How to keep stress during college from sabotaging your future

College life can be stressful as students try to juggle schoolwork, employment, internships, extracurricular activities and their social lives — all while living on their own, many for the first time. And, while the pandemic added an extra layer of stress for all of us, young adults were hit harder than other generations.

“Even though older people may be hardest hit by the actual biological and physical problems that come with Covid, younger people are much harder hit by the mental health problems of Covid,” said Dr. Owens, the campus mental health assistant director and psychologist for Farmingdale State College.

In a 2021 survey from the American Psychological Association, 46% of Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic, compared to 33% of Gen Xers, 31% of millennials, and 28% of boomers.

Half of college students reported experiencing anxiety and/or depression in a recent study of nearly 33,000 college students across the country conducted by researchers at Boston University. And 83% of students said their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance.

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Students had difficulties with attention, focus and organization due to increased screen time from hybrid and remote online learning during the pandemic, said Dr. Ryan Patel, an Ohio State University psychiatrist and American College Health Association mental health chair-elect.

Managing isolation is another issue among students that he describes as a “twofold factor.”

“There are some students who are isolated as a result of the pandemic and then the opposite side of students thinking about being on campus and being around others and having some anxiety about social situations and things like that,” Patel said.

Dr. Owens feels that the removal of social activities, such as sororities, fraternities, sports and even late-night dorm room floor conversations, negatively affected students as well.

“A lot of students had the college experience that they were promised — that their parents had talked about for many, many years — torn out from under them,” Dr. Owens said. “So, they've been asked to deal with a lot in a very short period of time.”

“I realized I was really overwhelmed when I couldn't remember the last time I had really eaten a meal with my family, even though I've moved back home,” said Taylor Potter, a graduate student at the University of Georgia. “I'm constantly doing schoolwork or internship work for the multitude of internships and jobs that I have right now.”

Taylor Potter, a graduate student at the University of Georgia, Class of 2023Source: Justin Harper

In addition to being a full-time student, Potter worked five jobs during her time as an undergraduate. Now, as a graduate student, she has it down to just two.

Although Potter is thankful to be employed, she still struggles working around a jam-packed schedule.

“It becomes very isolating and overwhelming, knowing that I'm constantly, always, around the clock having to do work and not being able to socialize even with people who are one floor above me,” Potter said.

NYU sophomore Ryan Kawahara is also struggling with a heavy workload. He's a full-time student, works an off-campus part-time job, tutors and works for the NYU newspaper. 

“I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed because I like to take on projects and I like to do a lot of things and I feel like I'm more productive when I'm busy. But it's definitely daunting when I am looking at a list of things I need to do,” Kawahara said. “And it's just recently I've been feeling there's just not enough hours in the day.”

Ryan Kawahara, a sophomore at New York UniversitySource: Kent Kawahara

It's easy to get stuck in a never-ending loop of responsibilities, anxiety and stress. But that can take a toll on your mental health, your physical health – and your academic performance. So, it's important to try to manage your stress so it doesn't spiral out of control and affect your future.

An important first step is to acknowledge that you are stressed.

“A lot of times when people are overwhelmed, they don't recognize it until it becomes too much,” said Dr. Patel. “And so, we want to try to recognize it before it gets too much, before the tide is rising too high.”

“It was hard for me to admit that I needed a break because I'm the kind of person who is always like, 'No, I can do it. I can do it all. Let me take that on. Let me just do everything,” Potter said.

Like many students across the nation, Potter dealt with the stressful effects Covid had on her future. Her plans of graduating early last year, studying abroad and attending the Cannes Film Festival plummeted due to the Covid shutdown beginning in March 2020.

“I think I speak for a lot of college students when we say that things just got monumentally more stressful, and they were already monumentally stressful,” Potter said.

Through her experience, Potter offers help to others with similar circumstances.

“So, what advice I have to offer is to kind of take the situation by the reins,” Potter said. “You cannot control the situation necessarily, but you can control how you react to it — how you act in the mess of it all. That's the only thing you really have under your own control, especially in a situation like a global pandemic.”

Get organized

Patel advises students to physically write out all their plans, so they aren't jumbled in their heads.

