Skip to main content

Understanding and managing student stress

December 8, 2011

It’s that time of year. Libraries and coffee shops are packed with students. And they seem to carry a tired and vacant look.

As faculty and staff members, you may be charged with upholding academic responsibilities for the conclusion of the semester. But you can also play an important role in supporting their success during this period by understanding what they’re going through and putting them in touch with resources.

Inside UW–Madison recently talked with Rob Sepich, stress management specialist and Danielle Oakley, director of counseling and consultation services about student stress and ways to help.

iUW: Why is this a stressful time of year for students?

Sepich: Balancing multiple academic responsibilities is never easy, but when most of them come due at the same time, it is especially difficult.  Finals, papers, and projects are often due within the same week, and if students have not paced themselves, they find that something has to go.  Sleep and nutrition are often the first things to be sacrificed.  When we compound sleep deprivation with fast food, junk food, and excess caffeine, our bodies do not perform optimally.  Although we wouldn’t feed our pets chips and soda, we think nothing of trying it ourselves—and then are surprised when we crash.

iUW: What is going on in the minds of stressed students?

Oakley: These responses are as varied as students themselves.  For example, some actually enjoy the predictable end-of-semester stress to concentrate their minds and focus their energy—using adrenaline and cortisol to their advantage.  Coming to terms with how many days remain until exams helps them use time efficiently.  But for others, the period brings out the worst.  For instance, by dwelling on what they cannot get done, or on how guilty they feel for lost time, students feel trapped.  And as one might expect, these perspectives don’t accomplish goals.  In general, most students are somewhere in the middle—regretting decisions made in September, but willing to pour it on in December and do the best they can with the time they have. 

iUW: How are students mentally and physically affected by stress?

Sepich: We have evolved to cope with intense, short-term stress quite well.  But chronic stress does damage mentally and physically.  Students often feel physical effects through stomach problems, headaches, fatigue, and insomnia.  Mentally, students have difficulty concentrating, feel irritable, and obsess about problems rather than solutions. 

Although acute stress can give your immune system a temporary boost, chronic stress compromises it.  This susceptibility hurts students who get sick and fall behind when they can least afford it. 

One of the best ways to counter these effects is through taking brief breaks.  Stretching, slow breathing, music, talking, exercising, visualizing—all have been shown to help.  Simply taking stock of what’s going well in your life can help interrupt a cycle of stress.  It does not remove the sources of anxiety, but it helps temporarily restore balance—and often that’s enough.

iUW: What can I, as a faculty or staff member, do to help stressed students?


  • Normalize that this can be a stressful time of the year and encourage the tips Rob mentioned.
  • Consider making a 30-second announcement in class about UW offerings for students, giving them the UHS website and phone number – at or 265-5600.
  • Send a brief email to the class distribution list.  Although many students won’t take advantage, the act of mentioning it helps them know you care. 
  • Offer various strategies for breaking up tasks into smaller parts so that overall projects do not seem as overwhelming.
  • Describe help-seeking behavior as a sign of strength, not weakness. 
  • Consult colleagues at UHS or in the Division of Student Life for specific ideas tailored to your situation.
  • Send a brief email to the class distribution list.  Although many students won’t take advantage, the act of mentioning it helps them know you care.  
  • It is a basic concept, but owning your feelings (e.g., “I’m concerned about the way you are talking lately”) is far more effective than outlining what needs to change.  

iUW: How can I recognize and help a student that may need more assistance than I can provide?

Sepich: If you notice marked changes in academic performance or behavior, unusual behavior or appearance, or verbal or written references to suicide or death, it’s important to express your concern to the student. Make an effort to discuss your concerns with the student in private and refrain from making any judgments or criticizing. For example, expressing concern (e.g., “I’m worried about you”) is less likely to arouse defensiveness than telling students they are doing something wrong.  It is a basic concept, but owning your feelings (e.g., I’m concerned about the way you are talking lately”) is far more effective than outlining what needs to change.

Be sure to provide hope that the student does not have to continue feeling this way and provide information about the resources available to assist the student. Remind the student that these resources are already in place because many students struggle at various times during their academic careers. If you would like information about resources, please call UHS at 608-265-5600 or the Division of Student Life.