that the stress is entirely on their shoulders.