By Christina Cronin
It’s one of those weeks that every college student dreads.
Kayden O’Sullivan goes into a frenzy as she struggles to study for two nursing exams and finish a 7-12 page history paper, all of which are due on the same day. She tries to finish her paper over the weekend to make time for studying, but things at home do not go as planned. Now, Kayden is overwhelmed with two exams and a paper and there is only so much time in a day to get it all done. She finds herself shutting down mentally and becoming irritable and even turns to sleep to escape from the stress of it all.
Kayden, a freshman nursing student at Worcester State University, says school is one of her major causes of stress. Being a nursing student, she always has a major assignment or exam to study for.
“I feel so much pressure to do well and succeed, not just for myself but for my family because they are paying for my school,” she said.
Work overload is one of the top reasons college students experience stress. And a worry among psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health practitioners is that the number of people who say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional life — roughly 48 percent, according to the American Institute of Stress — will keep rising as students continue to overwork themselves.
Kevin Fenlon, a counselor at WSU’s Counseling Center, says that college students feel so overwhelmed with coursework that they are not allowing time to give themselves the proper self-care they need in order to cope with this stress. One important part of self-care, which is difficult for many college students, is proper sleep. A vast majority of college students are not getting the consistent sleep schedule that they need.
Moreover, students are not stepping away from their stressors to take a break and give themselves more energy. They tend to feel that, if they take a break, they are losing study time. Fenlon says that the key to taking breaks is realizing that they help you do your work.
“You’re not losing time,” Fenlon said. “You’re gaining efficiency.”
There are two types of stresses: eustress and distress. Eustress is the positive stress we need to keep us motivated. Getting good grades can be seen as eustress.
“The problem is that tipping point where it becomes distressful, and paralyzes us and leads to procrastination,” Fenlon said.
Avoidance is an umbrella term to define the impulse to do anything besides the task at hand, which could include alcohol, drugs, spending too much time on social media, etc. When students are faced with stress, they tend to turn away from it instead of facing it. This can cause students to study for an exam or finish a paper the night before it is due, which only adds to the cramming and stress. When students do this and then recieve back papers or tests with a satisfactory grade, Fenlon says, it leads to this reinforcing pattern. Students realize they can still receive a good grade by staying up late to finish an assignment the night before it is due, unaware of the consequences it can cause.
The long term health consequences from allowing stress to keep us up at night to finish our work are not always tangible, Fenlon says. Over time, the heart and the chemicals in the brain will be affected by this pattern. In the short term, students are not connecting the level of stress to their immunity, which also results from lack of sleep.
“Stress, lack of sleep, low immunity, or irritability leading to conflict with friends — it’s all tied together,” Fenlon said.
O’Sullivan admits that she has skipped her classes to sleep.
“In the moment I knew that wasn’t the right way to cope with it because I had work to do, but at that point I didn’t care and I just wanted it to ignore it by sleeping,” she said.
Eleni Tzikas, a junior communication major, says that on top of her coursework, one of her stressors is thinking about what she wants to do after she graduates. Her family puts a lot of pressure on her to look for internships and think about her career.
Although Tzikas finds herself more stressed at the beginning and end of the semester, she says, “I’m always stressed out, no matter what time it is in the school year.”
O’Sullivan struggles with stress right before a vacation and during finals week. Often, she finds herself having multiple nursing exams on the same day and deals with the stress of studying for all of them.
Fenlon says that during the first few weeks of the semester, the counseling center is busy with first-year students who are having trouble adjusting to college. Around midterms and towards the end of the semester, there is a spike in students visiting the center.
“But not directly during finals,” he said. “I would say [it comes during] the period in the semester when students realize where they may sit academically. If anything, we have less students during finals week because students have so much going on with trying to finish up and get home.”
In the last few years, the number of students who visit the counseling center between September and May has been consistent, says Fenlon, so spikes are less noticeable because the counseling center is consistently busy.
The counseling center not only consults with students, but also consults with faculty about helping their students. On top of taking four, five, or even six courses, students may be dealing with family stressors at home or with working 30+ hours a week to support themselves financially. Sometimes these responsibilities hold more priority than coursework, which causes students to fall behind and become stressed out. Sometimes professors do not realize the burden that some students carry, Fenlon says.
“I don’t necessarily think they realize how much of a negative impact it can actually have on a student and their performance in a class,” Tzikas says.
O’Sullivan and Tzikas both say that some professors try to be accomodating in extending deadlines on papers and assignments to help students who are struggling.
Although the campus has many outlets to help students blow off some steam, such as the counseling center and the wellness center, which also offers yoga classes and even therapy dogs that are brought in at particularly stressful points during the semester, Tzikas feels that the stress that college students face can never truly be solved.
“There will always be this pressure on students to do well in all of their classes and they will be stressed if they don’t do well,” she said.
The thought of studying for both nursing exams and finishing her history paper on time was nauseating to O’Sullivan. She slept as often as she could to avoid getting it all done or went to the gym to blow off some steam. She got back her results on her exams and paper, and despite all the avoidance and distress she went through, received a 91 on both exams and an 84 on her paper.
“I felt relieved for sure!” O’Sullivan said. “I was actually proud of myself. I’m the kind of person who, no matter how stressed I am, still always figures it out and tries to do well.”