The College Student’s Guide to Stress and Overwhelm

This past year has put college students through the wringer, and if you’re reading this you might fall into this overworked, stressed out, and downright overwhelmed group of people.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed almost everything about the college experience, from the way classes work to extracurriculars. Zoom University became the new normal and many college students are now starting to deal with the long-term repercussions of this fast, evolving change. I’ve seen many young people and college students come to me seeking help because they feel stressed to the point where they’re in a constant state of anxiety and panic. Feeling a little bit of stress during your college years is normal, but it shouldn’t be to the point where you feel like you can barely function. So, how do you deal with all of this constant stress and overwhelm?

What is Stress?

The official definition of stress is “the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.” Extreme stress is when you feel so overwhelmed to the point where you feel as though you can’t think straight or can’t function normally on a day-to-day basis. Like I mentioned before, there are good and bad types of stress. According to Verywell Mind, good stress, otherwise known as “eustress,” is the type of stress we experience when we’re excited about something. “Our pulse quickens and our hormones surge, but there is no threat or fear.” Good stress can happen when we’re going on a first date, starting a new job we’re really excited about, or seeing a friend we haven’t seen in a long time.

On the other hand, bad stress is the type of stress most people are referring to when they say things like “I am so stressed out right now.” Otherwise known as acute stress, this type is triggered by events or quick surprises that need an immediate response. Acute stress triggers the body’s stress response, but once we are no longer stressed about the event and/or situation, our body returns to homeostasis and we feel okay again. Another type of bad stress is known as chronic stress, which “occurs when we repeatedly face stressors that take a heavy toll and feel inescapable.” Staying in a stressful job, an unhappy home life, or constantly feeling overwhelmed with school are examples of chronic stress, and since we physically aren’t meant to deal with this type of stress, we can start to see it have an effect on our emotional, mental, and physical health. 

Common Reasons of Stress and Overwhelm

Feeling stressed and overwhelmed, especially in college, is something that’s more common than you might think. The American College Health Association’s Fall 2018 National College Health Assessment found that 63% of U.S. college students felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year, and “23% reported being diagnosed or treated by a mental health professional for anxiety in the past year.” Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of stress and overwhelm as well as anxiety among college students has only gotten worse. The Jed Foundation conducted a survey among U.S. college students regarding their emotional readiness for the Fall 2020 school semester and found that 63% of students said their emotional health is worse now than it was before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This same study also found that 82% of students were dealing with anxiety, 62% had trouble concentrating, and 60% found difficulty coping with stress in a healthy way. So trust me, if you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed about school right now, you’re not alone.

Stress, depression, and feeling overwhelmed are common occurrences among college students, as you can see from the research noted above, but what is actually causing these feelings? According to Harvard Medical School, many different factors can contribute to these types of emotions among college students. Stress from school and disengagement from your studies can cause psychological distress and loneliness is also a big predictor of mental health problems down the road, specifically anxiety. When it gets down to it, the three main causes of stress among college students are disorganization, procrastination, and overcommitment. We’ll get into more specific techniques for managing stress below.

Stress Management Techniques for College Students

Managing stress as a college student is a little different than managing stress at different times during your life, but these stress management techniques can really be used for anyone going through a particularly stressful or overwhelming time in your life.

Do a Mental & Physical Reset

This technique is specific to the feeling of being disorganized, but can be used by anyone even if you’re not feeling particularly disorganized at the time. Sometimes all you need to feel more organized is to take a look at the work you have in front of you and reorganize it in a way that makes more sense. The first step in doing this is going through your task list and organizing it based on what’s most important or needs to get done first. Make sure you have all of your upcoming assignments, meetings, and appointments included in this list. Once you’re done with that, try cleaning up and organizing your physical workspace. You’ll be amazed at what having a neat workspace does for your productivity.

Create a Daily Routine

Having a routine that you do everyday gives your brain a sense of normalcy and has the ability to take away any added anxiety from not knowing what to do that day. Having an established routine is also shown to increase productivity, which in turn can help with the feeling of overwhelm or having too much to do. It’s always good to start by creating a morning routine that you can be consistent with and working your way up from there.

Practice Calming Techniques

Prioritizing your mental health by doing an emotional reset and creating a consistent daily routine are great ways to reduce stress and overwhelm in the long-term, but what about techniques you can use in the moment when you’re feeling stressed out? Practicing things like meditation, deep breathing, journaling, yoga, or walking out in nature are great ways to reduce stress in the moment – and if you practice these long enough, you might find them being a great addition to your daily routine.

All in all, feeling stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed is normal, especially if you’re going to college in the state our society is currently in – but you don’t have to feel this way all the time. Learning and understanding why you feel stressed is the first step toward combating it.

About Hey Missy Coaching

Melissa Seigle, MA, LPC, NCC is the founder of “Hey Missy Coaching.” She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Coach and a clinically trained psychotherapist specializing in anxiety. Over the past 12 years, Melissa has helped college women gain confidence, drive, and a sense of self so they can authentically show up to and engage in their full college experience. She is passionate about helping college students create an empowered and grounded foundation to help them succeed now and in their futures!


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