January 25, 2023 | Irene KraegelMatt Kucinski

Four young adults look out at sunset over mountains, backs turned to camera, arms around each other
Photo credit: Helena Lopes

Being a student is stressful, especially during big transition points like graduation from high school or college. Making decisions, planning for the future, and just getting through the endless to-do lists of each day can take a toll on mental health if we are not actively managing our stress.

The good news is that well-managed stress can serve us well, and the student years are a great time to learn and practice good coping skills in this area. Enter Dr. Irene Kraegel, director of the Center for Counseling and Wellness at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. With a passion for the integration of mindfulness and Christian faith, she has published two books on the subject, along with a blog and set of online mindfulness guides to support students and others on their mental health journey.

Kraegel, who regularly provides training and workshops related to mental health and mindfulness, shares five key strategies to help students manage their stress as they navigate high school, college, and beyond.

1. Befriend your stress.

Stress is an important motivator for students who are working toward their goals, so practice working with it instead of against it! You can use the energy of stress to perform your best and meet your deadlines. You’ll need breaks though, so don’t forget to work activities into your schedule that are just for fun, and pay attention to signs that you’re putting too much pressure on yourself – none of us benefit from feeling chronically stressed or self-critical.

2. Actively care for your needs.

To function well and stay emotionally level, students need approximately 8 hours of sleep per night (with a consistent bedtime), 3 full meals per day (with some healthy options worked in), and regular movement (whether that’s stretching at your desk or taking a run). Time for social connection, spiritual practices, and experiencing nature all help regulate stress as well. Your body and mind will give you cues to let you know what self-care routines are needed as you move through the fluctuating expectations of your student years.

3. Celebrate your successes.

Did you pause to notice the last time you finished a paper, got a grade you worked hard for, or even just got out of bed in the morning? Noticing and celebrating your accomplishments will help to build your sense of mastery and support feelings of wellbeing within the rigors of an academic environment. While some accomplishments call for a full-scale celebration and others just for a smile, you will feel more in control of your stress when you notice that your perseverance and grit are paying off.

4. Check your self-talk.

When a friend is struggling, you are likely to provide them with a kind word of encouragement. Do you do the same for yourself? Struggling is a normal part of the human experience, and being a student involves lots of challenges as you stretch, learn, and grow. Practice speaking to yourself with kindness as you would speak to someone that you care about. It will help keep you motivated without generating unnecessary stress and negativity along the way.

5. Ask for help.

As a student, you are part of a shared community that wants you to succeed! Invite people onto your team who can help you understand difficult material in your classes, navigate new learning environments, provide empathic listening support, and process through difficult decisions. Meet with treatment providers who can help you address any signs of physical or mental illness. Remember that you are not meant to walk this path alone, even if it takes several attempts to find that needed support!

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