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Today's college students are experiencing increasing and nearly debilitating levels of stress and anxiety, at least according to an Ohio State University survey. The survey asked students about their levels of anxiety, depression and burnout, all of which increased since August of 2020. It also asked them about their coping mechanisms, which included eating unhealthy foods, use of alcohol, use of tobacco or vaping, and seeking help from a mental health counselor -- each of which also increased over the same period. Students also reported that their physical activity had declined as a way to deal with stress.

That is alarming, particularly because we see few signs, if any, that things are going to improve for students in the coming years. College (and everything else, for that matter) is getting more expensive, not less. Jobs are requiring more education, not less. Supporting oneself while pursuing a degree requires more hours of work, not less. And all that has been occurring in the context of a global pandemic and looming geopolitical and military conflict.

These factors weigh heavily on students as they shoulder the already tremendous pressure of day-to-day hardships. What's worse, students who attribute academic struggles to stress do considerably worse than students who do not, according to research by Patricia Frazier and her colleagues. Students are, unsurprisingly, thinking about how stressed they are, and it's creating a feedback loop of anxiety and academic despair.

In fact, academic advisers encounter on a regular basis:

  • The student who has to work two jobs to make ends meet while also trying to balance the demands of higher-level physics and math
  • The single parent who can only take classes at certain times during the week because they have to take care of their child while also working full time
  • The first-generation student who feels homesick, alienated and isolated in a new setting while also balancing a full-time course load.

Advisers want to help such students find success despite these adversities, and they are naturally concerned about students' stress, anxiety and overall well-being. However, it is not uncommon for advisers to feel like their hands are tied when it comes to helping students deal with anxiety as though it falls only within the domain of therapeutic counseling. But advisers can, in fact, take certain steps within their domain of expertise that can help students deal with stress and anxiety.


One is to help students focus on short- and medium-term goals that have a low likelihood of encountering significant barriers. Long-term goals are good for helping students with motivation and drive, and they can also be a tremendous source of inspiration. Yet such goals are often interrupted by major life events, such as changing jobs or moving homes, having a baby or a death in the family. Few things can cause more anxiety than the feeling of never being able to achieve that primary goal. Students can achieve short- to medium-term goals, however, through turbulent times and still make progress toward a larger goal that might seem out of reach.

Using scaffolding techniques, advisers can work with students to articulate several short- to medium-term goals that they could meet and would ultimately give them a sense of accomplishment rather than stagnation. For example, if a student is overly concerned that they will not be able to find a job after graduating, an adviser can encourage the student to focus on daily, weekly and even monthly goals that would mitigate that fear as well as increase the likelihood of finding employment. For that student, an adviser can recommend reaching out to a student organization by the end of the week, volunteering for community service each month, spending the week researching virtual training for the job they are pursuing, and putting together a professional wardrobe by the end of the semester. This scaffolding approach to setting goals helps students feel they are making progress toward finding employment, especially since nearly each of those examples can be used to expand a student's resume and make them more competitive in the job market.

Other examples of short- to medium-term goals are those that encourage students to use campus resources, like the gym and other recreational areas, study or tutoring centers, the writing center, the library, the career center, any office of student engagement and so on. Goals like visiting the gym or making time to visit the tutoring center twice a week go a long way in helping students avoid feeling trapped in a bad situation. Also, advisers should communicate to students that their growth and development, not a job or a salary, are the ultimate aim of a higher education. That means that anything that helps a student grow as an individual is something worthy of a goal, no matter how small.

Shifting Control

Advisers can also mitigate student stress by encouraging them to build a strong internal locus of control rather than an external one. When students place the locus of control outside themselves, it suggests that they aren't really responsible for anything, so no amount of personal effort will make a difference. That feeds into students' feelings of anxiety and helplessness because external forces are most often uncertain and unpredictable. In contrast, students with a strong internal locus of control are more likely to take responsibility for their academic failings rather than blame them on outside forces like a pandemic, bad weather or a malicious instructor. And they will be more likely to make changes to improve their performance, as Charles Duhigg writes in Smarter, Faster, Better (Random House, 2016).

One way to promote a strong internal locus of control is to remind students of how hard they had to work to get to where they are. Hard work, according to Duhigg, is "something we decide to do" rather than something that just happens. Framing students' success and failures in terms of hard work helps them think of academic outcomes in those terms rather than as emerging from something they cannot control, like natural aptitude or ability. Advisers often encounter this when students speak about math, for example. Students frequently report to be failing a math course because they're "just not good at math," or they "just don't get it." With that attitude, students don't have much reason to work harder to improve. But framing math performance in terms of effort allows students to combat feelings of helplessness by taking responsibility for their success in the class. They adjust, improve their performance and make progress toward larger goals.

Backup Planning

Last, advisers can work with students to anticipate and plan for roadblocks in their academic careers. A big source of stress and anxiety for students is when plans go unexpectedly awry, but with a proper backup plan, or even proper perspective, much of that stress and anxiety can be avoided.

For example, most students enroll in classes with every expectation to finish the term. For many, however, life events prevent that from happening. Advisers should work with students to not just build a schedule for how things should work out but also to articulate a backup plan in the worst-case scenario. That way, if a student has to drop one or more courses or if they fail, they can feel assured that all is not lost. Working with students to plan for multiple scenarios can, of course, be time-consuming, which is why advisers should encourage students to visit with them multiple times per term. It's better to create a solid backup plan over the course of several meetings than have a weak plan due to the time constraints of one meeting.

The landscape of student success is rife with pits and roadblocks, and students are understandably stressed and anxious. Even though academic advisers are not in a position to offer the kind of therapeutic counseling that is traditionally used to mitigate stress and anxiety, they can nonetheless implement a number of strategies to help students succeed. By helping students establish short- and medium-term goals, develop an internal locus of control, and create backup plans, advisers can empower students to overcome negative feelings and pursue their academic destiny.

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