And, while it may seem daunting at first, Kawahara has tried it and said it's not so intimidating and that the “satisfaction of crossing things off the list is really nice.”

“My dad would always say this to me: 'Get it out of your head because it's much clearer on paper,” Kawahara said.

Potter stays on top of work with the help of Google Calendar and her color-coordinated planner.

“Organization is absolutely key in helping to mitigate symptoms of stress and being overwhelmed,” Potter said.

Self-care is key

Patel says self-care is an important part of managing your stress, including healthy nutrition, proper sleep and regular exercise.

“You know, we're not immune to stressful things happening in our lives. What we can do, however, is manage how our body and mind processes that stress and the things that we can do to help decrease the stress reaction,” said Dr. Patel. “And so self-care is a critical aspect of that.”

And, Potter says she's found it's important to take time out for yourself.

 “You have to keep putting gas in your car in order for it to keep moving. And it's a similar concept to self-care,” Potter said. “Every couple of hundred miles you got to slow down and refuel essentially.”

Some ways Potter implements personal care into her daily life is eating three meals a day, watching her favorite TV shows and taking breaks throughout the day. She also utilizes a reward system to celebrate her accomplishments.

“I also try to take a pause any time something positive or good happens at a benchmark,” Potter said.

Kawahara, who is originally from California's San Francisco Bay Area, avidly runs in the New York City streets to take some of the stress away. Though he admits to still learning how to incorporate self-care in his life, he enjoys watching movies and shows, talking with friends and exploring Manhattan.

In addition, staying focused and taking “things one step at a time” helps Kawahara avoid any unwanted stress. He structures errands around meals to motivate him to work more effectively.

“Also at night, I try to have a cut off. I try not to work past a certain time because I just know that my quality work is going to decline,” Kawahara said.

That is one of the key tips from the American Psychological Association for building resilience to stress – getting a good night's sleep and sticking to a set bedtime.

Learn to say 'no'

And, while it isn't easy to say “no” – sometimes you have to do it.

“I guess you can prevent being overwhelmed by just being selective about how you choose to spend your time, and if it's not something that you really like to be doing, then maybe you don't do that as much,” Kawahara said.

Not only will saying “no” help lighten your workload, it will also give you a better sense of control, which is key to managing stress.

 “I actually had an opportunity to turn something down recently, which I think is a key kind of phrasing there, because being able to turn something down is an opportunity that implies that you have a choice,” Potter said.

Communicate with family and friends

Don't try to go it alone.

The American Psychological Association says it's important to maintain meaningful connections with family, culture and community. You might have left home to go to college, or you might have left college to go back home during the pandemic, but it's important to stay connected with family and friends.

And, when you're not doing well, it's important to communicate with friends, parents or relatives. Let the people around you know that you are feeling pressure. They can help support you.

Dr. Patel said this type of conversation could sound like the following: “You know, when I'm stressed, I might sound more irritable or negative or I might talk about my sleep or anxiety or physical complaints. So, if you notice that in me then you might want to let me know that those are some of the signs that I'm stressed.”

Give yourself a break

Sometimes we get caught up in what we think our perfect life will look like but the truth is, life is never perfect. Especially not in a pandemic. So, keep striving to do great things but also remember to be good to yourself.

“If things aren't going the way you want them to when you're overwhelmed, that's, OK. I think a lot of what we have to keep in mind right now is that a lot of us are not OK and that is OK right now,” Potter said. “Just remember to make sure that you're taking care of yourself, as you would be sure to take care of a friend or a family member who needed your help.”

Ask for help

If you are feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, know that you are not alone. Reach out for help.

Call your university counseling center or health center. Talk to a resident adviser or a professor. They can help connect you with counselors who can help.

There are also a lot of organizations available to help you right now:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)

The American Psychological Association (APA)

The American College Health Association (ACHA)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)

Crisis Text Line (Text HOME to 741741)

Don't hesitate to reach out for help. We all need help sometimes.

CNBC's “College Voices″ is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about getting their college education, managing their own money and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Victoria Bell was an intern with the CNBC Make It digital video department. She is a senior journalism major with a double minor in drama and dance at Hofstra University. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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