Out of the Stress Zone

As student pile more on to their plates, how do they deal with the pressure?

October 25, 2011  | 7 min read

Francis, a junior at Pepperdine, keeps a daunting schedule. When he’s not studying for his major in organizational communication and a minor in industrial organizational psychology, he is copresident of the Black Student Association, treasurer of the microfinance club, a student worker in the admissions office, and a participant in convocation organization and mentoring programs. He rarely has time to rest, let alone stop and reflect on whether or not he might be overdoing it.

“I don’t consider these to be huge projects, but once you make a list of all of them . . .” he says, trailing off as he contemplates his workload. “I don’t like disappointing people, and they don’t like to be disappointed. I set the bar so high and don’t want to perform below it. I think sometimes I just set unrealistic expectations for myself that become a stress factor.”

Stress on college campuses has become an increasingly discussed problem in recent years, says Connie Horton (’82), director of the Pepperdine Student Counseling Center, especially as students try to squeeze in more and more commitments to a day. The type of workload experienced by Francis is not uncommon for students at Pepperdine’s five schools, and students nationwide, who pile high their extracurricular activities to stay busy and pad their resumes.

“This can lead to an inability to concentrate, sleep disturbance, feeling overwhelmed—like they just can’t handle it anymore, like they are trying to carry too many bricks, and it’s just . . . too heavy,” says Horton, who oversees a team of professional counselors providing a free, confidential service to students who need someone to talk to. “When you ask them what they could do differently, at first they are locked into thinking that this is just the way it has to be: ‘I have to be a double major, I have to graduate by . . .’ To which I like to ask, ‘How’s that working out for you?’”

The statistics from a review of Pepperdine students conducted by the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) II last spring show that it’s not working very well at all—34.2 percent of students actually identified stress as a factor affecting their individual academic performance, and a breakdown of more specific stress factors yielded higher percentages. For example, 87 percent reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do, 86 percent felt exhausted specifically not because of physical activity, and 53 percent felt overwhelming anxiety. Horton adds that in a highly selective school like Pepperdine, a lot of students’ pressure to achieve is self- driven, or for undergraduates, comes as an extension of their high school identities.

Connie Horton

“Many of them were top of the class as high school students and now they are with others who were top of their classes, so they are trying to make sure they stay there—and part of it is good and legitimate since they are trying to just work hard. But stress is almost a badge of accomplishment, along with the related symptoms or sacrifices. I’ll hear one say, ‘I’m not sleeping at all,’ to which another will reply, ‘I’m sleeping four hours a day, that’s just the way it has to be,’ and another will come back with, ‘Oh four hours, I don’t even get that!’”

Horton notes that the drive to maximize extracurricular and pre- professional experience while maintaining a top GPA at the same time—though laudable in a competitive market—can have the opposite of the desired effect when applying for the next stage of the educational or career ladder. “I’ve been on the admissions committees of a graduate school and frankly sometimes a 4.0 scares me a little bit. I wonder what they’re not willing to try. I tell them once in graduate school to hurry up and get their first B so that they can get on with training and learning.”

One of the repercussions of stress “one- upmanship” is that students can be left with the sense that being stressed to the breaking point is normal and that struggling means something is wrong with them. This thinking can lead to negative coping behaviors, such as self harming (according to 5.9 percent of students), prescription drug abuse (11.9 percent), and, of course, alcohol abuse, which is overwhelmingly more of a problem for male students than females, who tend to be more comfortable discussing their stress issues.

“Learning how to regulate emotion is a skill and often I think men don’t really have that skill,” says Robert Scholz, assistant director and alcohol/drug program coordinator at the Student Counseling Center. He adds that, left unchecked, stressful emotions can build until the student begins suffering panic attacks or major depressive episodes, or they become reliant upon unhealthy ways of managing the emotions, such as alcohol abuse. “The good news is that it is a skill, and we can begin to help men identify and begin to learn ways to cope with their emotions, because often they’ve spent 18 years listening to the belief that they need to be strong and not feel.”

“I guess one reason I keep quiet about things is simply because that is the way I’ve been raised—to ‘man up’ and be tough,” agrees Francis, who says that his preferred method of stress management is to take a few hours to be by himself, listening to music or reading. He says he’s in a transitional period in his life of opening up to the possibility of talking about his struggles, with a counselor as well as friends. “It’s a process and I am learning to take advantage of those resources. I know not to let it get too bad, but to talk to friends or counselors so I don’t have to deal with everything alone,” he says.

