57 Stress, Stress Management, and Sleep

Sonji Nicholas

What you’ll learn to do: explore sources and signs of stress and healthy ways to manage stress

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Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day­-to-­day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life. ­

—Marilu Henner, actress

By the end of this section, you will be able to identify sources and signs of stress, particularly for college students. You will also be able to list healthy ways of managing stress that fit your current lifestyle.

Causes of Stress

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify sources and signs of stress, particularly for college students

As a student, you’re probably very familiar with the experience of stress—a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension. What you may not know is that it’s a natural response of the mind and body to a situation in which a person feels threatened or anxious. Stress can be positive (e.g., preparing for a wedding) or negative (e.g., dealing with a natural disaster).

Man lies on his back while talking on the phoneStress can hit you when you least expect it—before a test, after losing a job, or during conflict in a relationship. If you’re a college student, it may feel like stress is a persistent fact of life. While everyone experiences stress at times, a prolonged bout of it can affect your health and ability to cope with life. That’s why social support and self-care are important. They can help you see your problems in perspective . . . and the stressful feelings may ease up.

Stress levels were particularly high during the COVID-19 pandemic. Research on stress by the American Psychological Association (APA) during 2021 showed the impact of the crisis on the health of those surveyed. Americans reported unwanted changes in weight (gain or loss), increased drinking, and disrupted sleep. Mental health concerns were exacerbated amongst parents of children under 18 and essential workers. People of color were more likely to report concerns regarding physical health (sleep, weight, and activity levels). Additionally Black Americans reported worrying the most about the future.[1]

Sometimes stress can be good. For instance, it can help you develop skills needed to manage potentially challenging or threatening situations in life. However, stress can be harmful when it is severe enough to make you feel overwhelmed and out of control.

Strong emotions like fear, sadness, or other symptoms of depression are normal, as long as they are temporary and don’t interfere with daily activities. If these emotions last too long or cause other problems, it’s a different story.

Signs and Effects of Stress

Physical or emotional tension are often signs of stress. They can be reactions to a situation that causes you to feel threatened or anxious. The following are all common symptoms of stress:

  • disbelief and shock
  • tension and irritability
  • fear and anxiety about the future
  • difficulty making decisions
  • being numb to one’s feelings
  • loss of interest in normal activities
  • loss of appetite (or increased appetite)
  • nightmares and recurring thoughts about an event
  • anger
  • increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • sadness and other symptoms of depression
  • feeling powerless
  • crying
  • sleep problems
  • headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
  • trouble concentrating.

It’s not only unpleasant to live with the tension and symptoms of ongoing stress; it’s actually harmful to your body, too. Chronic stress can impair your immune system and disrupt almost all of your body’s processes, leading to increased risk of numerous health problems, including the following:[2]

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • digestive problems
  • heart disease
  • sleep problems
  • weight gain
  • memory and concentration impairment

These problems are why it’s so important to learn healthy ways of coping with the stressors in your life.  Throughout the semester, FSW offers many activities that help students mitigate the effects of stress.  The Active Minds Club is an FSW Registered Student Organization that facilitates discussions and initiatives to promote student mental wellbeing.  The Office of Student Engagement frequently offers Events including Mindfulness activities designed to help students decrease their levels of stress.  Finally, students should watch for stress relieving activities held on all campuses throughout the semester; especially during mid-term and final exam weeks.

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Ways to Manage Stress

Learning Outcomes

  • List healthy ways of managing stress that fit your current lifestyle

As mentioned previously, sometimes stress can be good. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress, shows that how we perceive stress can affect its impact on us. She believes we can reevaluate stress and see it as a sign of personal progress. Creating personal meaning about stress can help us to cope with it more effectively. Watch McGonigal discuss how to turn stress into an advantage. She concludes by stating, “A meaningful life is also a stressful life. . . . Something you care about is at stake. . . . Trust that you can handle the challenge.”

Some of the best ways for managing stress are by taking care of yourself in the following ways:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol. They may seem like temporary fixes to feel better, but in the long run they can create more problems and add to your stress instead of taking it away.
  • Manage your time. Work on prioritizing and scheduling your commitments. This management will help you feel in better control of your life, which, in turn, will mean less stress.
  • Find support. Seek help from a friend, family member, partner, counselor, doctor, or clergy person. Having a sympathetic listening ear and talking about your problems and stress really can lighten the burden.
  • Connect socially. When you feel stressed, it’s easy to isolate yourself. Try to resist the impulse to isolate and stay connected instead. Make time to enjoy being with classmates, friends, and family; try to schedule study breaks that you can take with other people.
  • Slow down and cut out distractions for a while. Take a break from your phone, email, and social media.
  • Take care of your health.
    • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
    • Exercise regularly.
    • Get plenty of sleep.
    • Try a relaxation technique, such as meditation or yoga, or treat yourself to a massage.
    • Maintain a normal routine.

