Don't let yourself get overwhelmed

Coping with high stress levels

Stressed out on campus

You know the scenario. You're in a familiar place, going about your daily routine, only to look down and discover you have no clothes on. Or it's almost time for a task that spikes your adrenaline — speaking in front of a crowd or taking an important test — and you realize, panic-stricken, that you're unprepared. Or you're being chased by snakes or vampires or a rogue band of ninja monkeys and can't seem to escape.

We've all had dreams like these (okay, so maybe not the ninja monkeys), in which we feel trapped in a dire situation over which we have no control. Waking up from those nightmares to our normal waking lives is a true relief. Unfortunately, in our daily lives it can be hard to remember how much control we can exert over the kind of anxiety we normally associate with nightmares.

This may be especially true for students. According to this study reported in the New York Times, college students are reporting higher levels of stress than ever before. In 1985, 64% of college students reported their emotional health as above average; in 2010, that had fallen to 52%. Explanations for this increase include today's weak economy as well as increased pressure to achieve — pressure that is often self-imposed.

Don't let this happen to you. College is a demanding experience, one that can easily feel overwhelming. Along with the excitement of newfound freedom, new friends, and new experiences comes the need to do well academically while managing your social life and, most likely, working a part-time job to help with tuition and living expenses. Learning to manage stress now can help you immensely once you're on your own. The tips below can help get you started on a more emotionally balanced college lifestyle.

Time management

A large part of feeling overwhelmed is feeling like there isn't enough time to do all the things you have to do. Managing your time efficiently and keeping track of your tasks are essential skills for a successful college career. Doing these things well can help alleviate much of the anxiety college life will bring.

While there's no one foolproof system, effective time and task management usually involves the following elements:

  • Planning, scheduling, and prioritizing your various tasks
  • Breaking those tasks down into manageable chunks
  • Keeping "to do" lists in a central location — anything from a paper pad to a smart phone
  • Avoiding procrastination

Developing good time management skills will reduce stress, leave more time for fun, and lend a sense of accomplishment that will help you feel good about yourself.


Between late-night study sessions, social activities, and generally full schedules, college students are famous for not getting enough sleep. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation can increase feelings of stress and anxiety, which can in turn make it harder to get enough sleep. Avoid this vicious cycle by building adequate sleep time into your schedule (from 6 to 10 hours a night for most adults) and by developing a bedtime ritual conducive to a restful night.

Healthy eating

With nutrition as with sleep, the stereotypical college lifestyle can actually make college life more difficult. A diet consisting primarily of fast food and ramen noodles won't provide your body with the range of nutrients it needs. Skipping meals, another common college habit, will obviously provide even less. If you're concerned about finding time in a busy schedule to eat healthily, try some of the following strategies:

  • Keep easy, healthy meals on hand, such as sandwiches and healthy frozen dinners
  • Eat small meals and healthy snacks frequently
  • Eat breakfast — you'll think better with something in your stomach
  • Don't skip the protein — carbohydrates provide fuel, but protein helps keep energy levels steady
  • Water, water everywhere! Staying hydrated keeps your body running smoothly

Physical activity

Exercise is one of the best ways to relieve stress quickly. Feeling anxious? Go for a walk, hit the gym, or take a yoga class. Want more self-confidence, higher energy levels, improved sleep, sharper mental focus, and a better sense of perspective? Incorporate regular exercise into your weekly routine.

Substance use/abuse

While a large portion of college students are not of legal age to drink, alcohol remains a common part of college life. As with any drug, overuse or abuse can lead to poor judgment, injury, addiction, and legal problems. On a more day-to-day level, alcohol is a depressant that can leave your body feeling drained of the energy and focus needed for the demands of college life. Remember that the ultimate point of college is to prepare you for the career you want as an adult — and this is too important to risk through bad choices.


Coping with stress is always more difficult in isolation. If you felt sick, you'd go to the doctor, right? Don't be afraid to talk about what's bothering you with a friend, family member, or counselor. Sharing your concerns with another person can go a long way toward helping you feel better about your situation.