Causes of Stress Among College Students: Exploring the Daily Life

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Updated: Aug 23, 2023
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Stress is the natural response of the human body that happens when challenges come by. As college students, they are bombarded with loads of stress on a daily basis. Starting college can hold a whole new experience, and it can be scary without the safety net of family, friends, or guardians to come home to days away from a support structure that loves you no matter what.

Stress and Its Effects on College Students

Students are exposed to stress by various factors.

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When they are exposed to chronic stress or high levels of stress for a long period, their ability to learn, memorize, and have good academic performances are interfered with regardless of age and grades. Stress also affects their mental, physical, and emotional health. Parents and teachers may help students from chronic stress by learning and understanding common stressors that students might have harmful effects that need to be addressed. This raises the question of what effects these stressors have on academic success and health for college students.

In college, students are the future of our society; they represent our society’s investment for the future. Thus, their mental health is an important factor not only for them in their own right but also for society, as they are the ones who contribute to a larger part of society. Think about it many college students are stuck in a loophole balancing classes, GPA, finals, personal life, and finance, leaving them feeling overwhelmed. Once reaching college, they may have experienced stress during earlier years. However, college stress can be particularly difficult for newcomers. This leaves many to try balancing a whole new territory of the unknown filled with new responsibilities and experiences. One of the best things students can do is learn how to identify what is causing their stress and develop healthy ways of dealing with or alleviating pressure points. Student academic learning and performance can be affected by many factors and here are such as academics, behavior, and sleep.

Academic Stress and Sleep Deprivation

Most stress comes from for students in college is related to the academic portion of college. In a journal IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, they found that 55% of students nationally claimed their biggest stressor to be academic in nature (Pariat, Rynjah, Joplin, & Kharjana, 2014). Much of the academic stress comes from the expectations of family and teachers or a large amount of coursework. It affects countless students. Some students also experience huge amounts of anxiety over taking a test, even though they study for hours, knowing it back and forth. But when they get to the test, sitting down with nothing but their thoughts and the clock ticking down to answer the questions can be stressful. This brings them a large amount of stress to do good in school to get that GPA for their major.

Another stress that students face is behavioral stress. What is meant by behavioral stress is the conditions that play in influence a person’s thoughts and actions. This is happening in response to a stimulus in the environment. For example, during this sometimes bewildering life transition for students, they are shuffling to get situated in all these new challenges. The student’s behaviors in highly stressful situations weaken their individual ability to cope. As stress hormones increase, they can temporarily halt their appetite or, in long-term exposure, lead to cravings(Pariat et al., 2014). Some students would be eating pizza or ice cream after doing a test or just an everyday thing. Some students may go into alcohol or drugs to escape the effect(Pariat et al., 2014). This brings many students a sense of relief, not feeling so stressed out after drinking or using drugs. While behavioral signs are different for everyone, some common symptoms are being absent or late, eating unhealthy, engaging in risky behaviors, showing signs of addiction, and contemplating suicide.

We all know that an adult needs about eight hours of sleep; however, in the college experience, some “pull an all-nighter” before the examination to study. The article “Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students” explains how chronic sleep deprivation impairs academic performance, mood regulation, and driving. Most college students are sleep deprived, and 70.6 percent are getting less than eight hours of sleep (Hershner & Chervin, 2014). This here affects their learning, memory, and sleep cycle. Sleep, which we all know, is very important to a human being. It gives us a recharge and a refresh for the next day. However, if they are sleep deprived, it compromises their mind and body, not feeling our all today, only making it harder to focus.

Financial Stress: Balancing Education and Finances

In addition to being on their own and having to deal with academics, behavioral issues, and even being sleep deprived, they may also be on their own financially, which can be the most burden type of stress for many. Everything from rent and food to gas and tuition is now their financial responsibility. They might eventually look for a part-time job to fit into their already stressful college schedule. In an article from Scholarship America, Matt Konrad said, “Nearly 60 percent said they worry about having enough money to pay for school, while half are concerned about paying their monthly expenses. Thirty-two percent of students reported neglecting their studies at least sometimes because of the money they owed. The number of students feeling financial stress is striking” (Konrad, 2015). All these expenses pull many students to drop out, losing their ability to focus on academics and forcing them to struggle with their basic needs.

