Ashley Maier, MSW, MPA

How to Handle Stress and Anxiety in College

Practical advice beyond the all-too-commonly-prescribed meditation and exercise..

Posted July 31, 2021 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods

  • What Is Stress?
  • Find a therapist to overcome stress
  • Stress and anxiety is a reality in college and psychology courses are no exception.
  • There are a number of practical ways to handle the stress and anxiety that college can provoke.
  • The solutions may not be what you expect.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

With college comes anxiety . Deadlines, grades, performance pressure…if you’re not feeling it, are you even in college?

I know there is a lot out there about how unfair it is for classes to cause stress. Test time limits are stressful and unfair, due dates are anxiety-provoking and unjust, rules are oppression.

We can continue having those debates, but in the meantime, how do we deal with the reality?

Introductory psychology students, for example, are usually getting used to the expectations of college, a transition from dependent to independent learning, while learning a new formal writing style, learning how to find and understand research, practicing critical thinking skills, and studying the approximately 5 million topics that come in an introductory course.

So, what are some practical ways to handle the stress and anxiety college can invoke?

Assume Good Intent

The student is there to earn points. The professor is not there to take them away. That small shift in perspective can do wonders. Professors want students to learn and tend to do everything they can to make that happen, but understand that professors are not free agents.

Photo by jose aljovin on Unsplash

I stole that line directly from my colleague, Janet Carney-Clarke. As she reminds her students, instructors are beholden to government regulations, school policies, and rules of the department. In other words, professors can’t just “do whatever they want.” There are rules we have to follow, too.

Tragically, the professor-student relationship is too often framed as one of enemy combatants. No, no, no! Students are there to learn and professors are there to facilitate learning. We are each partners in the learning process; each role has responsibilities and expectations.

Check Expectations

“I didn’t do the assignment because you didn’t remind me to do it.” –former student

“I got some questions wrong and didn’t get all of my points. I deserve all of my points!” –former student

“I can’t come to class this semester due to my schedule, so I need you to repeat your lectures in office hours.” –former student

Where do I begin? Students who do best in college understand the expectations at that level, even if they don’t agree with them. This becomes an equity issue when some students are exposed to them far in advance and some never are. In fact, I can’t tell you how many high school sophomores and juniors take my introductory psychology courses.

Learning college-level expectations, let alone taking college-level coursework, in high school is quite a privilege. Almost every college and university, however, now offers preparatory courses for students who have not had that advantage. Take them!

Photo by Christina (at) wocintechchat (dot) com on Unsplash

Take Advantage of Office Hours

I was scared of some of my professors. With courage, I got myself through that office door and into drop-in hours. Doing so was truly giving a gift to myself. Frankly, office hours are what single-handedly pulled my grade up from a D to an A in Psychology of the Law.

Professors (and teaching assistants) get paid for office hours. Trust me, they are often sitting there waiting, just waiting, for a student to come in. Be that student!

Utilize School Resources

Schools have resources to help students. There are so many! And they often go under-utilized. Student health services usually offer support to students experiencing anxiety and stress and, in my experience, students tell me that they benefitted greatly. The point is, there are free resources available to students that really help. Ask professors, search online, they’re there and they are waiting to be used.

One thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re a psychology (or related discipline) student: Your instructor is not your therapist. They can’t be. The person in charge of your grade should never provide you clinical guidance. Sure, professors can give you resources and suggestions, but students should never seek therapy from an instructor…even if that instructor is a therapist in another life.

college essay about stress

Use Other Free Resources

In the age of, “Take care of yourself!” there are approximately one billion apps and free meditation /relaxation tools out there, beyond resources provided by schools. One I love to share with students is U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Specifically, they have an action center that offers science-backed activities that help with relaxation, stress, happiness , optimism , and so much more. I particularly appreciate that each activity provides a study backing why it works.

In psychology, we know that a sense of accomplishment has great benefits for confidence , self-esteem , and the like. So, take that scary test. Draft that frightening paper. Do it! Experience matters. Not only will accomplishing the anxiety-provoking task literally end that anticipatory stress, but it will also tell your brain that you can do this again in the future, thus reducing your stress. You succeeded!

Not What You Expected?

Meditation, exercise, taking breaks: Those are the expected solutions in a “take care of yourself” world, and for good reason—they work. But in an environment of prolonged stress and anxiety like college, the above solutions just may help go beyond the Band-Aid and provide healing deeper into the wound.

Ashley Maier, MSW, MPA

Ashley Maier teaches psychology at Los Angeles Valley College.

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