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The transition from high school to college is not only an exciting time but also a stressful one. This may be the first time that these young adults have to develop time management skills, schoolwork, mental health, social life, and maybe even a part-time or full-time job all at once. These changes can present symptoms of stress or anxiety that could also ultimately affect academic success if left untreated or unmanaged.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) 2019 Stress in America survey, more than three-quarters of young adults report feeling physical or emotional symptoms of stress. To add to the normal stressors of college life, the coronavirus pandemic hit and caused feelings of uncertainty in college students about the future of their education.
Dealing with the challenges presented by COVID-19 has resulted in increased loneliness, stress, anxiety, and depression for many young adults. At the beginning of the pandemic, an overwhelming majority of college students (85%) reported increased stress and/or anxiety. As a result, the importance of college students developing coping strategies to combat stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns is at an all-time high.
Impact of the pandemic on student mental health
A survey conducted by BestColleges.com revealed that 90% of college students said that the pandemic caused them to experience negative mental health symptoms. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also made it harder to access mental health care for most students (60%), making financial stressors and feelings of anxiety about the future of their education more difficult for students to manage.
Colleges across the nation closed campuses and residence halls to help flatten the curve, forcing students to leave their campus communities, friends, coaches, classes, loved ones, and familiar routines. With many students spending more time in front of screens and being stuck indoors, they are experiencing difficulties making new friends and meeting classmates. The impact of isolation on student mental health will likely increase levels of social anxiety once students can return to campus.
Stress and anxiety in college students
As a college student, it’s nearly impossible not to feel symptoms of stress at least once. Common causes of stress in students stem from living away from home for the first time, academic performance and success, test anxiety, finances, post-graduation plans, roommate conflict, and relationships. The American Institute of Stress says that “stress can have wide-ranging effects on emotion, mood, and behavior.” When stress is left untreated for a long period of time, chronic stress may develop and cause even worse physical symptoms or health issues. Knowing the symptoms and signs of stress will help you to create stress management techniques early.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- Headaches, dizziness, or shaking
- Chest pains or racing heart
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Aches and pains
- Trouble sleeping or exhaustion
- High blood pressure
- Weakened immune system
Normal levels of stress from time to time are expected and can sometimes be beneficial depending on the circumstances. But, when stress continues at unhealthy levels for an extended period, it can impact studying, cognitive abilities, concentration, and self-esteem. When not properly treated, stress affects all aspects of daily life. It can prevent students from reaching their academic goals, which can then lead to developing anxiety or other mental health conditions.
Although often used interchangeably, stress and anxiety have a couple of differences. The major difference between anxiety and stress is that anxiety can also make you feel a sense of impending doom and fear. A study from the American College Health Association (ACHA) revealed that 60% of college students report anxiety as one of their major health concerns.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Stomach pain, nausea, or digestive issues
- Insomnia or waking up frequently
- Weakness or fatigue
- Pounding or racing heart
- Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
- Sweating, trembling or shaking
- Muscle tension
The constant fear of the unknown, in addition to a loss of control, has drastically increased anxiety in college students and other mental health concerns. According to Dr. Stacia Alexander, mental health clinic coordinator at Paul Quinn College, this is why virtual mental health services like telehealth are so important in effectively reaching all students, no matter their location.
Coping strategies for college students
According to an American College Health Association (ACHA) assessment, 45% of college students experience more than average stress. Colleges and universities must provide tools and resources to mental health services to help students manage college stress, like support groups, health and wellness classes, virtual care, and counseling center access. However, the past year has highlighted the importance of students developing their own healthy ways to cope when trying to support mental well-being. Dr. Alexander suggests students use these coping strategies to support mental health while away from campus.
1. Keep a normal routine
The past year abruptly changed everyone’s normal and familiar routines, which ultimately affected student mental health. Students should keep a structured routine that mirrors what they would do if they were still on campus full-time. Maintaining consistency can be accomplished through simple things, such as waking up around the same time, eating three meals a day, exercising, writing down daily goals to accomplish, and maintaining hygiene.
