Academic journal article College Student Journal

Stress at College: Effects on Health Habits, Health Status and Self-Esteem

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Stress at College: Effects on Health Habits, Health Status and Self-Esteem

Article excerpt

The results from a random survey of students (N=145) are analyzed to address three questions: 1) Are students in certain demographic groups prone to experience higher levels of stress? 2) Is there a relationship between stress and other health behaviors? and 3) Do "stressed" students possess lower levels of self-esteem or perceive themselves as less healthy? We find that females and non-athletes are more likely to be "stressed," and that "stressed" students are less likely to practice healthy behaviors and are more prone to practice bad habits (e.g., eating junk food). Students under greater stress also exhibit lower levels of self-esteem and reduced perceptions of their health status. The implications of these findings for stress reduction programs on college campuses is discussed.

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Literature Review

Stress is an individualized phenomenon, unique to each person and setting. Pearlin (1989) has suggested that there are two major types of stressors: life events and chronic strains. Life events research considers the extent to which the accumulation of a series of experiences can create a stressful impact. Stress from chronic strain results in role overload: conflicting roles in an individual's life that produce competing, and potentially conflicting, demands over time. Role conflict is a common part of the college experience. College students must learn to balance the competing demands of academics, developing new social contacts and being responsible for their own daily needs (e.g., nutrition and clean clothing). In addition, while the academic workload requires that students face a series of peak periods such as midterms and finals, there is a relatively constant underlying pressure to complete an upcoming assignment.

The transition to college creates a situation where regular contact with traditional supports, e.g., friends from high school and family, may be reduced. The ability of such social supports to mediate the effect of exposure to stress is well documented (Ensel and Lin, 1991; Moss, 1973; Schutt et al. 1994; Thoits, 1995). College marks a period where new systems of social support are being created. This process can, in and of itself, be stressful. Research has shown that events which might otherwise serve to reduce stress, e.g., peer events and social activities, can actually increase feelings of stress during college (Dill and Henley, 1998).

New peer groups that form in college can influence patterns of thought and behavior. Lau et al. (1990) have shown that there is substantial change in the performance of health behaviors during the first three years of college, and that peers can have a strong impact on the types and magnitude of these changes. It seems reasonable, then, that peers may also influence the perception of and reaction to stress. College norms that define certain types of behavior as "appropriate" under certain conditions, e.g., staying up all night to study for an exam, may be stress inducing and may lead to less healthy practices.

Stress has been associated with a variety of negative outcomes in the adolescent population including suicide ideation (Hirsch and Ellis, 1996); smoking (Naquin and Gilbert, 1996); and drinking (Morgan, 1997; McCormack, 1996). Research has also documented that females (Megel et al., 1994) and student athletes (Nattiv and Puffer, 1991) are more likely to perceive higher levels of stress. The effects of excess stress on healthy behaviors is less well researched within the college-aged population.

Our research was undertaken at an ivy-league institution where high levels of stress are characteristic for much of the student body. We set out to address three key questions: 1) Are there certain demographic groups who are prone to feel higher levels of stress? 2)Are "stressed" students more likely to exhibit other unhealthy behaviors? and 3) Do "stressed" students exhibit lower levels of self-esteem and reduced perceptions of their health status? …

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