Physiological Effects of Stress

With regards to factors of stress for college students, here is how stress affects the body of college students. When students regularly experience high amounts of stress, their brain recognizes this is a normal state of feeling. The brain adapts, and this becomes the baseline feeling. However, over time it can overload hormones such as cortisol(stress hormone). The bottom line is long-term stress increases the risk of many problems. Stress affects the physiological system of humans in the body, including the nervous system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, muscular system, and gastrointestinal system (The American Institute of Stress[AIS], 2018). For students, many don’t feel the effects of stress on their bodies, thinking this is normal. According to a 2008 mental health study by the Associated Press, eight in ten college students say they have sometimes or frequently experienced stress in their daily lives over the past three months. This is an increase of 20 percent from a survey five years ago (AIS, 2018). This shows as the years go by that, college is not getting any easier. The harder it gets in college, the bigger the toll your body takes.

Nervous System: The Chain Reaction of Stress

To begin with, the nervous system or also called the brain is where some stress happens as a result of a short-term event, for example, homework in school or an upcoming test. Others could have recurring conditions, such as having a job, thinking of finals, or personal life changes. When that happens, it makes stress long and intense, which can be called “chronic” stress(AIS, 2018). It can be problematic for the functioning of the body and the brain. Stress is a chain reaction, and when fired, the amygdala, the inner center of the brain that contributes to emotion, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus or also called the control center communicates to the body a flight or flight response(Yaribeygi, Panahi, Sahraei, Johnston, & Sahebkar, 2017). Which makes the body increase heart rate, increase senses, more oxygen, and a rush of adrenaline(AIS, 2018). Finally, a hormone called cortisol, also called the stress hormone, is released, which helps restore lost energy. It results in stress levels going down, as well as cortisol, and the body returns to normal. However, if chronic stress is there, too much cortisol is released, and the brain decreases its ability to function. Which kills brain cells, reducing the size of the prefrontal cortex, the area for memory and learning (Yaribeygi et al., 2017). For many students, it makes it harder to focus and really function to get those grades.

Respiratory System: Breathlessness Amid Stress

In the respiratory system, also called the lungs, stress can trigger you to breathe harder, thinking of all the problems or challenges you are about to face during college. Stressors can trigger an asthma attack, where the muscles in the airway between the nose and lungs constrict(Yaribeygi et al., 2017). The vessels close up more, and this is dangerous, especially for people who have asthma already having a hard time breathing. Stress also causes rapid breathing that can go in a cycle of hyperventilation, anxiety, to more hyperventilation, causing a panic attack. Some or many students look at a test or even homework that can cause them to have a panic attack that could lead to not doing any school work.

Cardiovascular System: Heart Under Pressure

In the cardiovascular system, also called the heart, the fear of failure, the days before exams, and other students stressors all increase heart rate, blood vessels dilate, increasing blood pressure for acute stress where the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol act as messengers for these effects(Yaribeygi et al., 2017). The heart pumps faster-sending blood to your muscles, which also leads to a rise in blood pressure. Once the acute stress episode has passed, the body returns to its normal state. However, chronic stress causes damage to the cardiovascular system. Experiencing prolonged stress can contribute to long-term problems for the heart and blood vessels. It takes a toll on the body and leads up to a stroke or a heart attack.

Muscular System: Tension and Strain

In the muscular system, many students experience tension headaches with neck pain. Stress makes our muscles contract and tenses up from finishing a project on a tight schedule. Their muscles tense up to protect and also relax after the stress is relieved. When they stress, their posture is hunched, their shoulders tighten, and their jaw clenched. All of these symptoms can lead up to a chronic tightening of muscles which strains and overuse of the muscle group that leads to pain. The stress hormones promote blood supply to muscles to trigger contraction can be beneficial in emergencies(Yaribeygi et al., 2017). However, in chronic stress, it can be hyperstimulated to the point of breakdown. This can lead to migraines which will only add to your stress while already having so many other stressors stacked on for college students.