Fellow student “Joan” is a student-athlete trying to balance a busy volleyball schedule with her schoolwork, facing pressure not only in the classroom, but also to perform on the court, practice with her team, and keep fit on her own time. She admits she sometimes “freaks out and start panicking” when she confronts her obligations. “I think students are definitely too stressed,” says Joan. “We all have so many expectations to live up to and work to do, but at the same time we want to have a good college experience. I just try to realize that it’s going to take a lot of time and I just have to set aside time to do it; I plan my schedule on a calendar.”

Planning might just sound like one more thing on the proverbial to-do list, but Scholz confirms that “managing stress is not about eliminating it from your life necessarily, but about developing tools to manage it. And when possible, to find ways to prevent it from reaching intolerable levels.”

One way students can manage is by planning strategies to actively avoid stressful situations. “It’s good to be aware and intentional about how stress is affecting you and protect yourself,” says Horton, who earned a master’s degree in psychology from Cal State Fullerton and her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. “To use a personal example, when I went to take my license exam, I knew there would be all these neurotic psychologists nervous before the exam. Even though it was in a big hotel, I decided to eat in my room to not be around panic. And the next morning, I purposefully went in at the last minute to get registered, but sure enough in the hallway the other psychologists were asking each other specific details. I knew not to put myself in that stressful situation.”

A strong sense of community is also one of the best medicines for stress, she adds. On top of all his commitments, Francis is an international student from Uganda, coping with his workload while separated from his family by two continents, an ocean, and a hemisphere. He struggles with the distance, saying it adds additional stress but, like most students, he relies on his community of friends as a surrogate family. Joan agrees that she and her friends keep each other strong, saying she always tries “to find time for the people who mean the most” to her.

Horton states that friends are usually the first ones to notice if a fellow student is struggling, and that friend referrals account for the largest number of students who visit the counseling center for support. “It’s okay to say to a friend, ‘You’ve tried managing this on your own, but why don’t you talk to someone, you’re miserable!’ That’s what we’re here for; that’s why we made it free.”

Open to all undergraduate and graduate students, the Counseling Center offers individual and small group counseling, consultations for friend referrals, and medication counseling; it also hosts outreach and prevention programs on campus on a range of topics, stress included. In the 2010–11 year, graduate students comprised 23 percent of the center’s clients, as they face stressors similar to undergraduates as well as additional concerns like more advanced careers and family responsibilities.

“They are increasingly focused on the world outside the classroom,” observes Nivla Fitzpatrick, assistant director of the Counseling Center. “A graduate student may have more of an eye towards how their symptoms of anxiety will affect their job, family, and potential for success. But they’re also usually more motivated to attain a sense of relief from their concern. On the whole, they tend to be more eager and persistent about accessing resources that will work for them.”

Despite all the negative language surrounding stress, Horton emphasizes that it’s not always a bad thing, per se, and that in small doses stress can be utilized for positive, affirming results. “Stress by definition really has to do with being stretched or challenged. Some people use the metaphor of metal and a bridge: when it’s stretched to a certain point it is at its strongest, but you don’t want to stress it too much so that it breaks,” she explains, adding, “It’s good to push yourself.”

If the balance between good stress and bad stress becomes too heavily weighted on the “bad” side, Horton advises students—and all those who need the advice—to deal with it as early as possible, perhaps setting up a regular walk with a friend or a visit to a therapist. “If you’re dealing with stress and you can’t sleep, or when you’re so stressed that you can’t think and are crabby and agitated . . . just don’t wait until it gets to that point. Talk to somebody. Let’s get this sorted out.”

ON THE WEB: seaver.pepperdine.edu/studentlife/healthcounseling


Connie Horton's Tips for Stress Management

  • The director of the Student Counseling Center offers advice for students on the brink.
  • Physical coping is one of the most important things: getting enough sleep, eating healthfully, and of course exercise is a huge stress relief. Aerobic exercise multiple times a week can be very helpful.
  • Social support has shown repeatedly to help people remain resilient under stress. If you are so busy that you don’t have time to get coffee with a friend for a half hour, something is wrong. Attend to your social relationships.
  • Cultivate gratitude. Increasingly, studies in the field of Positive Psychology show that simple practices, such as keeping a daily gratitude journal, can make a significant difference in emotional wellbeing.
  • At Pepperdine, we recognize a spiritual dimension. Frame your thinking to remember that you are loved no matter what, that God is with you, that there is grace, and that none of us has to be perfect.