Learn / 12 Practical Tips to Manage Stress as a College Student

12 Practical Tips to Manage Stress as a College Student

Sarah Shawaker
 April 30th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • College students face pressure to succeed through grades and social life.
  • To manage stress, they can use time management, boundaries, and therapy.
  • Embracing self-compassion, personal values, and imperfection can foster positivity.

College can be an exciting time, but it can also come with pressure to succeed. Students may think they need perfect grades, a buzzing social life, and adequate sleep and exercise to thrive. Outside factors like work and financial stress can also contribute to this pressure. Sometimes, it’s hard to maintain the juggling act.

More than ever in the past few years1, there’s been a rise in anxiety, depressive symptoms, and burnout among students2. Students have been seeking professional mental health services3 on campus than ever before; however, there is more demand than supply of mental health support. 

Fortunately, you have multiple ways to manage stress. Discover how tiny habits can transform your college life.

1. Time Management

Time management is crucial for students balancing coursework, social activities, and personal responsibilities (especially on a college campus with plenty of distractions). Studies have found that students who use time management skills excel in their grades4. These skills also reduce anxiety5, improve well-being, and enhance sleep quality.

You can begin effectively managing your school work, friends, job, and hobbies by taking inventory of where you invest your time and energy. What are your priorities, and do those get most of your time? Do you tend to procrastinate homework by scrolling on your phone? Do you spend so much time on schoolwork, that you don’t have time for activities you love? Be honest with yourself and see what you can change for the better. 

Set up your schedule prior to the start of the week. You can use a physical or virtual calendar to block schedule your responsibilities. Get granular with this—instead of blocking off 2 hours for “homework,” instead put “Art History 200 Reading and Discussion (pages 74-189).” You could even block off 3 hours for dinner with friends on Friday night. Visually seeing what tasks you need to do and when can help prevent procrastination. 

For personal goals, use a habit tracker to break down your daily progress. For example, you could write “go for a run” or “make my bed.” Remember to give yourself grace; it might be hard to check everything off your to-do list. Stay accountable yet flexible.

2. Establishing Boundaries

Personal boundaries are the emotional, physical, and mental limits you set to protect your well-being. Establishing boundaries with everyone, from your partner to a stranger on the street, is essential.

Setting boundaries while in college can reduce stress6 by balancing your priorities. For example, you may say no to a friend’s get-together so you can do homework, and you may also set a time to stop studying so you can get 8 hours of sleep. Knowing your limits and when to say “no” can ensure you align with your values. There will always be more social and academic opportunities, but your well-being should be your top priority.

When discussing your new boundary with another person, communicate clearly and emphasize that you’re setting this to honor your well-being. For example, you could say, “I have a lot on my plate right now and need to focus on school work. I won’t be available for social plans until the weekend. I hope you understand.”

You can create a boundary with yourself to care for your mental and physical health. For example, you could include a “self-care” session once every two weeks, during which you take time to do things that bring you joy and reduce stress, such as reading, exercising, and getting outside. 

Explore Stress Treatment Centers

3. Seeking Professional Support

Numerous resources are available for students grappling with high-stress levels. Your university likely has qualified mental health professionals to assist students with stress and related concerns. A quick search for “__[College Name]__ Mental Health Resources” will reveal the support options at your disposal, including therapy sessions with licensed therapists, peer support networks, and wellness initiatives. You have the flexibility to choose the services that best suit your needs. These offerings are accessible both in-person and online, ensuring you can find help in the best format.

Because of the mental health crisis in college students7, sometimes counselors won’t have availability to take on a new client (especially during high-stress times of year, like leading up to finals week). The best way to avoid this obstacle is to be self-aware and recognize when you feel overwhelmed. Regularly assess your well-being, and if you start to experience unhealthy emotions, reach out for help. Some students may find it helpful to begin seeing a counselor through their university at the start of the semester, that way they can continue sessions throughout the school year. 

Questions to Ask Your Provider

Once you’re connected with a mental health professional, consider asking questions such as these to get the most out of your counseling sessions:

  1. How do you tailor your therapy sessions to my student experience?
  2. Can you help me with specific issues (like stress management)?
  3. What can I expect from the first few sessions?
  4. How will you measure progress in my therapy sessions? 
  5. What do you suggest for managing stress and anxiety, especially during exams or deadlines? 

4. Healthy Lifestyle Choices

Small adjustments to your daily routine can significantly lower stress levels, enhancing your overall college experience. Healthy lifestyle choices that resonate with your well-being can diminish stress and anxiety, elevating your general wellness8. Some important life areas you’ll want to consider include:

As you explore these lifestyle choices, trust what feels right for your brain and body. One person might discover that getting 9 hours of sleep is helpful for them, while another may feel amazing when they dedicate 20 minutes to meditation every day. Whatever contributes to your well-being is the right choice.

