When We Unintentionally Cause Ourselves Stress

While stress is a normal experience, too much stress is not. Unfortunately, many students rate their stress as high and disruptive to their studies. In the most recent National College Health Assessment survey, 58.7% of college students self-rated their stress levels this past year as above-average or tremendous and ⅓ of the survey sample reported some sort of academic consequence as a result of stress.

Having a plan to manage stress long-term, tools to manage stress in the moment, and an understanding of things that can contribute to stress are all important in preventing stress from overshadowing your experience. Below are five areas we often see as contributors to student stress. In many of these instances, students may be unintentionally causing more stress.

Pitfall: High Expectations

Having high expectations of yourself can add a great deal of pressure to your experience as a student. Having goals that may not be attainable and focusing solely on outcomes like grades can create stringent measures of success, and if you don’t achieve these goals, you feel like you have failed, you fail. You feel tremendous pressure to “succeed” or alternatively, you may avoid these tasks through tactics like procrastination which in turn create a cycle of more stress.

It is important to be realistic with goals and recognize your abilities and limits. Perfection is not always attainable. It is important to account for the learning and gains that come from the process—and from failure. Goals can be motivating but only when they are feasible. Realistic goals are better because they can create and reinforce motivation. It can help you to reframe what success looks like and feels like without added stress and pressure to succeed. You can learn more about goal setting here.

Sometimes these unrealistic expectations are based on other peoples’ expectations. For example, if your parents expect you to get straight A’s, you may feel a lot of stress trying to get in A in each and every class. If you get a B in one class—even a very difficult class—you feel like you failed both the task and your parents. This sort of unrealistic pressure to succeed was probably the last thing your family intended. Be self-directed and develop your own goals, rather than try to live up to others’ expectations. The latter is unhealthy. If you feel that others’ expectations are creating pressure, it may be a good idea to talk to them about how you feel and come to a better understanding together. If this feels difficult, you may want to consult with a mental health provider or other trusted adult to help you identify your goals and to learn skills to advocate for yourself effectively.

Pitfall: Overcommitment

There is often a lot of pressure in high school to be involved in extracurricular activities and engaged in leadership roles. This involvement helped to differentiate yourself from other students. Sometimes this pressure to be well-rounded comes from within and sometimes it comes from others. Regardless, if you are used to a level of engagement and achievement, you may try to continue this trajectory in college, especially if you feel this is tied to career aspirations.

While involvement in leadership and activities can be important to your future goals, it is also essential for your emotional and social well-being and development. That being said, there can be too much of a good thing, especially when it infringes upon your ability to manage time, set priorities or complete tasks or inhibits your ability to care for yourself well. Trying to “juggle it all” can be stressful. Taking on too much can leave you distracted, worried about all you have to do, and unable to attend to all the competing priorities, like your schoolwork.

It is better to focus on quality over quantity. Having one quality experience that provides you with a sense of purpose or fulfillment and that you feel you can fully attend to is much more rewarding and motivating that committing to several opportunities that make you feel frazzled.

If you feel you have taken on too much, it may be helpful to explore our content on overcommitment.

Pitfall: Procrastination and Poor Time Management

Sometimes the stress from high expectations and overcommitment can eat away at productivity. Other times, a lack of time management skills is the contributing factor. Putting off work and procrastinating can contribute to greater stress because you are setting up a race against time to complete a task. If you are a self-described procrastinator, it may be helpful to understand the reasons why you do so. Additionally, if you feel you do not have a handle on your time, you can read up on time management skills here.

Pitfall: Not Prioritizing Self-Care 

There are certain practices you can do to manage stress in the moment and others you can incorporate into your daily routine to help with long-term stress management. Prioritizing yourself and basic needs like sleep, fitness, relaxation time, and more are just as important to your studies at school. Try our Wellness Assessment, a tool to help you quickly identify areas of wellness at which you excel and areas you can develop further.

Pitfall: Perpetuating a Culture of Busyness

Everyone is guilty of this at times. Just imagine, someone asks you how you are doing today and you simply respond “Busy.” When did busy become the go-to and culturally acceptable response? Moreover, if you have the courage to reach out to a peer and say “I’m feeling really stressed out about something,” how often are you met with “Oh, me too”? Both of these responses create a culture of busyness that normalizes stress. The latter goes one step further in that it devalues or discredits one’s feelings and can actually escalate feelings of stress. It can lead to a constant one-up-manship of who is more stressed out. Instead, next time someone tells you they are stressed out, regardless of how you feel, just ask, “How can I help?”, or “Would you like to talk about it?” or “I can’t chat now, but can we get dinner later on and talk about it then?”