“College is the best time of your life!” How many times do college students hear that phrase? While college can be fun and carefree for some, for others it is a time filled with anxiety, depression, and unhealthy habits. An article by the University of Hawaii at Hilo in 2023 states that 1 in 5 students will experience a mental health disorder during college, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of college dropouts cite a mental health related reason for leaving. Mental health struggles during college can not only lead to academic failure, but also social and physical impairments. Below, we discuss the 10 most common causes of stress for college students and how therapy can help alleviate stress and promote success in higher education.
#1 – Adjusting To Your New Independent Life
For the majority of college students, the freshman year of college is the first time living independently and having to sustain themselves. It can be stressful as students learn how to care for themselves without the help of family. Even what seems like a simple task (cooking or cleaning) can be scary for someone doing it alone for the first time. Counseling can help students adjust more easily, not feel as alone, learn healthy coping mechanisms, and build problem-solving strategies.
#2 – Day-to-Day Stress
College students are often stressed about their finances, endless assignments, and maintaining good grades. Managing these daily stressors can be difficult. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, where clients work with a counselor to reframe negative thoughts into more helpful thoughts, can be beneficial for college students facing these daily stressors. The American Psychological Association says that maintaining a support system, taking a moment in nature, and meditating can all be healthy ways to manage day-to-day stress.
#3 – Academic Stress
College courses can be extremely overwhelming. The endless assignments are inevitably followed by stress which can cause grades to slip. Counseling can offer students resources to help manage academic concerns like test anxiety and procrastination. Most universities offer resources to help students with academic concerns. For example, Jacksonville State University’s Student Success Center offers tutoring, academic workshops, and success coaching – as well as many other services – to promote academic success. **If you’re a college student, check with your school to find out what academic and counseling support services are available to students!
#4 – Time Management
Trying to balance responsibilities like school work, jobs, social events, and rest can feel impossible sometimes. Anxiety increases when deadlines are quickly approaching after students have been caught up with work, rest, and staying social. Rashada Smith, LPC, NCC says “Poor time management skills can decrease productivity if students are not punctual, constantly rushing, losing keys, and missing deadlines. As a student, I used to take pride in multitasking, until I realized that I had started a million things but had not completed anything. Completing one task at a time gives you more time to complete other things, instills confidence, and can decrease anxiety.” According to the Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants (2023), cognitive behavioral therapies have shown to be very effective in addressing difficulties with time management. A licensed professional counselor can help students learn to manage these struggles with CBT practices such as mindfulness of time and stress management. Counselors can also offer other services for this problem, such as helping create a guideline schedule specific to each individual.
#5 – Loneliness and Depression
Moving out of the family’s home for college can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. When it is hard for students to make friends at college, these feelings can get much worse. Seeking mental health guidance from a counselor can help combat these feelings. Counselors can offer insight on healthy ways to combat loneliness, whether it be joining a club or volunteering as a way to be around others. Licensed professional counselors are also extensively trained in helping clients manage depressive symptoms.
#6 – Sexual Assault
Grewal Law found that 6.8% of male undergraduate students and 26.1% of female undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault while on campus. Sexual assault is very prevalent around college campuses, and a large percentage of students experience it. Therapy can help survivors move work through the trauma of sexual assault or rape. Counselors can help promote healing and treat any symptoms of PTSD. Leah Simmons, MS, LPC-S, RPT-S says, “Therapy can be a helpful tool for someone who has been sexually assaulted (sexually abused, raped). Finding a therapist that the person feels comfortable with and being able to process the assault/trauma is important for the person to heal emotionally. Therapy can help to build skills to regain a sense of power, reclaim sexual health/sexuality, and build support and community to increase feelings of safety.”
#7 – Eating Disorders
Many young adults in college find themselves unhappy with their bodies; many will even compare their bodies to other’s. Young adulthood brings a lot of physical change and maturation which can cause weight gain. This often affects adults and their view of their bodies. Body dissatisfaction is the leading cause of the development of eating disorders. Eating disorders not only cause mental dysfunction but can also lead to physiological complications. Cognitive behavioral therapies can help combat negative thought patterns regarding body image and help with self-love.
#8 – Social Anxiety
A study conducted in 2018 by the American College Health Association found that 63% of college students experience excessive anxiety. Struggling with social anxiety can lead to feelings of isolation during college. It can feel scary to go out anywhere or to even talk in class. Combating social anxiety can feel tough, but there are many strategies that can be practiced daily. Lynsey Leopard, EdS, LPC, NCC says that “Social anxiety can lead to a cycle of anxiety and avoidance. One way to mediate feelings of anxiety is to assess the feelings-threat balance – compare your emotional intensity to the actual threat level. If they’re close, take mindful, effective action. If your feelings are much higher than the threat, choose a coping skill such as 54321 grounding or rainbow grounding. Practice learning to welcome, allow, and regulate these feelings of anxiety to widen your ability to tolerate discomfort.” Exposure to social situations can also help alleviate anxiety symptoms even if it is just a shared “Hey” or a smile in passing. Counseling services, including exposure therapy, can also help with social anxiety. With gradual exposure over time, it will get easier to socialize.
#9 – Substance Abuse
According to all the movies, the ultimate college experience includes going out, partying, and trying new kinds of drinks and drugs. With newfound freedom at college, there are many opportunities to experiment with all these substances. This experimentation can lead to substance abuse and addiction for many students. Alcohol and nicotine both cause anxiety and depression levels to increase. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (2020), 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers have at least one mental illness. Not only is drug and alcohol abuse comorbid with mental illnesses, but the abuse can also be a distraction from responsibilities like school and work, leading to bad grades and a poor financial situation. Substances can become the controlling factor in someone’s way of living if the dependency becomes too strong. Mental health services help to encourage recovery and create a plan to prevent relapse.
#10 – Unhealthy Relationships
Often, students find themselves tied up in relationships that are not good for their well-being. Whether it be an abusive partner or a toxic best friend, it can be draining and lead to a decline in mental health. Unhealthy relationships lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide. College students in unhealthy relationships or friendships often see a decline in grades due to anxiety and depression. An unhealthy relationship dynamic can also cause physical health impairments. A study found that stress and negative relationship quality affect the cardiovascular system over time (Birditt et al., 2015). Seeking mental health services can help to alleviate the emotions and physical side effects that come from toxic relationships, and professional counselors can help build a safety plan to create a safer environment away from the toxic person.
If you’re reading this as a college student who is experiencing stress and looking for a way to cope, we encourage you to consider working with a counselor. Your university most likely offers counseling services right on campus! You can also find counselors in your local community that are not affiliated with your university if that feels more comfortable. Garrett Counseling has locations in Albertville / Boaz, Huntsville, Jacksonville, and Jasper (as well as online options). Contact our team today if you are interested in working with a counselor on our team!
For family and friends of college students experiencing a high level of stress, we encourage you to be there for them and even encourage them to seek professional help if needed!
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