August 15, 2016

By Luna Greenstein

Typically, when we hear the word “stress,” we think of being frazzled, overwhelmed and anxious. That’s because “stress” is automatically associated with a negative connotation. But unpleasant sensations are actually the result of distress, not stress. And yes, there is a distinction between the two.

Stress is the reaction your body has when adapting to the many changes of life. It is actually a necessary part of human growth—without it, we wouldn’t be able to handle change. Take for example, a young adult shipping off to college. In most cases, this requires a significant amount of change all at once. They might be moving to a new place, meeting new people, leaving home for the first time, etc. Stress is the process of going through all these changes and being able to adapt to them.

If, however, they feel extremely frazzled, overwhelmed and anxious about their situation, then what they are encountering is distress.

So the key here is not to eliminate stress as a whole (since this would essentially require staying in one’s own comfort zone for life), but rather to keep levels of stress on the healthy end of the spectrum. Keeping stress down in college can be a challenge, but it is achievable with the right coping mechanisms. Here are a few to consider:


In order to know if you are coping with the changes of college in a healthy way, you have to be able to check-in with yourself and notice how stress is affecting you. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping a journal in order to track your sleep, eating habits, exercise frequency, energy levels, emotional state and other aspects of your life that can be impacted by  too much stress.

Distress often leads to the worsening of mental health symptoms, so make sure to monitor your symptoms as best as you can if you live with a mental illness. It may be helpful to create a symptom tracker to use at least once a week. You can do this by writing a list of all of the symptoms you normally experience and then rate how severe each symptom is each week. Make sure to write in any new symptoms that may pop up—they may be the result of too much stress.

Build a network of support

Having a strong support network is helpful for any person, but especially for someone living with a mental health condition who is undergoing new challenges and a substantial amount of change. Just the act of talking through the cause of your distress can make you feel better. Your support network may even be able to help you come up with a plan of action to reduce your stress.

A network of support comes in many forms and it’s up to you what would be the most helpful: a mental health professional or counselor of some sort, family members living in the area, roommates and suitemates in your dorm/apartment, other members of a club/group/organization you are involved with, teammates or people you connect with in your classes. You can also check to see if your school has a NAMI on Campus club, which would be a great place to start when building a network of support.

There are so many places to meet and bond with people in college. You are surrounded by people your own age, and it’s important to have at least one person you can talk to and confide in.

Establish a ritual

Doing an activity ritualistically can help us feel calm even when we’re under pressure. A study published in the journal of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews states that ritualistic behavior evolved as a method to calm and relieve stress.

Do something every day that brings you back to the present and guides your thoughts away from the stressors in your life. For example, start every morning by having 30 minutes to an hour without screens. Do something you really enjoy such as reading, yoga, dancing, painting, going for a walk or anything else that makes you feel happy.

Practice gratitude

Being grateful for all you have in your life can help you feel happier and less stressed. “Gratitude research is beginning to suggest that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress,” says University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons in an interview with WebMD.

You are receiving a college education—that is something not everyone has the ability to do. Feel appreciative of this opportunity for you to gain knowledge and grow as a person. Practice gratitude with each piece of new information you learn, every interesting lecture you listen to and every insightful discussion you participate in. Education is a big component to having a more fulfilled and successful life, so embrace your college experience with an open mind and a thankful perspective.

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