College adds new level of stress for many students

Mike Still • Dec 30, 2019 at 8:38 AM

WISE — For graduates who thought high school was stressful, college may mean a new level of stress and sleep deprivation.

Two psychology professors at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise who make stress and sleep issues part of their research say that college brings a new environment and new worries to freshmen and older students.

According to Alexandria Reynolds and Madelynn Shell, there are ways to adapt to, cope with and make manageable the college experience.

This year, Shell completed a four-year study of students who started at UVA Wise in 2015, following their progress academically, socially and emotionally. Shell monitored the group through questionnaires to build data on what factors affect a student’s success in college.

“We started with about 150 participants,” Shell said. “Only 70-some were still at the college by the end of four years. We were surprised by that.”

During that period, Shell said she looked at various factors, including depression and anxiety symptoms, shyness and the quality of relationships with family, friends and romantic partners that the students experienced.

While Shell is still analyzing the four years of data, her own experience as a student and professor has given her insight on what students face as they make the move from high school to college.

“What we’ve found is that having high-quality friendships protects students from depression and loneliness and increases their satisfaction with life,” Shell said. “This is particularly true for shy students. Shy students get a greater benefit from these high-quality friendships compared to non-shy students.”

Shell said family is an important part of helping students cope with college.

“Even in college, having positive family relationships can protect students from negative psychological symptoms like depression and anxiety,” Shell said. “I think families are interesting to study because, on the flip side, families can create stress as well.”

Shell said that first-time college students from rural areas can find themselves moving from a close-knit family and smaller school community into a larger environment where they have to be more independent and responsible for their academic work.

“I went from a graduating high school class of 65 people to my intro to psych class with 600 people in just that one class,” Shell said. “In my college, we had maybe two midterms and a final, and that was all we got graded on in a lot of my classes. I think here we provide a lot more support for our students, but I still think some of them are challenged by the lack of micromanaging that happens and that they’re expected to do their work and do their reading on their own.”

Reynolds, who specializes in sleep science research, echoed Shell’s observations.

“These are stressors that a lot of students coming in have never experienced in their life,” Reynolds said. “A lot of them don’t know how to study. They’ve been cruising through school because they’ve been told, ‘You’re so smart, you did a good job, good try, here’s an A.’ They get to this part where they start a new college and they fail their first test. That might be the first test they’ve actually failed.”

“They don’t know how to deal with that. They don’t know how to cope with failure,” Reynolds said. “Now their mood is down, their emotional level is gone, they’re upset, they don’t know how to deal with this and they’re sleep-deprived because they don’t know how to get good sleep.”

While Shell and Reynolds are conducting separate research, they agreed that first-time freshmen face a range of pressures as they adjust to college life.

“High school students get supervised much more closely, and someone follows up with them if their work isn’t done,” Shell said. “For most classes in college, that doesn’t necessarily happen. This new level of responsibility can make it very difficult for students trying to navigate. ‘Oh, no one’s going to track me down if I didn’t turn in my assignment, but I still need to turn it in.’ ”

Some students may put excessive pressure on themselves as they try to decide what they want to major in, Shell said. Others may be dealing with shyness and problems developing friendships, while others may get involved in too many college activities and find themselves overcommitted.

Stability of friendships can help the new college student deal with some of that stress. Despite being away from home and high school best friends, Shell said that many students seem to maintain those high school friendships through their first year of college. Shy students who develop quality friendships seem to draw strength from that as they progress in college, she added.

While interpersonal relationships may cause plenty of waking problems for someone making the high school-to-college transition, Reynolds said sleep deprivation can add to the mix of problems. A 17- or 18-year-old in college is still in adolescence, she said, and that age group still needs more than eight hours of sleep.

With many rural school systems requiring longer bus rides to school, Reynolds said that collides with a normal sleep pattern where adolescents typically cannot fall asleep until around 11 p.m.

“We have these college freshmen come in, first-year students, 17 or 18 years old still on this delayed sleep cycle not knowing about their body, not realizing this change,” Reynolds said. “They’re not informed about it, and now they’re really struggling if they have an 8 a.m. class because no one’s taught them. They don’t learn about sleep in health class. They don’t learn about what are some good sleep hygiene tips.”

While sleep science still has many questions to answer, Reynolds said that many researchers agree sleep has at least one purpose: to consolidate one’s memory and knowledge gained while awake. Pulling an all-nighter study session to prepare for a test may not be effective if a student heads straight to the class for that test.

“There have been a lot of studies that show that those students who pull all-nighters versus those kids who actually go to sleep and get a decent amount of sleep do significantly better on their tests,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said she has had her students do a sleep log since 2015, and those logs have provided plenty of anecdotal information about what students face on the sleep front.

“I see the same thing over and over. It’s an observation I’ve made of the students here, and most of the time it’s they’re not getting enough sleep,” Reynolds said. “They’re trying to make up for it by napping a lot, but the napping is actually interfering with them sleeping at night because they’re napping too much. They do things like eat heavy meals before bed and, oh my God, the caffeine.

“The caffeine that is consumed is ridiculous,” Reynolds said. “If you drink a Monster at 9 p.m., it will not allow you to fall asleep. They’re crashing and tired and keeping themselves up with caffeine, and it’s a cycle.”

Shell and Reynolds said new college students need to take care of their physical and emotional health. Part of that includes knowing what resources are available for them at their college. Counselors can help them deal with emotional and metal health issues and direct them to help, Reynolds said.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially when it comes to your mental or emotional health,” Reynolds said.

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