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Making the most of college today has a lot to do with students’ approaches to managing stress.

When I meet with students for academic coaching, they often tell me about areas of life where they are attempting to achieve in new environments. Students experience stress because they’re doing lots of things they’ve never done before. Each semester they’re in new classes with new professors. They’re meeting new peers all the time, even beyond the first semester. For some students, it can also feel like the stakes get higher throughout the college experience—academically, interpersonally, or vocationally. The same contexts can feel new as students encounter new challenges.

Students experience stress when they perceive a situation as high-stakes in nature and when they focus on not knowing the outcome more than how they will proceed.

Students’ stress can be prompted by positive or negative events. Positive-event stress, like performance anxiety, occurs as a result of exciting opportunities, like getting to travel for a team tournament, being selected for a peer leadership role, or getting a spot in a selective academic program. Negative-event stress, like missing a deadline or a misstep in a social interaction, is inevitable. The college experience is a microcosm of life, and mistakes will happen even when students are mindfully engaged.

The good news is: students are better equipped to achieve under pressure and to reduce the likelihood of missteps and mistakes when they know how to manage stress. When students mindfully manage the high-stakes situations they encounter as they advance and the positive- and negative-event stressors that naturally arise in the college years, they’re more likely to thrive and make the most of the college experience.

Here is a three-step approach you can keep in mind when your student encounters stress.

1. Deconstruct the stress.

When I talk with students in coaching meetings, we start by deconstructing their stress. What are the root causes of the overwhelm? When did the overwhelm begin? What precisely is most triggering and why? Ask why five times to confirm the micro-problems that can be addressed, like getting clarity on an assignment or rethinking a narrow view of success for the semester.

When students can identify precisely what is most stressful, they’re ready to use their agency and do something about it. Even taking a small action can build self-efficacy and create momentum.

2. Be creative.

When their stress is deconstructed, students are better able to be creative. Creativity is necessary for solving the micro-problems they identified above.

Students solve micro-problems every day: Do I use this free hour to study for my midterm or to work on the paper due the same day? Do I prioritize friends tonight or choose to sleep because I have work in the morning? Should I join this student organization or the other, or both? There are a million choices students make each day that shape their lives and success in college. They may or may not feel like they’re solving problems and being creative. Yet when they approach any of these scenarios with energy and curiosity, they are doing precisely that. They are using the elements at hand to create a way forward.

In deconstructing the stress and tapping into creativity, students allow their brains to settle, rather than panic, and are thus better positioned to learn, contribute, and perform.

3. Cultivate mindfulness.

In her recent book, Real Change, Sharon Salzberg describes her use of “mindfulness” and “lovingkindness” to manage the typical responses to stress: fight, flight, or freeze. Salzberg writes:

“We practice [mindfulness and loving kindness] in order to cultivate a sense of agency, to understand that a range of responses is open to us. We practice to remember to breathe, to have the space in the midst of adversity to recall our values, what we really care about—and to find support in our inner strength, and in one another” (p. 10).

As students move through a stressful situation, they can cultivate mindfulness through reflection or meditation which leaves them better equipped to encounter future challenges. When they engage in this continual development, they are not only better equipped to succeed in college, but also in their lives beyond.

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About Jennifer Tharp, Ph.D.

Dr. Jennifer Tharp is an alumna of Azusa Pacific University where she earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education. Dr. Tharp teaches at the graduate level and consults nationally in the area of student success. Visit Dr. Jennifer Tharp's website.