College is often a period in our lives that brings a lot of changes. Many of you have moved into a dorm and are living on your own for the first time ever. Some of you are still in the admissions phase. The pace of college classes is faster and more is expected of you. You've started a new school with a bunch of people you don't know. In addition to this, many of you will be working part time to help cover living expenses and pay for college. There are plenty of stressors in your life and it's not surprising that many students find themselves very stressed out their first year.
Let's start by talking about stress in general. Much of what you've heard about the topic of stress likely has led you to the belief that stress is bad. You've heard that it takes its toll on your mind, making it difficult to focus, and causing forgetfulness. Likely you've heard of stress's effect on your health – it has been linked to all sorts of illnesses from cardiovascular disease to high blood pressure to cancer. Likely you've heard of all of the dangers and draw-backs to a stressful lifestyle; and here you are taking difficult classes, working, trying to make friends, and getting lost trying to find your way around campus. It may seem that nothing could possibly be more stressful than this!
There are two things to remember. The first is that things get easier. You'll learn your way around campus, you'll make friends, and you'll get used to the rigors of college life. The second thing to remember is that when people talk about all of the negative aspects of stress, they are not really talking about stress; they are talking about our reaction to stress and how we handle stressful situations. Stress can actually be a very positive thing. Most of our most profound periods of personal growth happen during periods of stress. It's all in how we deal with it. So here are three key ideas.
1. Take care of yourself
Things can be chaotic in college. There will be times when you will have to pull an all-nighter, or when you'll have to go several days in a row with not enough sleep because of work and school schedules. There could be times when the only thing you'll have time for is a quick bite of fast-food between classes. Anticipate that these times will happen. Don't kick yourself because you didn't get a good night's sleep, or that you've had pizza 3 nights in a row. Just make sure you do your best not to put yourself in that situation too often.
Make it a goal to get good sleep most of the time. Schedule (yes actually schedule) time to work out, or go for a walk or a jog. Eat healthy as often as you can. People who regularly exercise, eat well and try to get a good night's sleep handle stress much better than those who don't.
2. More is Less
There are plenty of activities that you can engage in while attending college. There are clubs that fit almost every interest. There are intramural sports. There are religious and spiritual clubs. There are gaming groups and international students to join. Essentially, if you have an interest in something, there is likely some kind of organization or club you can find. There is also social time, just relaxing with friends, which is equally important.
You may be asking yourself, why you would want to add more things to your already busy schedule if you are trying to effectively manage your stress. Wouldn't a busier schedule mean higher stress? Actually, usually not. Certainly, you don't want to overbook your time and then not have time to study properly or get a good night's sleep. On the other hand, you don't want to focus just on one thing all the time. You need an outlet; some activities that you enjoy doing and that engage you in a different way than your school work does. These activities often refresh your mind and body and actually reduce stress. You can think of it this way: More variety equals less burnout.
3. Balance it All
The key to stress management is balance. Balance between your physical health (eating well and exercising), doing the things you have to do (like school and work), and doing the things you like to do. This can be a difficult endeavor to juggle all of these things and find the right balance in college.
The thing to remember is that stress doesn't stop after college. Neither does balancing your life. You'll still be balancing your health, your job, your family, your other interests and goals. Learning how to manage stress now is great practice for later in life – and making balance and self-care a habit now, will contribute to a happier and healthier future.