College can be a tough transition for anyone, no matter who you are. Stress induced anxiety is all too real for most college students, including myself. This overwhelming anxiety is typically brought on by stress in classes, poor time management, and excessive leisure activities. Pro-longed and chronic stress can also lead to serious health issues like heart disease, memory loss and depression. The neuroscience behind this can be hard to comprehend. However, understanding how stress can cause degeneration, plays a huge role in alleviating said stress, and reducing anxiety.
Research has been conducted to investigate the factors of stress and how the presence of this burden can hinder academic performance. Some studies have also found that stress in other aspects of student’s lives, can be linked to their stress in academics. While there are many negatives presented in current research about academic stress, the psychology department at the University of Chicago, conducted studies to support the idea that it can actually help students succeed in college, and boost performance. So, let’s find out a little bit more about this mental phenomenon.
What causes stress and induces anxiety?
Stress is essentially tension in a mental or emotional state. Anxiety caused by stress, is a feeling of unease or worry about events with uncertain outcomes. In the everyday person, stressors are often related to work, family, health, and financial issues Their anxiety is often linked to these same stressors. In college students, there are a lot of factors that play into stress and anxiety, both academically and socially. It can range from worrying about studying for midterms, worrying about the grade of the midterm, and worrying about how mom is going to react to “that” grade. All of this is happening while you want to go to football games, have fun with new friends, and fall into new relationships.
Dr. Ranjita Misra of West Virginia University conducted a study in 2000, to investigate the relationship between academic stress, time management and leisure in undergrads. Dr. Misra found that poor time management was a significant factor in pro-longed stress of students. While this doesn’t seem like a new concept, spending too much time going out really does contribute to the mental tension and anxiety college students develop. While the causes of stress can seem standard, the effects of it are more surprising.
What are the effects?
Some students will take a failing grade over studying for a big test. Other students might feel that if they don’t stress out over their academics, they won’t perform at their best. College students feel that stress is part of the experience and they don’t often change their ways. This can be extremely detrimental to their long-term health. Dr. Linda Mah is the Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Her research has found an increase of stress-induced dementia and cognitive impairment in the elderly, and has identified the link between stress and neurosypathic damages and diseases. Stress induced anxiety causes degeneration in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of the human brain due to an overactive amygdala. This can lead to major mental and cognitive problems. Imagine you’re running and your legs are starting to hurt, but you feel like you can’t stop. Now because you didn’t stop, you pulled your ham string, you have excruciating shin splints, and your Doctor tells you you’ll have trouble walking when you get older. That’s your brain with pro-longed stress.
So why do we continue to stress ourselves out?
If the effects of stress are so degenerative, why aren’t students getting rid of stress altogether? Well, because some stress can help people thrive. Sian L. Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, wrote his paper “Choke or Thrive” about this very discovery. He found a connection between memory, test anxiety and cortisol (the stress hormone). His findings support the relationship between cortisol and stress and how the power of stress can sometimes enable performance. While the study focused mainly on the anxiety associated with math tests, it emphasizes the fact that stress can have a large impact on working memory. In some cases, this impact can help students achieve higher academic performance, because they’re pushing themselves mentally. You’re probably wondering if stress can be a good thing? The answer: yes, and no. This particular part of the research is a “grey area”.
While stress can push some students to perform better, it’s presence is still causing brain damage. When stress leads to anxiety, those effected begin to have negative emotional responses, cognitive impairments, heart diseases and depressive disorders. In Beilock’s research with adolescent math anxiety, low math-anxious students performed better with the presence of cortisol. This is conducive to the ongoing discussion about how stress can be motivational. Unfortunately, this is only effective by looking at cases one by one. Certain amounts of stress can push you to do your best, but too much stress can cause you to shut down. In the grand scheme of things, managing stress is all about balance.
So how can I manage it?
In some cases, anxiety is unavoidable. In the case of academic induced anxiety, the short-term “cure” isn’t as far-fetched as you would think. The overwhelming consensus of the research suggests that time management has proven to be the best way to alleviate stress and avoid academic anxiety. So my advice to the average college student, whether you be male, female, a freshman or a senior:
- Buy a planner
- Make manageable to-do lists
- Don’t avoid studying and,
- Schedule (appropriate) leisure time
To avoid the possibility of neurosypathic illness or risk of Alzheimer’s in the future, effective time management can also be paired with meditation and deep breathing techniques. Stress is something that everyone deals with differently and to avoid anxiety, you might have to get creative. But remember, you’re in college. Yes, you need to maintain your GPA and pass your classes. Yes, you need to make sure you don’t ruin your chances of landing the perfect job. But, you’re in college. Times will be a little stressful, and you can get through it. Stay up late and talk with your friends every once in a while. Work hard and play hard. When you’re old and grey, whether you have Alzheimer’s or not, looking back on your amazing college memories will remind you why it was all worth it. Just remember to go to the library every once in a while.
Misra, R., & McKean, M. (2000). College students’ academic stress and its relation to their anxiety, time management, and leisure satisfaction. American Journal of Health Studies, 16(1), 41-51. Retrieved from http://www.biomedsearch.com/article/College-students-academic-stress-its/65640245.html
Mah, L., Szabuniewicz, C., & Fiocco, A. J. (2016). Can anxiety damage the brain? Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 29(1), 56-63. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26651008
University of Chicago. (2011, August 26). Succeeding in school: Stress boosts performance for confident students, but holds back those with more anxiety. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from September 3, 2016 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110809092045.htm
Valiente, C., Swanson, J., & Eisenberg, N. (2012). Linking Students’ Emotions and Academic Achievement: When and Why Emotions Matter. Child Development Perspectives, 6(2), 129–135. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3482624/