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Strategies for handling stress

Maroon Bells (colorful mountains with a lake in the foreground)

Rebecca Dell
January 19, 2018

Whether you’re applying for colleges, waiting on a decision, helping someone else apply or already wading through classes, there’s a good chance you’re stressed. Some of that stress is self-imposed, some comes from family expectations for academic success and some is caused by external factors such as money, distance from home and relationships. And the list goes on.

What’s a student to do? Here are a few tips for managing and mitigating stress so you can focus on your people, your classes and your dreams.  


Check out UNC professor Mike Kimball's podcasts on mindfulness and stress management techniques:

Mindfulness, part I

Mindfulness, part II

Take a day off.

This may feel totally impossible, but hear us out: Yes, it’s important to attend class. Yes, it’s important to be reliable. But when you’re feeling like you’re about to explode with stress, simplify. Say no to extra commitments for an afternoon, fit in a workout (see below), go for a walk or catch up on homework — and take care of yourself. If you cancel any plans, be sure to communicate ahead of time so you don't leave anyone wondering what happened. And then make good use of the time off.


Exercise is scientifically good for you, and just about everyone these days would agree. The hard part is getting motivated, if you’re not already in the habit. One well-known tip for getting started? Find something you enjoy. If you do best with the structure of a class, find a nearby gym (or the campus rec center) and write it into your schedule. For a more budget-friendly option, find a fitness instructor you like on YouTube (especially for winter months). Try different class types — if you need something gentle, try yoga or Pilates. If you want an intense workout, look for something with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Play pick-up soccer, take dance lessons, even take a P.E. class (yes, they have those in college!).

Identify and use a coping skill.

Think of a variety of things that make you feel better, and write them down now so you don’t have to come up with a plan when you’re already stressed. If you have habits that aren’t super healthy — for example, if you binge watch Season 5 of Breaking Bad whenever you’re feeling stressed — try to replace that habit with some of your healthy coping skills (so you’ll still have time to get your homework done). A few ideas: squeeze a stress ball in class, take a nap, go for a walk or a drive, call a friend, draw, dance, build something, brush your teeth, curl up in a blanket, pray or meditate. 

Anxiety and college students

College comes with unique pressures to keep up, to compete for future jobs, and to make the most of your experience and your expense. That’s all acknowledged in a video by the Chronicle of Higher Education, where students who deal with anxiety offer insight to their lives and strategies. Some of their coping skills? Call someone you can talk to, breath deeply, acknowledge your anxiety, take a day off from class, or go to a counselor and see what kind of help they can offer.