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Stress is defined as the condition or feeling that results when individuals find their demands exceed the personal and social resources they have available to respond. Stress is caused by experiencing internal or external stressors, which can exert both a positive or negative impact. For instance, stress can provide a beneficial burst of energy to accomplish a task, but it can also cause many to feel overwhelmed and unable to act. Depending on its severity and duration, stress may result in feelings of anger, irritability, anxiety, or depression. The symptoms of stress can also be manifested physically through headaches, muscular tension, chest pain, and stomach problems.

The stress students encounter during the course of their studies can certainly be growth-promoting by fostering the development of important skills and internal resources. But stress can also trigger severe psychological consequences and even mental illness, especially when it continues for a prolonged period of time. Stress-related consequences may be seen in terms of a disruption in routines like eating and sleep patterns. Acute or chronic stress can also make it difficult for students to concentrate and perform academically. In extreme circumstances, long-term stress may contribute to students feeling so overwhelmed that they are unable to function.

College students may experience stress throughout the course of completing their studies. The 2005 National College Health Assessment (NCHA) found that an overwhelming number of college students experienced stress: 

  • 93.8 percent of students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do within the last school year 
  • 65.2 percent of students felt overwhelmed with all they had to do between 1-10 times and 28.6 percent did 11 or more times in the past school year 
  • Females were more likely than men to report feeling overwhelmed 11 or more times (32.8 percent vs. 21.5 percent) in the past school year

Although all students can experience stress at different points in the school year, recent findings reveal that some students may be more likely to feel stressed. The Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) found that almost one-fourth of first-year students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the year prior to coming to college. And by the end of the first year, almost 40 percent felt frequently overwhelmed, an increase of almost 10 percent from the start of school.

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