In the twenty-first century, the pursuit of higher education has become commonplace for youths across the globe. While college years are supposed to be the best years of a person’s life, many students making the transition from high school to college experience high levels of stress during these critical years. Stress refers to a feeling that people have when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with demands (Nordqvist, 2017). For college students, demands can be related to their studies, finances, work and social relationships, which can be major causes of stress. Occasional stress is unavoidable and small amounts of stress can even have a positive effect on a student, pushing them further when faced with a difficult task. Students respond to stressors in different ways and may not find the same situation to be stressful.
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However, high levels of stress accumulating over a prolonged period can take a toll on a student’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, causing adverse effects on their academic performance. The American College Health Association reported that stress had negatively inhibited 34.4% of college student’s academic achievement over the past 12 months (American College Health Association, 2016). This paper aims to evaluate the effects of stress caused by academic, financial and social demands on college students and how they can negatively impact academic success. Lead to student burnout, impacting academic success.
The first cause of stress for college students is the burden of academic demands. Some first year students struggle in the first few months of making this academic transition as they struggle with taxing college schedules and information overload. Unlike high school, college courses are taught at a faster pace. Lectures may move at warp speed, rendering students at a loss on what their professor is teaching and thus failing to take comprehensive notes. With the heavier content of college courses on top of the overflowing amounts of coursework, students are often overwhelmed. 67% of students claim academics to be the most significant cause of stress in a survey of 1,000 students conducted in 2015 by Mental health.net. In addition, for many students, there may be the added pressure of having to live up to expectations placed on them by their families and perhaps by themselves, as they would have been relatively good students in high school. Thus, if they are not skilled in time management, the pressure of keeping pace with their academic pursuits may result in students’ experiencing a great deal of stress during their college years.
Financial worries are another important source of stress for college students, on top of their academic work. Heading into college life, adolescents begin to grapple with new financial realities. Many students take up loans to finance their tuition fees. To pay for their rent and other personal expenses, many students have to balance a job with their studies. According to a survey conducted by Citibank and Seventeen magazine in 2016, 4 out of 5 students work their way through college, with the average student spending 19 hours weekly working for the entire school year (New Citi/Seventeen Survey, 2013). Those who combine work with studies are often plagued with exhaustion as they have to spend grueling hours working and end up being too tired to complete assignments or study for examinations. As many college students are only able to secure jobs with entry-level wages, they may be falling behind on their rent payments. Fiscal anxieties can surmount to tremendous stress for students who already find it challenging to balance the multitude of responsibilities in college.
The third source of stress comes from having to establish social relationships in a new environment. For many college students who are living away from their home for the first time, adapting to a new independent lifestyle can be a stressful experience. Without the support from their families, many students become anxious venturing into this new chapter of their lives. In an unfamiliar environment, students may isolate themselves instead of reaching out and meeting new people. Especially for those who are naturally shy, making new friends becomes a daunting task. The pressure of to be well-liked while adjusting to new social norms can be challenging to many students, many of whom may still be going through the throes of their teenage years. There are many societal expectations, ranging from how to dress to conforming to social groups that can cause adolescents distress in trying to keep up. It is not easy for adolescents to find time for interpersonal relationships and could cause them to prioritize attending social gatherings over spending time on their college course work. These new transitions which students have to make on a social level is a critical stressor among many students in college.
When provoked by these three main stressors, college students may experience an array of physical, mental and emotional reactions that can affect their academic performance. Eating healthily, getting exercise, and having enough sleep are often the first to be neglected as college students try to keep up with the myriad of demands on their time. Many adopt poor diets that are high in fat, caffeine and sugar out of convenience. However, such foods may further induce stress as it promotes mid day crashes in youths. A poor diet also takes a toll on the immune system of students making them more susceptible to various illnesses. Even a simple cold can cause students to miss their lectures, which could be detrimental to their quest for knowledge. Thus, stress could cause a student to neglect their health, which would negatively affect their studies.
With a heavy workload students tend to neglect sleep as well. Burning the midnight oil has become common practice but when it becomes daily occurrences, it can lead to sleep deprivation. This can turn into a vicious cycle where studying late into the night with insufficient sleep causes a student to feel fatigued in the day, resulting in decreased cognitive function, alertness and memory, leading to an even slower learning process. The high level of stress and exhaustion reduces the students’ ability to concentrate in class, becomes less inquisitive and impairs their retention of information as well as their ability to think critically. Consequently, it becomes harder for them to absorb new information and to memorize facts for examinations.
Anxiety arises when students have worrisome thoughts on a daily basis, be it about meeting deadlines or paying the bills. Prolonged anxiety causes students to become chronically distressed and many may experience higher irritability and experience loss of control over their emotions. Some students experience mental health issues like increases in mood swings where they may fly into temper rages over minute problems. Other students become despondent when they feel that nothing ever goes as planned and all their efforts seem futile. They could place a lot of focus on their failures and consistently think about all the problems that surround them. This results in many having self-defeating thoughts which in turn could lead to lower self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in his or her innate ability to achieve goals. Self-efficacy beliefs affect individuals’ selection, purposes, emotional reactions, effort, adjustment and resistance. Therefore, high self-efficacy helps create calmness when facing with hard assignments and activities. On the contrary, low self-efficacy leads to seeing problems harder than what they really are. A study (citation) found that there is a significant correlation between low self-efficacy and student burnout.
Yang (2004) define student burnout thus: ‘‘students in the learning process, because of course stress, course load or other psychological factors, display a state of emotional exhaustion, a tendency to depersonalization, and a feeling of low personal accomplishment.’’ Some might begin to lose motivation and purpose, they may feel like they have nothing more to give and have no desire in attending classes. Burnout leads to lower interest in studies and productivity (Florida National University, 2018). With reduced productivity, students may give only the bare minimum in terms of quality for assignments and may fail to study adequately for tests and examinations. Burnout significantly increases ones’ forgetfulness (Stupart, 2018). A good memory is crucial to a students’ academic success as the inability to recall the information taught to answer examination questions would result in subpar examination grades. Consequently, together with the missed assignment deadlines, students could end up failing their courses, eventually even dropping out of college.
As there are many different stressors that can be the leading cause of burnout for many students, it is important that one identifies the main cause and apply the relevant methods to counter these pressures. To deal with academic stressors the key is to resist perfectionist thinking and set realistic goals (Cohen, 2018). Understanding ones limit and having good time management skills can enable a student to have a clear idea of what their priorities are and focus on completing one task at a time. Planning a schedule and sticking to it can help students be on top of projects and assignments. It is especially useful when examinations roll around the corner, a revision schedule can help keep students on track.
Students must also learn to avoid procrastination as it may further worsen their current situation as their days become unproductive due to unclear priorities and goals. Hectic and disorganized days lead to ineffective studies as students struggle with completing small tasks and neglect completing important assignments. Factoring in adequate sleep and self care is also imperative to having a healthy mindset. Stress reducing activities are such as exercise and meditation can aid in helping the body unwind as positive endorphins are released. College students should also seek help from college counselors when faced with distress. Those with financial difficulty could seek financial aid and advice on managing money.
For most young adults, college life will be riddled with stress. Students are likely to encounter various stressors which can test their ability to cope with balancing a heavy academic load, financial responsibilities and adapting to a new environment. When these pressures are left to manifest, they can in turn affect a student physically, mentally and emotionally, ultimately undermining their academic success.
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