An Epidemic of Stress Among College Students (and Younger Children) Is NOT Inevitable

I was not surprised by Tamar Lewin’s page one story in the New York Times on January 27, 2011. The headline certainly is gripping: Record Level of Stress Found in College Freshmen. And so is the lead paragraph. Lewin reports that the emotional health of college freshmen has fallen to its lowest level since The American Freshman: National Norms study began collecting data 25 years ago. This study of more than 200,000 incoming freshmen at four-year colleges conducted in the fall of 2010 found that the percentage of students who reported that their emotional health was above average fell to 52%, compared with 64% in 1985.

I wasn’t surprised by these findings because we have similar results from a nationally representative group of employees. The 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce found that the physical health of the workforce is declining–and it’s not because the workforce is aging. We further found that stress levels have risen, even over the past six years. In fact, 41% of U.S. employees report experiencing three or more indicators of stress in the last three months on a standardized measure either “sometimes,” “often,” or “very often.” This measure includes items that tap into feeling of being unable to control the important things in one’s life, not feeling confident in one’s ability to handle personal problems, and that difficulties are piling up so high that they can’t be overcome.

A second reason that I wasn’t surprised is because we also have similar results from a nationally representative study of young people in the 5th through the 12th grades. This Ask the Children study was conducted in 2002, when some of the 2010 college students were in grade school. We found that 28% of the students reported that their teachers were stressed, 39% reported their parents were stressed, and 35% reported that they themselves were stressed “often” or “very often.”

So, we have an epidemic of stress that started brewing long before the current recession and even before the current increases in high school pressures have been ramping up.

By now, I have probably stressed you with these statistics. It’s no wonder that college freshmen are feeling more stressed than ever before. But is this inevitable?

The research that I have been investigating for the past 10 years for Mind in the Making reveals that not only are increases in stress NOT inevitable, but that we can do our children a huge service if we intentionally teach them to cope with stress.

  • First, it all begins with us and our views of stress. Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota defines “stress as situations when the demands on your body or your expectations of those demands exceed your ability to handle them.” Second, she warns that as adults we may want to shield our kids from stress, but that’s neither possible nor positive. “A childhood that has no stress in it wouldn’t not prepare you for adulthood,” she says. So when we tell children that they shouldn’t be bothered by something that has happened, that isn’t helpful. What is useful is to support them in learning how to manage. So how do we do that?
  • Recognize that a safe and trusting relationship with adults is the best stress buster. With trusting relationships with adults who are there for you, children are much less likely to be overwhelmed. Gunnar’s studies on stressful situations, children and the stress hormone cortisol demonstrate this.
  • Also recognize that we are telling children how to respond to stress in more than verbal ways. We need to be thoughtful about what our faces, our body languages and our actions say when kids get stressed. An elegant experiment by Joe Campos of the University of California at Berkeley reveals that when children are put in a stressful situation, their parents’ facial expressions tell the children whether they should take on the challenge or retreat. Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland has studied temperament and children–especially those children who react intensively to stressful situations. He has found that parents who always interfere in alarmist or intrusive ways, trying to fix everything, are not helping their children to learn to be resilient.
  • Help children find their own strategies for coping with stress and learning to take on challenges. This is the final and most important point. And it’s never too early to begin this approach. In fact, Heidelise Als of Harvard Medical School and her colleagues have studied premature children, born 10 to 12 weeks before their due dates. They actually studied how the children calmed themselves down and then reinforced those strategies. So a child who calmed himself down by being held or sucking a finger was encouraged to do this. These children ended up being released earlier from Intensive Care in the hospital and have had better life results when adults used this and other strategies to help the children get a good start in life.

Not only is it never too early, it’s also never too late. With older children you can help them create with their own strategies to deal with stress. If a child has nightmares, help him or her think of ideas to deal with this. My son made a sword out of aluminum foil to keep by his bedside in case bad dreams came. Or if children are stressing about homework, a test in school or the SATs, help them brainstorm about how they can manage this stress. My daughter found that if she took a break when math homework was flooding her, she could go back to it with more energy. And she felt good because she had created this idea for how to deal with stress all by herself.

Is an epidemic of childhood stress inevitable? No. Life is certainly stressful, but by helping our kids create strategies to manage stress, we are giving them a resource for life.

 

Photo/image by: Anna Gutermuth / Flickr