Managing School Stress: Why Creating a "School-life" Balance Matters

by Julia Keim
Sep 4, 2018 9:35 AM ET

IWBI Articles

Responsibilities piling up, competing demands, lack of time. Just reading this may make your heart start to race a little. Does the word stress come to mind? Stress is a normal part of the human experience, and in fact, can be useful − mild levels of stress have the ability to motivate us to get our work done and even stimulate creativity.1,2 Individuals, however, may vary in the amount of stress they can handle and in the methods they use to manage it. When stress levels extend beyond a normal range and methods to cope with it are ineffective, your health will begin to feel the negative effects.1,2 Unchecked levels of stress can lead to both physical and psychological problems, including gastrointestinal issues, a weakened immune system, difficulties sleeping and an increased risk of depression and anxiety.1,2

While humans experience stress all throughout their lives, it can be heightened at certain stages of life. One of these particular periods of prolonged high stress is the pursuit of higher education, such as college and graduate school. This period in life is characterized by a variety of potential stressors including interpersonal relationships (with friends, romantic interests, professors, etc.), financial concerns, worries about the future and expectations to achieve.3,4 To exacerbate the problem, the demands of academic life further compound the everyday stressors that students experience.1 If left unaddressed, high levels of stress in an academic setting can lead to student burnout, dropout and overall impairment to academic functioning.1,4

Preventing the negative impacts of stress requires ongoing efforts. Outside of a school context, stress management efforts among adults are part of the pursuit of work-life balance, a growing topic of conversation and research as workplaces increasingly try to support employees in managing their commitments across work, family, life and leisure. Because students possess their own unique set of concerns, applying the idea of work-life balance to those in college or graduate school introduces some distinct challenges. Unlike other forms of work that may have set caps on working hours or obligatory personal days, the life of a college or grad student is more amorphous. With no set schedule per se, it can be difficult to assign the appropriate amount of time to various activities and responsibilities. These commitments may come into direct conflict with one another, pulling a student’s attention and resources in a variety of directions. For example, many students struggle to achieve a balance between their social and academic goals, and this kind of goal conflict is often what makes students cite a lowered sense of wellbeing.6

Striving toward a school-life balance is a healthy coping mechanism for students seeking to better manage their stress. For example, fitting in time to go to the gym or take a walk in between classes is not only good for your physical health but will also boost your mood and make you feel that your energy is not all consumed by academic life. There are numerous other strategies, such as listening to music, seeking social support from friends and family, practicing deep breathing or journaling.4,5

Ultimately, the school-life balance looks different to each person, and it’s important to consider what balance looks and feels like for each individual.7,8 Balance does not necessarily mean an even split, as true balance between all the different components in life is elusive for most individuals, whether they are students or not.7 A more realistic ‘balance’ may feel more like a satisfaction with how much time and energy each activity takes up. While some of the contributors to school-related stress are part of the larger higher education structure, there are strategies that individuals can use to strive toward a more balanced student life, such as:

  • Set a schedule: planning ahead and writing your activities out can help you keep track of your time and assess whether your division of time is supportive of your ‘balance’ and well-being.9
  • Know your limits: monitor your stress levels and when you start to feel yourself passing your threshold, make time to care for yourself. Caring for yourself could include activities like exercising, meditating or practicing positive self-talk.9
  • Be present: focusing on what is happening in the current moment will help to avoid distractions from your future activities, allowing you to be more engaged with what is meaningful right now.9
  • Ask for help: knowing when to ask for help can be tricky, but don’t be afraid to rely on your support system should you need a little extra boost.9

Explore the Mind Concept in WELL v2 to learn more about interventions in buildings and communities that can support better stress management or the WELL AP program to discover how you can get involved in the movement to create healthier spaces for people everywhere.