6. Setting Realistic Goals

Breaking down large academic and personal tasks into smaller, manageable goals will make achieving these goals more realistic17. If you see that your everyday effort is making a difference, you may feel more motivated to continue working towards your goals. This may also inspire you to effectively use your time and be the best version of yourself.

You can track your progress using the habit tracker or block scheduling method. Celebrating your achievements along the way is a fun way to encourage yourself. Once you’ve reached a milestone in one of your goals, you may go get ice cream or buy a new book. 

Remember, progress can be alinear, and what may have been a good plan initially might need to be adjusted to fit your current circumstances. Stay flexible and give yourself grace; some progress is better than no progress.

7. Time for Recreation

Allocating time for hobbies that bring you joy can help you stay motivated and happy. In fact, those who regularly enjoy their hobbies are less likely to experience stress, low mood, and depression18. Purposeful activity, meaning carving out time to do what you love instead of only doing it when you have leftover time, should be an important part of your schedule. You may have more energy to complete all your responsibilities when you allow yourself to have dedicated fun time.

8. Avoiding Procrastination

Procrastination can occur when you fall out of routines and motivation. Not only can your schoolwork suffer from procrastination, but your mental health can worsen with symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem19

To overcome this, take note of what triggers your procrastination. For example, you might procrastinate when you feel overwhelmed with school obligations. When this happens, you can use task managers and block schedule your time, so you feel more in control of when you’re doing your tasks. You might enforce boundaries with others, like staying home on Sundays to do homework, and yourself, like no phone time from 4-8pm on school days. Creating a routine that works for you is a powerful incentive to manage your workload effectively.

9. Managing Finances

Developing a budget can help you manage your finances, especially during college when resources are often limited. A well-planned budget can help reduce financial stress by providing a clear picture of your income and expenses, allowing you to make informed decisions about your spending and saving habits. You could list all your expenses and put them into categories such as “necessities” and “wants.” Focus on essentials (tuition, rent, groceries) first and see what’s left for other spending.

You could search “__(University Name)__ Scholarships and Financial Aid” to see what scholarships or grants your school offers. You can talk to your academic advisor about applying to these. For more information, visit the Federal Student Aid’s FAQ page.

Some students have time in their schedules for a job. Part-time employment can be an excellent way for college students to earn money, gain work experience, and develop new skills while managing their study schedules. Internships can also help you advance to your desired career.

10. Practicing Self-Compassion

You practice self-compassion when you are kind and understanding rather than harshly self-critical when you make mistakes or feel inadequate20. In times of difficulty, like finals week, you can give yourself the same support and encouragement that you would give to a friend.

A positive mindset is a cornerstone of self-compassion. Some people are naturally more pessimistic, so creating positive thoughts and behaviors may take intentional actions. For example, you may say positive affirmations to yourself every morning or create a list of 5 things you’re grateful for every night. Small steps like these compound to a happier mindset. 

If you are typically hard on yourself when you don’t receive certain grades, try using a positive mindset rather than beating yourself up. For example, you could write in your journal, “Although this isn’t the grade I wanted, I’m proud of how much effort I put into studying. I know that I am capable and smart.” Positive thought patterns allow you to perceive stressful situations as less threatening, leading you to use healthier, more effective coping skills21

11. Time for Reflection

Taking time to reflect on personal values and goals can ensure that you look at the whole picture and live in harmony with your desires. You may journal your responses to questions such as 

  1. Are my academic classes aligned with my career goals?
  2. What would my future profession entail, and am I gaining valuable experience in my classes that will contribute to it?
  3. How much time do I spend on homework per week? How much time do I spend on hobbies and time with friends and family?
  4. How do I feel about my academic performance? Are there changes I can make to enhance it?
  5. Do I dedicate enough time to my hobbies? 
  6. In what ways have I been effectively managing my time? What ways can I improve?
  7. When I’m stressed, how do I cope? Are there better ways to cope?

You could plan to do a self-check-in once a week or once a month. If you need more advice, you can talk to advisors or mentors about personal development. Someone with more experience can provide valuable insights. 

12. Embracing Imperfection

Whether pressure comes from parents, friends, or yourself, perfectionism can lead to stress22 and unrealistic expectations. It can also hinder academic and personal growth because of the self-punishing thought patterns. 

Sometimes, accepting 85% is more valuable than achieving 100%, so you can care for your mind and body. Your happiness and well-being are more important than one test score. College is a time of change, learning, and self-discovery, so embracing imperfection can help mitigate these pressures by fostering resilience, adaptability, and compassion toward yourself and others. It can also create a more fulfilling college experience.

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