College Stressors and Substance Misuse: Causes and Solutions

2 min read · 3 sections
Why is college so stressful, and what methods can students employ to ease their anxiety during this time of growth and change? Explore the answers to these questions and more, and learn how to develop healthy coping strategies that will last well beyond the college years.
What you will learn:
Typical stressors that affect college students.
Unhealth coping mechanisms to avoid.
Healthy coping methods to employ.

What is Stress, and Why are College Students so Affected by It?

College can be a blast, filled with friends, adventures, and growth. At the same time, it can be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life, as days are often jampacked with classes, studying, and work. Plus, simply adulting on one’s own for the first time can bring freedom—along with anxiety and/or depression. Not surprisingly, stress, anxiety, and depression are among some of the main concerns reported by mental health clinicians in the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s 2021 Annual Report.1

So what is stress and how does it affect people?

Stress is basically a state of worry or tension that’s typically caused by a situation of some sort. While everyone experiences stress at some point, if it’s intense and frequent, it can lead to a host of effects such as:2 college students

  • Feelings of overwhelm.
  • Changes in appetite.
  • Jaw discomfort.
  • Headaches.
  • Difficulty sleeping.
  • Mood swings.

Plus, ongoing stress can increase cortisol levels, which ultimately weakens the immune system, and it can worsen existing mental illness.2

Why do college students experience high levels of stress?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), people are most susceptible to stress when they lack a support network, don’t get enough sleep, experience a major life change, have poor physical health, and don’t eat well. Since college students typically experience at least some if not all of these factors, it’s no wonder they can become balls of stress and anxiety.2

Unhealthy Coping Strategies

Anyone that experiences ongoing, intense stress has to cope with it in some manner. And without proper strategies, stress can lead to the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms that can create problems—not to mention stress—of their own.

For example, some people over or under eat, others indulge in online shopping, and some procrastinate by spending time on their devices scouring social media, playing games, binging on Netflix, etc.

College students and others also turn to alcohol or drugs to escape from their stress. In particular, many college students participate in binge drinking. Data from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) indicates that 45% of the of the 133.1 million people who consumed alcohol in the U.S. participated in binge drinking in the last month. Among binge drinkers, college-aged adults—i.e., those between 18 to 25 years of age—made up the largest percentage (i.e., 29%).3

Healthy Coping Strategies and Treatment Options

Rather than the aforementioned unhealthy coping strategies, NAMI offers three broad coping methodologies and a handful of tactics to deal with ongoing stress:4

  • Problem-focused. This method encourages people to confront stressors head on by trying to find a solution to lessen or eliminate them. For example, if a heavy courseload and workload are causing overwhelm, students might consider eliminating some work shifts or dropping a course to free up a little breathing room.
  • Emotion-focused. With emotion-focused coping, the individual focuses on the reaction to the stressor. For example, if a professor is causing stress, a person might try to reframe their thoughts, think objectively about the situation, and/or journal about their feelings.
  • Wellness-focused. Wellness comprises several different dimensions, each one of which can offer ways to cope with stress.
    • Physical. According to information from the American Psychological Association, more than half of adults feel good about themselves after exercise, 35% percent say it boosts their mood, and 30% indicate they feel less stress. So movin’ and groovin’ can be a great way to cope with stress.
    • Spiritual. You don’t need to be an avid church-goer to be spiritual. Simply employing prayer, meditation, or mindfulness can help you engage with the world around you, stay present, and blur your focus on the stressors causing anxiety.
    • Intellectual. Journaling, jigsaw puzzles, reading, podcasts, etc. can help engage the mind in something other than stressors. Doing so can give you a well-needed mental break.
    • Environmental. Simply getting outside and into nature or some kind of green space can soothe the soul—and calm a racing mind.
    • Financial. If your financial situation is taking a toll, it may help to educate yourself via budgeting and finance courses, podcasts, videos, financial advisors, etc. When it comes to finances, having a solid plan of action and a budget for income and expenses can provide predictability, which in turn can lessen your mental load.
    • Social. Studies indicate that those with emotional support feel less stress than those without it. So when stressors hit, it may help to lean on family and friends along with community resources. And if you don’t have a social support system, now may be the time to form one.

If these coping mechanisms don’t seem doable or you’ve tried them and are still struggling, it’s probably time to seek professional help. Many college campuses offer some form of counseling; plus, many online counseling apps have become available in recent years.

If your stress has led to unhealthy alcohol and/or drug use, it’s critical that you seek help to deal with the issues head on. American Addiction Centers offers treatment facilities scattered across the country, including inpatient, outpatient, and telehealth options. Treatment can assist you in making positive changes that will not only help you through your current stress but also set you up for a healthy life in recovery.



Need more info?
American Addiction Centers Photo
Take the first step towards recovery.
American Addiction Centers Photo
Make the process simple. Ensure your benefits cover treatment.
American Addiction Centers Photo
Explore American Addiction Centers locations nationwide.
View Our Treatment Centers