Gastrointestinal System: Stress’s Impact on Digestion

In the gastrointestinal system, when stress happens, let’s say for going up to a speech or just thinking about upcoming deadlines, their mindset and the way you feel affect the gut or stomach. Stress can cause less digestive secretion in the stomach that is used to digest food, causing nausea, stomach levels can increase, causing acid reflux or heartburn, and the contractions in digestion can increase or decrease, causing diarrhea or constipation(Yaribeygi et al., 2017). All these symptoms can leave an opening of a compromised immune system where infection can happen easily and alter our mood.

Positive Aspects of Stress

On the other hand, stress isn’t all that bad. As we know, stress is a part of everyday life, and it’s kind of hard to avoid. For example, we can think of a guitar where the strings are pulled tight, even at rest. As you go to play that guitar, you’re putting added stress on that string. When you pluck the string hard with too much stress, the sound will go awry. However, plucking it with just enough stress, the guitar makes a lovely sound. Stress is the same way. If we are met with a moderate amount of stress, it can become like music in our lives. Although stress is seen as a bad thing to many, a little stress can be beneficial to boost brain power and immunity and helps them grow up.


One of the reasons stress is not bad is it, in some cases, boosts memory and concentration for the brain from low to moderate levels of stress. Stress makes a chemical, neurotrophins, that help strengthen the connections for neurons in the brain. This flood of neurotrophins helps their brain function at peak performance. A 2013 University of California study by Robert Sanders found that rats with moderate levels of stress actually had higher levels of learning, memory, and brain function when performing some tasks. Another experiment found that rats in stressful situations had an increase in a hormone called glutamine which helps improve memory. Stress can help our brains work more efficiently. It can help with performance and boost memory in some cases. It can also make them more alert if the stress is short-lived (Sanders, 2015). This can be beneficial for an upcoming exam or test, helping if stress is kept leveled to help learn and memorize.

Another reason is stress also naturally puts the body in a state of protection to prepare you for any injuries that might occur from the stressor. Because of this, stress makes interleukins, which are chemicals that help regulate the immune system. This can be useful for short-term bursts of protection. For example, one study found that people with low levels of stress before surgery had faster recovery times than those with high or low levels of stress. A 2012 Stanford study found that stress caused a boost in the number of immune cells in the bloodstream. Another study found that acute stress released so many immune defense cells that it was considered as potent as a vaccine (Goldman, 2012). Nevertheless, it’s important to note that stress depresses the immune system in the long term. Think about it if your body is always in a fight-or-flight response, your organ processes shut down and can’t perform appropriately. That’s when disease steps in. However, in short-term stress, it protects from infection and serious injury. For college students, if they keep stress at a moderate level, they won’t have long-term effects on their bodies.

The last reason is stress can make them grow from the kids they used to be. As they go to school, they start to face many challenges forcing them to learn skills for future stressors, having to lose those old habits. Before high school, teachers warned them about how college professors would be scary and strict but, later, found them ended up being the opposite. They weren’t told that when missing a class, they have to get notes from the person who sits next to them, who probably skipped as well. Their parents are not there to pick them up from the office when they fake sick to get out of class, they don’t bring their homework they forgot to school, they don’t get an allowance for doing chores, and their mom is not there to pack a lunch for them. They are not kids anymore. This is the time when decisions matter; they affect every part of their lives. These challenging experiences that they will be faced in college will push them forward to be more productive and resilient in changing their old ways to become an adult as they progress through college.

Works Cited

  1. Hershner, S. D., & Chervin, R. D. (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and Science of Sleep, 6, 73-84.
  2. The American Institute of Stress (2018). How stress affects the body.
  3. Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI Journal, 16, 1057-1072.
  4. Sanders, R. (2015). The positive side of stress. University of California – Berkeley.
  5. Goldman, R. (2012). Stress as powerful as a vaccine. Stanford Medicine News Center.
  6. Line, A. (2021, February 23). Countries with the Strictest Immigration Laws. Insider.
  7. Villa, L. (2020, June 5). Mexican Drug Cartels Smuggling Cocaine, Meth, and Fentanyl. NBC News.
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Causes of Stress Among College Students: Exploring the Daily Life. (2023, Jun 17). Retrieved from