How College Counselors Can Help Overwhelmed Students With Academic Stress

Last updated: April 2020

Stress and feelings of anxiety are a common struggle. The difference-maker in severity is how much of that stress we experience and how it influences our lives. Once stress begins to impact us negatively, it can overtake our minds and affect everything we do.

For many college students, stress is normalized to a point where they think it is something they should be feeling all the time and should know how to handle. Helping students identify the academic stress points in their lives and channel it into something that can bring them success is a useful skill for college counselors.

Types of Stressors

College comes with many environmental changes that are difficult to take in all at once. For many, this is the first time they are living away from family or their normal support system. As these life events coincide with such an important time in their academic career, students find themselves unable to perform well academically because of the other stressors. Some of the major stressors for college students include:

  • Work: The stress of balancing a part-time job (or multiple) with being a student can be overwhelming for many.
  • Personal life: Living away from home, financial strain and relationship issues are just a few ways a student’s personal life can influence academic hardships.
  • Mental health: Students who have not found ways to cope with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety may be seeking answers for what they are feeling.

Determine a Student’s Needs

Some students require just one session with a counselor to help them work through or troubleshoot a problem. Other students desire routine check-ins to keep them on track. Sometimes figuring out what each student needs entails some teamwork between the student and the counselor. Are students just anxious about an upcoming test on a subject at which they don’t excel, or is their stress rooted in familial pressures to perform well in school? Talk to students about the other stressors in their life to help determine how best to help them.

Equip Them With the Tools They Need to Succeed

When a student reaches out for help, it’s typically because he or she is wondering “now what?” The solution to students’ stresses may be connecting them with a library study group for a class they struggle with or to a job board to ease their financial anxieties. There may also be times when a counselor can only do so much for a student who would benefit from more extensive help — medication for mental illness, for example. Whatever the case may be, your students will benefit from your help in steering them in the right direction toward a tangible solution.

As a vehicle of guidance for college students, you want to give them access to the resources they need for managing their stress.

Understand and Teach Them the Difference Between Good Stress and Bad Stress

It’s important to recognize that stress manifests itself in different ways. Helping students recognize when stress is good and when stress is bad can provide peace of mind. Remind students that good stress can play a part in making them more productive and motivated, such as the stress they might feel when they know performing well on a test or project is important. Warn students of the signs that stress is getting the best of them, which can include physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral symptoms:

  • Headaches and nausea
  • Difficulty sleeping or fatigue
  • Feelings of irritability, isolation, anxiety, sadness or depression
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering
  • Change in eating or sleeping habits, as well as school or work performance

As students become more aware of their options to deal with stress, they start to feel less alone and seek the help they desire. A surge of students in need of assistance and guidance requires an increase in access to counselors. Be available and accessible for students. With a bit of extra guidance, you can help make a difference in their academic careers.

Author bio: Dr. Kenya Grooms is a clinical psychologist and Dean of Student Affairs at MacCormac College, the oldest two-year, private, nonprofit institution in Illinois. MacCormac offers educational programs for court reporting, criminal justice, business administration and more. Dr. Grooms has written and presented about family life, international partnerships, personal resilience, support services for non-traditional students and many other topics in psychology.

Information on is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult your physician or other qualified professionals if you feel overwhelmed from academic stress.