Chronic worry and stress can damage your health and become a barrier to success. Here’s how to manage stress as you juggle college, work, and life.
by Meilee D. Bridges
Worry and stress are natural parts of everyday life. It’s not unusual to worry about paying the bills or to stress out while taking an exam. But worry and stress are even more likely if you’re a working adult attending college. After all, becoming a student again after several months, years, or even decades out of school can be intimidating. Some older learners worry about fitting in with 20-year-old classmates or mastering the tech required by instructors. Others stress out trying to balance college with work and family life.
The good news is that worry (our mental response to uncertain or unpleasant things) and stress (our body’s response) can have positive impacts on our well-being. For example, individuals worried about getting skin cancer might start to wear more sunscreen, which is a healthy habit. And sweaty palms, an increased heart rate, or a rush of adrenaline and cortisol can help us power through an important assignment or a big presentation.
Unfortunately, when we begin to worry obsessively or experience prolonged bouts of stress, we can end up doing damage to our health and well-being. Many of us have been there: we’ve lost sleep, felt exhausted, or suffered headaches and body aches from too much worry or stress. Chronic worry and stress can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, or depression as well as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
So how can you keep these normal, everyday responses from becoming potentially destructive forces in your life? Here are some tips for keeping worry and stress at bay.
Put it into words
Researchers have discovered that spending just 20 minutes writing about your worries or stressors can help you find calm and relief.
Identify what’s causing your worry or stress. Express your feelings honestly, and explore why you’re feeling that way.
Taking stock of your fears, doubts, and uncertainties can help you process them. Putting pen to paper can give you critical distance from your worries, which can help you manage your emotions. You might even find yourself beginning to realize how to resolve your anxieties.
Avoid comparing yourself to others
Although writing about your concerns is beneficial, avoid talking too much about how worried or stressed you are to friends, family, and classmates. Every individual handles stressful situations in their own way, so comparing stress responses isn’t particularly useful. And “stress bragging” about how little sleep you’ve gotten or how many cups of coffee you’ve knocked back can actually increase your stress!
Similarly, don’t measure yourself against your peers. You might think your classmates are far ahead of you in their studying or aren’t struggling the way you are. The reality is that they’re probably in the same boat as you. Plus, you have your own advantages that they might be envying! So don’t worry about other people; focus on what you can actually control: your own actions, goals, and progress.
Practice a growth mindset
Speaking of progress, it’s easy to stress out about essays, projects, and tests because we become focused on grades. But if you concentrate on your progress rather than getting an A, you’re likely to experience less stress. This focus on the process of learning rather than the results is called a growth mindset. Adopting this practice can not only alleviate stress, but it can ultimately improve your performance.
Manage your schedule
Time management and stress management tend to be inextricably linked when it comes to productivity and achieving success.
An important success strategy is to write down homework time, study sessions, and major deadlines in your calendar. This will help you avoid procrastination. Plan ahead so you’re not working on big projects with close deadlines all at once. And avoid underestimating how much time you’ll need as well. Try tacking on an additional 20% of what you think you’ll need just to be sure. Then, break bigger projects into smaller to-do items to make them more manageable.
Take it one step at a time
Have you ever watched a show while texting a friend? Or tried to cook dinner while helping the kids with their homework? Or checked email or folded laundry while studying? If so, you probably know that doing two things simultaneously tends to decrease your attention, retention, and performance.
Our brains simply aren’t built for multitasking. To effectively switch gears between, say, working on math problems and preparing for a meeting at work, we need to be intentional. Our brains also need time to make that switch. Consequently, multitasking is actually less efficient: we end up taking more time to complete tasks because we often have to retrace our steps, such as rereading pages of a textbook we weren’t truly focused on the first time around. All of this can lead to greater worry and stress. So to be more productive, concentrate on one activity at a time.
Set reasonable expectations
Overextending yourself can lead to chronic stress too. Your instinct may be to get to graduation as fast as possible. However, taking on too many classes in a given semester while working and juggling other responsibilities quickly leads to burnout. So register for only the number of courses you can reasonably take each term. If that means only one class per semester, you’re still making progress!
In day-to-day situations, you may also find that you need to decline certain social invitations when they conflict with designated study times. It’s challenging to say no sometimes, but you’ll be less stressed if you’re not constantly cramming.
. . . of yourself! It’s important to take care of both your mental and physical well-being as you’re juggling competing priorities. So practice self-compassion, and devote time to your own self-care. Avoid alcohol, sugary foods, and artificial stimulants (e.g., caffeine, over-the-counter drugs, or prescription pills) to keep you awake. Make time to connect with loved ones, eat nutritious snacks, and get enough sleep. You’ll feel—and concentrate—better.
Ask for help
Your ReUp Success Coach is a wonderful place to start if you need a sympathetic ear and a trustworthy guide toward reaching your goals. But your school is also a font of resources you can use to prevent or combat worry and stress.
If you’re having issues with the technology you need to use for class, contact your school’s IT department. Are you concerned about paying for school? Consult the financial aid office. If you’re struggling with specific assignments or an entire course, ask your instructor or classmates for help. Or consider trying out your school’s free tutoring services. At the campus writing center, for example, you can get help with essays. You can also make appointments at your school’s learning center (sometimes called academic success, academic assistance, student support) for subject-specific tutoring.
Check in with your academic advisor to learn more about the resources available on your campus. And don’t be afraid to use those services! Getting homework help and honest feedback can alleviate a lot of stress and improve your understanding of course materials.
Sweat it out
OK, you don’t necessarily have to sign up for high-intensity interval training (aka HIIT) cardio if that’s not your thing. But regular exercise is a great way to relieve stress. Because stress is a physiological response, physical activity can actually train your body to handle stress better. Moving your body can also elevate the feel-good hormones in your body and help you relax afterward. So try taking a walk, dancing, gardening, shooting hoops, going for a swim, or doing yoga to boost your mood.
Do what you love
When we’re worried or stressed out, it’s easy to forget to pursue the meaningful activities that bring us joy. Whether it’s spending time with people who cheer you up and on, playing video games or sports, crafting, or pursuing some other hobby, make time for fun! Make that activity part of your schedule, even if you have to put it on the calendar to ensure you actually do it. Engaging in truly joyful activities will lower your stress and improve your productivity when it’s time to work and study.
Worry and stress can actually be beneficial if they’re manageable because they can propel us through daily challenges. However, if the above tips don’t work for you and your stress begins affecting your health or relationships, please seek help from your campus counseling center or your physician. Stress is a normal part of success, but you don’t have to sacrifice your well-being to achieve your goals. If you prioritize self-care along your journey, the destination will feel all the more rewarding.
You’re not alone!
Make coaching part of your stress-management routine. Your ReUp Success Coach is here to listen to your worries and help you brainstorm how to overcome them. If you need personalized, empathetic support as you balance school, work, and life, this is your safe space. Your support team is available by phone, text, or email. Ready to get started?