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Relax, You’re Not Alone! More College Freshmen Feel Stressed than Ever Before

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They’re supposedly having the best time of their lives, but the self-reported emotional health of this year’s crop of college freshmen has dropped to a record low.

Only about half of current freshmen rated their emotional health “above average” or higher, the lowest number since the question was first asked during an annual survey of incoming students 25 years ago.

The American Freshman

Conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program, the Freshman Survey is an annual survey of the entering students at four-year colleges and universities across the United States.

First given in 1966, the survey covers a wide range of student characteristics including demographic items; financial aid; secondary school achievement and activities; educational and career plans; and values, attitudes, beliefs, and self-concept.

The 2010 edition, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 was released January 27, 2011. Results show that first-year college students’ self-ratings of their emotional health dropped to record low levels in 2010.

Today’s Freshmen Report Low Levels of Emotional Health

The percentage of students rating themselves as “below average” in emotional health increased from last year’s survey, reports the New York Times.

Just 51.9% of students reported that their emotional health was “above average.” This was a drop of 3.4 percentage points from last year’s results, a figure which John Pryor, the director of HERI and the report’s lead author, called “fairly alarming,” reports the Washington Post.

He also said that the reasons behind the decline are unclear, but the result may be that freshmen are less able to cope with the stress of their new academic and social environments.

“Stress is a major concern when dealing with college students,” Pryor said. “If students are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health,” he explained, “faculty, deans and administrators should expect to see more consequences of stress, such as higher levels of poor judgment around time management, alcohol consumption and academic motivation.”

Female College Freshmen More Stressed than Male Freshmen

Female students were far less likely to report high levels of emotional health than male students (45.9% versus 59.1%), a 13.2 percentage-point difference. Women were also more than twice as likely as men to feel frequently “overwhelmed by all I had to do” as high-school seniors, the study found. Nearly 39% of women said they were often overwhelmed, more than twice the share of the men and overall, more than 29% of women said they had felt such stress, an increase of 2 percentage points from the year before.

Although the annual survey is considered the most comprehensive of its type because of its size and longevity, the process of asking students to rate their own emotional health compared with that of others is hard to assess, reports the New York Times. The question requires freshmen to come up with their own definition of emotional health and to make their own judgments of how they compare with their peers.

The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 is based on the responses of 201,818 first-time, full-time students at 279 of the nation’s baccalaureate colleges and universities.

What’s Causing So Much Stress?

Most people remember their own college days rather fondly, so what’s causing today’s freshmen to feel so much stress? According to Maia Szalvitz at TIME, the economy and high unemployment rate make for a scary time to be in college as students potentially face terrifying levels of debt.

A 2010 survey of more than 14,000 students found that empathy levels have dropped 40% since 2000, causing Szalvitz to wonder if the decline in empathy has possibly produced a decline in mental health and coping, as caring relationships are essential to mental and physical health.

Stressed? Learn the Warning Signs

According to ULifeline, stress is a normal part of life, especially during periods of transition and uncertainty—such as beginning college. A certain level of stress is expected and can even be healthy since it’s often motivating, but high levels of stress can become a problem.

Signs and symptoms of stress among college students include:

  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns.
  • Increased frequency of headaches.
  • Increased levels of frustration and anger.
  • Being more irritable than normal.
  • Recurring colds and minor illness.
  • Frequent muscle aches and/or tightness.
  • Being more disorganized than usual.
  • Greater sense of persistent time pressure.
  • Increased difficulty in getting things done.

Manage Your Stress During College

It is possible to manage and maintain stress, even during college. Learn how your body reacts during stress and figure out which stress-reduction techniques work best for you.

A few suggestions from the University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center include:

  • Take a deep breath!
  • Manage your time.
  • Connect with others.
  • Talk it out.
  • Take a “One-Minute Vacation.”
  • Monitor your physical comfort.
  • Get physical.
  • Take care of your body.
  • Laugh.
  • Know your limits.
  • Seek out compromise.
  • Have a good cry.
  • Avoid self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
  • Look for the positive.
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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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