Young people often do not find college life a happy experience. Rather, they find it a mixed bag of rewarding and painful events.
College places young people on their own in a new environment. While this can be an exciting adventure, the students are hit with problems of self-identity, career choice, reshaping their relationships with their parents and developing new peer relationships. These challenges may cause considerable discomfort, adding to the stress inherent with college itself -- the number of courses to be mastered, tests to be passed and papers to be written. These exams and papers for many students are stress points, with anxiety often peaking at exam time.
In a study we performed, we found that students who were experiencing academic stress reported higher levels of general anxiety. These students also reported more physical complaints that can be indicators of stress, such as nausea, weakness, skin flare-ups and diarrhea. They tended to report that they were feeling somewhat depressed. These students more often experienced feelings of defeat, felt lonely and said they wanted to find help in dealing with their problems. They reported more instances in which such down moods persisted at the same intensity all through the day.
We found that male students who were experiencing higher levels of stress tended to report more difficulties in their interpersonal relations, and found themselves acting more defensively, appeared harder to get along with and tended to feel and openly express anger. This reaction was less apparent in the female students, who seemed to have contained the tension within themselves. The female students, however, reported a relatively high number of physical symptoms.
There are a number of effective things that both the student and their parents can do to help them deal with the problems of college life.
For parents, it is important to be aware that college can cause considerable stress. It is important for parents to recognize any tendency on their own part to entangle their children's academic progress with their own needs, ambitions and frustrations. When parents view their childrens' academic deficiencies as a blow to their own egos, it can produce an emotional strain for the parent as well as intensify the pressure on the child.
Since college often entails sacrifices on the part of the parents, they should expect their children to take their studies seriously. From the standpoint of the student's mental health, however, it seems important that when the student has made a serious effort, getting less than excellent grades would not bring on a feeling of loss of parental love and respect.
We believe that the role of the parent can usually be supportive, perhaps summarized in the statement, "Is there anything I can do to help?" This might be an offer to provide counseling or tutoring or just a willing ear for a son or daughter who is not having an easy time.
Academic success depends largely on three factors: ability, motivation and technique. Since almost all colleges have entrance requirements, acceptance for admission implies that with sustained effort, most students have the potential to graduate. Problems with motivation often can be suspected when performance drops.
Many students have doubts and uncertainties about their long-range goals, and some students may feel that college is a wasted effort. If such confusion exists, it may be time to look inwardly and examine one's goals and objectives. Discussions with friends or counselors at the university counseling center may help clarify the goals, and that may restore motivation.
Ability and desire to achieve in themselves do not guarantee academic success. The student needs good study techniques to learn and effectively communicate his or her knowledge. If a student lacks these skills, he or she is at a disadvantage and should check around the university for programs offering assistance.
If a student suffers from the jitters while taking a test, there are some procedures that may be helpful in controlling this anxiety. For example, some psychologists and psychiatrists use desensitization, a technique that teaches deep muscle relaxation and exercises in which the student imagines the fear-provoking event. For some students, this technique can reduce the amount of anxiety they feel. Help of this kind is often available in counseling centers on university campuses.
Finally, the student would do well to place the academic experience in perspective. Not everyone is talented in academic pursuits. A person may have more aptitude in other directions, such as music, art, social skills, sports, business or mechanics. The student feeling overwhelmed by academic pressures should recognize that if he or she fails to get that A in English literature, the sun will continue to rise and set and the student's chances of a blissful existence probably will be every bit as good as the student who got that A. Comparing oneself with others can be a miserable trap and, in the long run, is much less important than figuring out what kind of career and life style will be best.
In college, one should strive for excellence, but when one feels sick about the situation, it may be time to reevaluate what one is doing and consider making changes to reduce the tension.