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Adult Learner

5 Firsthand tips to help adult learners avoid college stress

College Stress


If you’re thinking about going back to school, but you’re worried about how you’ll deal with the added stress, you’re certainly not alone. Join us as we explore some of the stressors that are unique to the adult college student experience and dive into five tried-and-true tips to avoid college stress.

When the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) asked graduates whether they had experienced a mental health crisis while in college, 73 percent reported that they had. Respondents listed things like feeling overwhelmed about their course load and experiencing extreme feelings of anxiety or panic about school.

“Stress, at its basis, is when people feel like the demands of their life are larger than their resources to meet those demands,” explains Dr. Marnie Elam, associate professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts Global. When adult learners experience the rigor of college amidst their other commitments, she notes, stress can seem unavoidable. But there are ways to beat the odds.

Stress in college students: How is it different for adult learners?

While traditional undergraduate students are often faced with certain stressors of their own — such as acclimating to their newfound independence or facing the social pressures of living on campus — the adult student experience differs in many ways.

“The adult learner is not a typical learner in that there are often other roles, responsibilities and tasks that are occurring simultaneously in their lives,” offers Dr. Jenny Good, assistant professor of psychology at University of Massachusetts Global. “Adding school in the mix creates the challenge of working to balance all of these obligations.”

And while your life may be exponentially busier as an adult student, the collegiate demands remain the same as they do for traditional students.

“When dealing with adult students, we’re not going to cut down the content or expectations,” Dr. Elam says. “We’re designing our courses with the same amount of rigor as any other students.” That’s why it can be particularly important for adult learners to keep a good handle on their stress levels as they complete their college courses.

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5 ways to combat college stress as an adult student

It’s clear that adult students are prone to stress, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it as an inevitable reality. There are numerous ways to manage the pressures of life and school.

1. Become a master of time management

Maintaining a firm grasp on time management practices can be helpful for all college students, but it’s crucial for adult learners. Andrew DeBell, eLearning and training consultant for Guild Education and Water Bear Learning, has ample experience working with adult learners and finds the successful ones set strict school schedules for themselves.

“If students physically write out their schedule in a calendar, it helps make small steps toward achieving success,” he explains. “Maybe you dedicate 8-10 p.m. every evening to studying. Write that in your calendar for every day of the week.” He also suggests informing friends, family and coworkers so you can avoid the guilt of missing out on social events.

Dr. Elam also warns about falling victim to the planning fallacy, the tendency we have to chronically underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. To avoid this issue in the midst of your college coursework, try planning out your schedule to align with assignment due dates.

“If you set a date with yourself, you’re more likely to stay accountable to it,” she says. “Because we get stressed when we don’t have the resources to meet our demands, spreading those demands out will make you more likely to meet them.”

2. Pace yourself

Nickia Lowery, licensed professional counselor, works specifically with college students on managing stress, anxiety and depressive mood disorders. One of the biggest pieces of advice she regularly offers clients is to be realistic about what they can achieve.

“Do not start a full-time program if you cannot commit to a full-time course load,” she says. “It may get you finished quicker if you take on more classes, but if you cannot be successful in those courses, it will be counterproductive.”

This can be particularly important for adult learners who have been out of school for a while. Scott Vail, who is completing his final semester for his master’s degree while running two small businesses and caring for his four young children, says it’s often better to start small, maybe even with just a single class.

“Even the best climbers in the world take time to acclimate before ascending to the peak,” he says. “Yes, going slower may equate to obtaining the degree later, but quitting due to burnout will net you less. Try it out, and if things go well, add a class until you are comfortable.”

3. Secure a strong support system

Surrounding yourself with a network of loved ones and confidants can be another way to help you steer clear of stress in pursuit of your degree. “Find a handful of people in your life to be your cheerleaders and accountability partners,” DeBell suggests. “This is perhaps the best way to avoid stress and stay on track as an adult learner.”

Dr. Good agrees that maintaining a positive and reliable support system is vital. She recommends determining who those individuals are sooner rather than later.

“It can be helpful to surround yourself with people who, when things get hard, are able to remind you of the reason you chose to dive into this field of study,” she says.

4. Reframe the way you set your goals

Many students find it motivating to keep their sights set on their end goal: graduating with a degree that will either kick-start a new career or help propel a stagnant career to new levels. And while it can be helpful to periodically remind yourself of your overarching motivation, many find it even more useful to segment that end goal into smaller, more realistic goals along the way. Dr. Elam calls this “The Mind Trick.”

“The idea that you should set these big goals can be demotivating,” she explains. “When you continually fail to meet lofty goals, it just makes you want to quit. If you don’t believe you can do it, you won’t start — it’s better to not start than to fail, which is why people procrastinate.”

This is why Dr. Elam believes in the importance of setting achievable goals — small things, such as completing three pages of reading or 15 minutes of studying.

“If you set a goal and reach it, you’ll set more goals because you’ll feel good about it,” she explains. “It becomes more about moving toward a reward than moving away from punishment.”

5. Prioritize self-care

Amidst your various responsibilities as an adult learner, it can be easy to lose track of some of the things that help you to feel calm, energized and rejuvenated. This is why Dr. Good views self-care as vital for adult students.

“Make sure you are finding time for yourself,” she urges, explaining that self-care can look different for everyone. “For some individuals, this means taking a bath. For others, this might mean reading a good book. Whatever the activity — or lack of activity — if you want to succeed in college, you must take the time to care for yourself.”

Lowery says a regular fitness routine can help regulate your mood and temper rising anxiety, while meditation and yoga can act as good stress-relievers. Another aspect of self-care many often overlook is nutrition. Lowery suggests maintaining a healthy diet.

Are you ready to conquer college stress?

As you prepare to head back to school as an adult student, let the advice of our seasoned experts guide you in your efforts to cope with the stressors you may encounter along the way. You may even be able to avoid them altogether.

That said, it’s possible you may feel your anxiety levels quietly rise as you get closer to that first day back in the classroom—and that’s perfectly normal. In those moments, it can be helpful to remind yourself of all the ways you’re equipped to succeed. Learn more by heading over to our article, “7 Reasons why adult students actually have an advantage in the classroom.”



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