Students: Live Stressed And Prosper!
- February 15th, 2011
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The recently released 2010 Freshman Survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found American students are stressed to the hilt and not feeling too good about themselves. The survey prompted a flurry of responses from the media, mostly negative — but Ypulse brings you the view from deep in the trenches. Senior college student and Youth Advisory Board member Camilla argues that being stressed during one’s college years is part of the learning experience that both motivates young people and prepares them for the stress they will inevitably face in the “real world.” I’ll let Camilla explain…
(Remember, to contact our Youth Advisory Board directly, just email them at youthadvisoryboard at ypulse.com… or leave a comment below.)
College students are getting more stressed, which could be a good thing.
A recent survey of college freshman from the Higher Education Research Insitute (HERI) at UCLA found stress levels at an unprecedented high.
Students also have record lows of emotional health; a gender gap is evident, with boys rating their emotional health higher than girls, though both genders have seen a dip in emotional wellbeing. (Note that all measures in this study are self-reported.)
Most media outlets are portraying this as a destructive development among college freshman. There are several complex factors at work here: the sources of stress — spanning social, financial, and academic concerns — and the end results of being a stressed student.
An increased stress level from facing “real world” issues such as workload or financial responsibility in college is an altogether different phenomenon than stress based on extreme outside circumstances (such as a family tragedy) — and not necessarily one that should be discouraged. Chronic extreme stress is bad for you, your brain development, and your memory, but in a less biological sense, acute stress in college, when it might lead to a higher GPA or a better job, doesn’t seem all that destructive, nor something we should fight against. While undoubtedly serious environmental stressors could influence long-term emotional health problems, stress in a university setting often puts students in their most productive emotional states.
I’m not a freshman; my graduation date is approaching with an expedience comparable to the now-extinct Concord (June 2011!), which explains my initial reaction to the study: Freshmen? They haven’t a worry in the world! No doubt stress rises as students get further along in school and closer to graduation when they will have to make their own way in the world. (Unfortunately the study does not track the same group of students over their increasingly-more-stressful years, which might be especially enlightening). I am stressed about exams, about jobs, about internships — but it is this stress that makes me study all day, and (hopefully) survive once I’ve graduated.
Students in high school and college endure a constant barrage of messages about success and their futures — you know, scary stuff. But it is the stuff of dreams as much as it is the stuff of nightmares: learn how to handle stress, and students will undoubtedly be better prepared to survive the countless stressors that confront any human — any animal or plant — during the course of his or her life.
This upward trend of stress in this study was matched by an increase in student’s self-ratings of intelligence and drive; this sudden increase in stress levels could come from a motivation to succeed unique to the current college generation, from a combination of economic stress (wanting to get a good job when graduating amid high unemployment rates) and high academic competition, whether on their SATs or MCATs. The drop in emotional wellbeing reported may be due in part to self-inflicted stress students place on themselves to perform and in part to outside environmental factors leading to uncertainty about the future.
While a further study would have to explore this, there may in fact be a correlation between the stress levels reported and increased self-ratings in intelligence and drive. This means, on the whole, students are coping with their life stress in the best possible way; not floundering from pressure but letting it motivate them to succeed and actually learn in college.
The problem might not be some diabolical stress in the form of dissertations and early-morning lectures, but the result of how college students respond to it. I know a lot of students who thrive on stress; for them, it is necessary for success. I know an equal number who do well academically by avoiding stress, waking up early to write essays so they never have to write them at the last minute. College is not meant to coddle, but to teach. One of the most important psychological lessons to learn in college may be how to survive stressful environments, which most people will experience at least as much in adulthood — if not much more.
It’s hard to juxtapose this kind of data with all of the commentary on teen irresponsibility and risk-taking, but many news websites have done just that. Not only are children stressed out, apparently, they’re driving faster and making worse decisions than you can imagine, thanks to their late surge of neural development. Of course, when it comes to decision-making, the neurobiological studies have been out for a while linking impaired decision making skills with still-developing parts of teen’s brains. Mom, it’s just a few beers, and my prefrontal cortex wasn’t equipped to tell me otherwise!
Unfortunately, this adolescent period of neuroplasticity (the ability of internal and external factors to change the brain) comes with an increased susceptibility to stressors. So, as with most things in adolescence, it seems as if this stress is not their fault, exactly. To survive this, teens need to learn how to adapt to the ebb and flow of stress in their lives. This study from HERI seems to suggest that college students may be doing just that—using stress to their advantage. Emotional wellbeing reports might increase if people don’t perceive stress as something to combat; instead, we should show teens how to accept and manage stress so it can be used to their advantage to succeed.
Camilla Nord is in her final year at Oxford University, where she has been studying physiology and psychology since she moved from Washington, D.C. She also grew up partly in Budapest, Hungary, and lived in Kathmandu, Nepal in her very early years. When she’s not writing essays, she is probably painting, practicing Bikram yoga, and thinking about manatees. When she IS writing essays, her favorite part of the brain is the basal ganglia, and her favorite neurotransmitter (those chemicals that shoot around the brain sending signals) is dopamine. The recent involvement of neuroscience techniques in product development and marketing has driven her interest in Ypulse, coupled with a lifelong love of writing– and, of course, a healthy obsession with pop culture.