Stress Management For College Students: Not a ‘One Size Fits All’ Approach

If you have been to college yourself or have known college students, you have probably realized the stress that college can bring. Students are expected to handle large workloads, adapt to social situations that may be new to them and possibly even fit in some kind of job. A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Education reveals that managing that stress may take more than a ‘one size fits all’ approach to stress management education. In fact, the results from their study show that coping strategies differ in their effectiveness for different groups, including across race and gender.


Among college students, freshmen often face the most pressure. They have arrived in a new environment and are not only seeking their own identity but fitting in competing priorities, establishing new relationships and often doing without the day to day guidance they may have had prior to college.

Stress will be perceived differently by different individuals but we all have the same physiological reaction; the triggering of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) which increases heart and breathing rates, makes the brain more alert, releases adrenalin and shuts down non-essential systems such as the digestive and immune systems. When the stressor is no longer present, the body returns to normal, however problems arise where stress is prolonged. If this is the case the body does not shut off the stress response and individuals may become exhausted and driven to mental breakdown. It is estimated that a long lasting stressor may compromise the immune system for up to a year.

Studies have shown that stress tolerance can be effected by a number of factors, including genetic pre-disposition and lifestyle habits. The factor most strongly associated with high tolerance is the presence of a strong social network, which is often missing when freshmen first enter college.

Researchers Paul D. Well and Helen M. Graf found that males and females cope with stress very differently. Sixteen significant lifestyle or coping habits were surveyed and of those males and females only shared five. Surprisingly, none of the factors which dealt with physical health habits were associated with higher stress tolerance among males. On the other hand, females used physical health habits but were not as reliant on regular family contact as males.

Although with regard to the differences between races, the white population was possibly over-represented in this study, it was found that there were significant differences both with stressors and coping mechanisms. Overall, black students reported higher incidents of stress due to peer pressure and preferred different coping mechanisms such as a calming hobby or being taught at school how to deal with stress.

While further research is required, this study does suggest that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to stress management is not ideal for college students. Different genders and races tend to experience different stressors and perceive coping strategies differently. It is suggested that college health professionals explore different avenues to assist students.