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How to manage stress in college

We have all experienced stress at one point or another. Stress can come in many forms, from an unexpected expense to an exam that you’re not sure you’re ready to take. But what exactly is stress? Stress is a feeling of discomfort, anxiety, or energy from an internal stressor (like worry over something embarrassing you said) or external stressor (like an upcoming presentation in class). When this happens, the brain sends a signal to increase adrenaline and cortisol production, making your heart beat faster, your breath quicken, your vision sharpen, and you get a jolt of energy. In small amounts, stress can help us focus and finish tasks. In large amounts, stress can be exhausting, negatively affect concentration, and cause health problems.

College is likely to bring new stressors and new surroundings to manage them. We can’t eliminate stress, but we can explore practices to recognize and manage it in healthy and helpful ways.

Stress versus mental health struggles

The advice we provide below is suggested for the occasional feelings of stress. If these strategies are not helping your feelings of anxiety, or if you feel stressed, sad, or overwhelmed frequently, we suggest that you reach out to a mental health support service. It’s always okay to reach out for help! In fact, visiting with a mental health professional is a great idea for anyone who is undergoing a transition such as moving from high school into college

Your university will likely offer a mental health hotline and counseling services at no additional cost. These are great to program into your phone in case you, or a friend, ever need them.

If you do not have access to an affordable or no cost program, here are some helpful hotlines:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support twenty-four hours a day seven days a week through a network of national and local crisis centers.

The Crisis text line will connect you to a licensed Crisis Counselor. This free text service is available 24/7.

The Trevor Project is a national 24-hour, toll-free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

Stress Management Techniques


Take a break

Try stepping away from the situation and changing your scenery and focus. For example, if you’re studying for an exam and feel stressed, walk around the library and listen to a favorite song. By taking a break, your mind can reset and calm before returning.


Meditation can significantly reduce stress, especially when incorporated as a regular part of your routine.

Contact a friend or loved one

Is there someone you can reach out to for support or connection? Depending on what you need, you can:

  • Ask for general support by saying something like, “I’m having a tough day. Send memes, please.”
  • Ask how they are doing.
  • Share what you are going through with them.
  • Let them know how grateful you are to have them or share a pleasant memory with them.


In moments of stress, saying or writing down things you are grateful for can balance your focus. As a next step, you can reach out and thank people, letting them know that you are grateful for something that they have done.

Make a plan

If you’re stressed about an event in the future, try breaking it down into tasks and subtasks that will help. Write these down and create a timeline.

Mindful Reflection

Writing out or saying aloud what you feel can help bring emotions, thoughts, and ideas to the surface to work through. As you write or speak:

  • Change Negative Self Talk → Positive or Neutral Self Talk
    • Change value statements like “I am a bad person” to action statements like “I did something bad because it hurt my friend’s feelings.”
    • How would you talk to a friend or loved one if they were in your situation? Try to speak to yourself as if you’re a friend.
    • Share some of your positive attributes and how they may help you in this situation.
  • Use milder wording
    • Are there moments where you could use milder wording? For example, instead of writing, “I hate traffic. It’s the worst”, can you write, “Traffic is difficult, and I don’t like it.”
  • Avoid limiting language
    • Instead of saying, “I can’t do this” or “I’ll never-,” try saying or writing, “I’m not sure, yet, how I’m going to….” etc.
  • Give yourself credit for context
    • Be sure, when speaking or writing, to include details like “during COVID-19” or “while attending school full-time.” It’s common to be hard on ourselves by blocking out the contexts around us that take up energy and time.
  • Think of yourself as a friend
    •  Imagine that you’re talking to a friend with a similar struggle. What would you tell them?


Move Around

The physical effects of stress are sometimes called the “flight or fight” response. Move around by walking, dancing, jogging, swimming, or whatever form of exercise you prefer. Moving releases a chemical in your body, which can help you feel better and trick your body into thinking you chose “flight.”

Purposeful Breathing

Since one of the physical reactions to stress is quickened, shallow breath, taking time to take deep, slow breaths can help renew your oxygen levels and provides an excellent opportunity to practice calming your thoughts as well.

Find a grounding object

Is there an object that you find soothing or pleasant to touch? A squishy stress ball, smooth stone, fuzzy blanket, or little stuffed animal can be great to have. Focusing on the texture of the object can help calm the body.

Un-tense your Muscles

When we are stressed, we tend to clench our muscles. Relaxing our muscles can help with blood flow. Here are a few strategies:

    • Check for tension– Do a quick check for tension and focus on releasing it and relaxing. Close your eyes and check if you are tense in your eyes, your jaw, your shoulders, your hands, your legs, and finally, your feet. This is a tremendous quick reflection to do during an exam!
  • Count to Five- Lightly move your head back and forth five times, then up and down five times. You can also move your shoulders, hands, knees, or anything else that feels tense!
  • “Dance” it out- Commit to moving and stretching your body for the length of an entire song.

Look it up- There are tons of stretching exercises, videos, and infographics online for free. The most important thing to remember is: it should not feel painful! If a stretch isn’t working for you, move onto another one.

The best techniques to manage stress will look different for everyone, and that’s okay! The trick is trying out some other methods until you find the best practices for you and taking time (even if it’s just a minute or two) to destress when you start to feel it.

Next Steps

Now that you have learned some ways to manage your stress, let’s learn about some ways to manage your time.

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