The Impact of Stress on Academic Success in College Students

By Murff, Sharon Hall

Abstract: The purpose of this article is to provide a discussion on stress and how it can prevent students from being successful in fulfillment of their educational goals. The literature is supportive of the fact that stress places demands on an individual, and in response to the stress, the body attempts to adapt to the stressful experience to maintain a sense of normalcy (Selye, 1974). Another common theme in the literature is that college students are faced with a unique set of stressors that may be overwhelming, thus altering the ability to cope with a situation. Strategies to reduce stress have been associated with academic success in college students (Dziegielewski et al., 2004).

Key words: Academic, College Students, Stress, Success

Stress is a common element in the lives of every individual, regardless of race or cultural background (Garrett, 2001). Over the past few decades, there has been significant investigation on the issues of stress and management of stress (Dziegielewski, Turnage & RoestMarti, 2004). In addition, college students have been shown to possess a unique set of stressors which can affect their daily experiences (Garrett, 2001). The focus of this article is on stress and how it can affect academic success.

According to Selye (1974 p. 27), stress is a “nonspecific response of the body to any demands made upon it”. In other words, as demands are made on an individual or as situations arise, the body attempts to adjust or adapt to the situation in order to reestablish normalcy (Selye 1974). Selye ( 1974) further states that there is a series of physiological reactions that occurs in response to environmental demands or any noxious stimulus. Some familiar reactions to demands made on the body include increased heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and blood glucose level. These compensatory reactions occur to ensure the muscles and vital organs have an ample supply of oxygen, energy and nutrients to handle the challenging situation (Nathan, 2002). In addition, Nathan (2002) also states that prolonged and severe stress may be psychologically damaging in that it may hinder a person’s ability to engage in effective behavior. Another view of the effect of stress on the body was presented by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), in that they state stress is more than a response to environmental demands, but is also related to personal perception. If an individual perceives a situation as stressful, then it is indeed stressful. Also, if an individual is susceptible or vulnerable to the negative effects produced by stressors, the situation may pose a threat or may be harmful to the individual (Lazarus & Folkman 1984). Furthermore, an individual’s well-being may be at risk whenever their resources to manage the stressful situation is limited or depleted (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). All in all, when multiple demands are made on an individual, they usually experience intense feelings of stress related to role-ambiguity, role-strain and role-overload (Dziegielewski et al., 2004).

The belief that there is a relationship between stress and disease has been discussed for several decades. Holmes and Rahe (1967) were among the first researchers who identified a relationship between stressful life experiences and the onset of disease. In addition to an overall definition of stress, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) found that hassles and uplifts seem to be a better predictor of a person’s well-being. Daily hassles have been defined by Kanner, Coyne, Schafer & Lazarus (1981) as irritating or annoying factors that occur on a daily basis, and place demands on an individual. On the other hand, uplifts have been described as positive experiences that buffer the negative effects of hassles (Kanner et al., 1981). According to Lazarus and Folkman (1984), the severity and intensity of daily hassles and uplifts are key determinants of illness and well-being

College students have a unique cluster of stressful experiences or stressors (Garrett, 2001). According to Ross, Neibling and Heckert (1999), there are several explanations for increased stress levels in college students. First, students have to make significant adjustments to college life. Second, because of the pressure of studies, there is strain placed on interpersonal relationships. Third, housing arrangements and changes in lifestyle contribute to stress experienced by college students. In addition, students in college experience stress related to academic requirements, support systems, and ineffective coping skills.

Frazier and Schauben (1994) used the Psychological Distress Inventory to obtain information regarding stress experienced by a group of female college students. The researchers found that female college students experienced stress related to financial problems, test pressure, failing a test, rejection from someone, dissolution of relationships, depression and feelings of low self-esteem. On the contrary, Ross et al. (1999), conducted a study on college students of both genders and found a different set of stressors that were common among all college students; those experiences associated with stress included a change in eating and sleeping habits, new responsibilities, heavier work loads and breaks. Similarly, Phinney and Haas (2003) reported a unique set of stressful experiences among ethnic minority, first generation college freshmen. More specifically, sources of stress included difficult financial challenges, domestic responsibilities, responsibilities related to holding a job while in school, and a heavy academic load. Also, the ethnic minority college freshmen experienced stressors such as conflicts in time management, pressure associated with their academic workload and problems within their family (Phinney & Haas, 2003). In addition to identification of stressors experienced by first generation ethnic minority freshmen, Phinney and Haas (2003) found that students who expressed strong social support congruent with their educational goals, experienced more feelings of self- efficacy, self-confidence and selfdetermination. Consequently, these students believed they were more successful in their academic endeavors in that they were better able to cope with their stressful experiences. Dill and Henley (1998) offered another viewpoint on stressors among college students. These investigators suggested that there were pointed differences in the perception of stressors between traditional versus nontraditional college students. A descriptive study revealed that traditional students were younger, and they reported more stressors associated with their peers, and stress related to social activities in college. On the other hand, the nontraditional students were older, and therefore reported stress related to family issues, due to multiple roles within the family setting.