2. Watch nutrition and diet
College life is best known by the stereotype of the “freshman 15.” With a hectic schedule and moving from class to class, students don’t always focus on the nutrition of the food they’re eating. However, what and when we eat can directly impact how we feel. Maintain nutrition by eating three balanced meals per day and snacking in moderation. It can be easy to eat what you might consider “junk” food as a coping mechanism while stuck at home but avoid doing so as much as possible.
3. Take a break
Make time to do things beyond coursework and studying by adding self-care to your daily routine. To avoid having negative thoughts, take deep breaths and repeat positive affirmations to yourself to practice mindfulness. When you feel symptoms of anxiety arising, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) suggests trying to get enough sleep, limit alcohol and caffeine, count to 10 slowly, and practice relaxation techniques.
4. Stay connected with others
Being around people that you care about and who make you feel comfortable can help decrease stress. Make an effort to reach out and connect with loved ones daily. Social media can be a great way to keep up-to-date with friends and family members, but set limits to make sure it doesn’t affect your mental health. Using video calls for face-to-face conversations is another way to maintain your well-being and reduce stressors.
5. Consider speaking with a mental health professional
If you feel like you’re experiencing unhealthy levels of anxiety or stress, seeking help is a way to better understand the physical symptoms that you may be experiencing. Exploring different mental health services that your school offers to help manage overwhelming anxiety or stress is nothing to be ashamed of and will be beneficial in the long run.
Experiencing stress and anxiety is nothing to be ashamed of and can be treated or managed in a variety of ways. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) suggests using psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both to effectively treat anxiety disorders.
How higher education can support students with stress and anxiety
Students returning back to campus after a traumatic and challenging year won’t be the same students who were on campus before the pandemic. Some students may be experiencing the effects of stress and anxiety from losing a loved one or from other traumas during isolation. According to the National College Health Assessment conducted by Healthy Minds and the American College Health Association (ACHA), 60% of students said that the pandemic made it much harder to access mental health care.
Higher education won’t be able to ignore this prevalent issue and must come prepared with resources to help students manage stress and anxiety on and off-campus. This support from colleges and universities will be crucial in helping students succeed academically and in their everyday life.
According to the American College Health Association (ACHA), the collaboration between health care, counseling, and wellness services on college campuses is crucial for successfully supporting students. Ask if virtual mental health services — like telehealth through TimelyMD — are available to you.
Why on-demand emotional support is a necessity
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), generalized anxiety disorder affects 6.8 million young adults but can start at any point in life. The pandemic has caused overwhelming anxiety nationwide, especially for college students having to balance mental well-being and coursework while in isolation. When students return back to campus, the prevalence of mental health problems will present challenges for higher education to meet the need to support student mental health.
In a survey conducted by Active Minds in April 2020, 80% of college students reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health, and 85% said that they had increased difficulty focusing on school and work. More than half of the students surveyed (55%) said they wouldn’t know where to go if they or a loved one needed professional mental health services right away. These statistics show an increased need for accessible on-demand and virtual support resources for students on and off-campus.
Although crisis fatigue — a sense of helplessness, an ongoing dread, a desire to simply give up — is not uncommon, seeking help through virtual mental health services or a mental health professional can make a difference. Many colleges and universities offer on-demand mental telehealth services to students through services with partners like TimelyMD.
How telehealth can support college students’ mental health
With TimelyMD, students can access on-demand emotional support through TalkNow and choose times to speak with a professional of their choosing through Scheduled Counseling. TalkNow is a virtual resource that enables students to speak to mental health professionals — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Through Scheduled Counseling, students can set up ongoing, regular mental telehealth counseling appointments with a provider who is licensed in that student’s state.
Sessions are available via video or phone, whichever is most convenient for the student. Telehealth services provided by TimelyMD are an extension of a campus’s existing mental health services. TimelyMD is working to end the stigma of seeking help for mental illness and to show students they are not alone.
TimelyMD is focused on supporting the health and well-being of colleges and universities, and that includes both the physical and mental health of students. Learn more about our commitment to transforming healthcare in higher education.