College stress is real, but it's manageable with breaks and self-care

Two students sit in the grass next to a bicycle with Indianapolis skyline in background.View print quality image
Taking time for self-care can help alleviate the stress of college life and classes when things start to get overwhelming. Photo by James Brosher, Indiana University

Feeling frustrated, cranky or snippy at the slightest irritation? How about sluggish, sleepy or unmotivated to do anything? Maybe you are nervous or antsy, or have a sense of uneasiness that you just can't shake?

All these feelings and more are often signs of stress. It happens to everyone, especially in the middle of the semester when school and all of the associated work are getting intense. And, according to IUPUI Counseling and Psychological Services Director Julie Lash, the need to take a "mental health break" is a real thing.

"Everyone experiences stress; it is a part of life," Lash said. "We need some 'stress' to stay motivated and to perform well; this is the idea of 'psyching up,' common to sports, arts and academic performance. However, too much stress causes us to 'psych out' -- essentially causing performance to decline.

"Trying to push through at this point really does not help. Our performance isn't what we hoped, we are disappointed or frustrated, and stress just gets worse."

Students doing yoga poses on the lawn.View print quality image
Exercise like yoga, in a group or alone, is one of many activities that can provide a needed break to relieve stress during the day. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Taking a break is helpful, but regularly incorporating self-care activities and healthy habits is better for managing stress over the long term and keeping the "psych-out" at bay. Activities like deep breathing, meditation, exercise, engaging in a hobby or just hanging out for a little bit each day can provide that needed break to alleviate stress. Good eating habits and restful sleep are also important components for stress management.

Taking time out for yourself will also look different for different people. So, it's important to know what works best for you. Lash recommends writing things down that help you de-stress and then finding ways to incorporate those activities into your days and weeks.

"It is important to recognize the value of 'me time' or self-care," she said. "There is a clear point where working more does not result in better results. Putting in 'me time' is part of what helps keep 'psych-out' from happening."

Student napping in the hallway in University Tower.View print quality image
Plenty of sleep and good eating habits can also help reduce stress. Photo by Drew Hanson, Indiana University

The Personal Wellness Inventory on the Division of Student Affairs' Health and Wellness Promotion website is a great place to start in determining your stress levels and self-care needs. And if stress continues to be high and no amount of self-care efforts seems to be working over an extended period, that may be an indication that additional help is needed.

"When stress gets in the way of doing daily activities, then it is important to pay additional attention," Lash said.

Whether it is you, your roommate or a friend, taking the time to acknowledge the stress that is there and seeking support to address it can make a difference in getting back to a healthy place in life.

Other resources for self-care and mental well-being