Besides the usual stressors associated with college life, students enrolled in a curriculum of a caring profession seem to face additional stressors related to their clinical practicum (Dziegielewski et al., 2004). Also, burnout among caring professionals, such as those in medicine, nursing and social work, is an issue of concern. In fact, Dziegielewski et al. (2004)) state that the risk of burnout is high among this population of professionals. Burnout is a term that refers to emotional exhaustion which sometimes leads to ineffective professional behavior which may compromise quality care to clients (Rohland, Kruse & Rohrer, 2004).

Health care professionals are subjected to chronic stressors due to the nature of their work and environmental factors. In other words, health care professionals are constantly bombarded with a number of environmental and psychological stressors. Kanner et al. (1981) and Lazarus and Folkman (1984) determined that the number of identified stressors is not the only element that may jeopardize a person’s wellbeing. The researchers found that if there is an increase in the severity and intensity of the stressors, or hassles and uplifts, a person’s well-being is significantly affected. In other words, there is often physiological or psychological disequilibrium when the stressors are severe and intense.

In lieu of the negative effects of stressors among persons in the caring professions, there is a need for early intervention during the college curriculum or early in the professional career. In an investigation by Dziegielewski et al. (2004) subjects were enrolled in a course of study leading to a degree in social work. The researchers (Dziegielewski et al., 2004) noted that prior to the study, all of the students had a strong belief that stress can negatively affect professional performance and achievement of educational goals.

Each student participated in a 45 minute seminar on stress management. The objectives for the stress management seminar were to assist students in identification of personality styles and patterns of behavior, provide general information on stress, and to identify signs of stress. In addition, the seminar participants were taught specific stress reductiontechniques. The results of the study suggested that stress management seminars that provide general information on stress, and teach effective ways to reduce stress are beneficial in strengthening a person’s coping skills. Consequently, if coping skills are effective in decreasing stress and feelings of anxiety students have a greater chance for academi\c success (Dziegielewski et al., 2004).

In summary, stress has the ability to prevent students from being successful in their respective educational goals. If a continual flow of professionals to the workforce is a goal, student success is essential.

Strategies to empower college students to manage stress may prove to be beneficial. According to Dziegielewski et al. (2004) programs that identify stressors and provide information on stress reduction and burnout prevention can help students learn to better cope with stressful experiences. Subsequently, better coping skills are associated with decreased anxiety levels and decreased risk for academic failure. The literature suggests that stress is a common theme among college students, and when stressful experiences are greater than the coping resources, multiple problems often arise (Garret, 2001). Hence, programs which assist in the identification of stressors, and focus on prevention of burnout, and counseling regarding coping strategies should enhance student success (Garret, 2001).


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Sharon Hall Murff, MSN, CCRN

Sharon Hall Murff. MSN, OCN, is an assistant professor of medical- surgical nursing at Grambling State University, School of Nursing, PO Box 1192, Grambling, Louisiana 71245. She received a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from East Carolina University in 1976. She received a Master of Science in Nursing with a focus on Critical Care Nursing and Education from Northwestern State University in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1997.


I wish to thank Sandra Sayles PhD, RNfor giving me the opportunity and encouragement to submit this manuscript. Also, I wish to thank Mary Joe Stoglin, EdD, APRN-B, CNS, for encouragement to submit this manuscript. In addition, I wish to express my gratitude to the administrators of Grambling State University School of Nursing, Betty Smith PhD, RN (Dean), and Karin Jones PhD, RN, FNP (Director of BSN Program) for their support in the pursuit of academic excellence.

Copyright Tucker Publications, Inc. Sep/Oct 2005