The following video features a progressive muscle relaxation meditation for you to try. There are many, many other meditations available on YouTube and elsewhere.

You can view the transcript for “Body Scan Meditation” here (opens in new window).

If the self-care techniques listed above aren’t enough and stress is seriously interfering with your studies or life, don’t be afraid to get help. FSW Care Services FSW Care Services and college advisors are both good resources. 

Student Story: Stress and the Pandemic

This student story was written as part of Lumen’s College Success Student Contributors project. The student stories are written in collaboration with real college students and college graduates to reflect real student experiences.

COVID has definitely put a lot of stress and pressure on me and everybody around me. We’re all suffering from a collective trauma here, and every big eventful thing that comes up in your life just seems so much more amplified. This year I got rejected from grad school and had a long-term relationship end. I’ve gone through some mental health stuff and felt like I couldn’t take care of myself a few times. All these things seemed so much bigger than they probably are. Maintaining the façade of just coming to class every day was hard, I felt like I couldn’t show up to class but I still did it.


This entire year of school was done online due to the pandemic. It was all over Zoom before the vaccines were rolling out. Even now, I wouldn’t want to have study sessions with people in person because of the pandemic. I did thrive more when I was able to study with other people. It breaks up the monotony of only seeing people in class and only being able to talk about class. In study groups, you can have other types of conversations.


When you’re having class remotely, it’s harder to admit to yourself and your professors that you need a mental health day. Just a few weeks ago, I had surgery and I asked for deadline extensions from my professors and they were all very kind about it. For one class, I had to leave ten minutes early for my post-op responsibilities. I told my professor and she ended up being very understanding. It felt good because someone other than me was seeing that I was trying. It was validating and refreshing that I didn’t feel like I had to fake anything because instructors are people, and they have lives outside of class and grading, too. When I received that support from my professor, it was really grounding. I didn’t feel like I was letting anybody down or that I was deficient in any way.

Benefits of Sleep

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify benefits of sleep for both physical and mental health

We have so many demands on our time—school, jobs, family, and errands, not to mention finding some time to relax. To fit everything in, we often sacrifice sleep. But sleep affects both mental and physical health. Like exercise and a healthy diet, sleep is vital to your well-being.

Numbers from a digital clock, blurred, against a black background. From left, 10:24, 10:25, 10:29

Of course, sleep helps you feel rested each day. But while you’re sleeping, your brain and body don’t just shut down. Internal organs and processes are hard at work throughout the night. Sleep can help you lock in everything you’re studying and trying to remember. “Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at NIH.

When you’re tired, you can’t function at your best. Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes, and focus better. “The fact is, when we look at well-rested people, they’re operating at a different level than people trying to get by on one or two hours less nightly sleep….Loss of sleep impairs your higher levels of reasoning, problem-solving, and attention to detail,” Mitler explains.  Tired people tend to be less productive at work and school.  They’re at a much higher risk for traffic accidents.  Lack of sleep also influences your mood, which can affect how you interact with others.  A sleep deficit over time can even put you at greater risk for developing depression.

But sleep isn’t just essential for the brain. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” says Dr. Michael Twery, a sleep expert at NIH. “It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.” Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease, and infections. Throughout the night, your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure rise and fall, a process that may be important for cardiovascular health. Your body releases hormones during sleep that help repair cells and control the body’s use of energy. These hormone changes can affect your body weight. “Ongoing research shows a lack of sleep can produce diabetic-like conditions in otherwise healthy people,” says Mitler. Recent studies also reveal that sleep can affect the efficiency of vaccinations. Twery described research showing that well-rested people who received the flu vaccine developed stronger protection against the illness.

A good night’s sleep consists of four to five sleep cycles. Each cycle includes periods of deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when we dream. “As the night goes on, the portion of that cycle that is in REM sleep increases. It turns out that this pattern of cycling and progression is critical to the biology of sleep,” Twery says.

Sleep can be disrupted by many things. Stimulants such as caffeine or certain medications can keep you up. Distractions such as electronics—especially the light from TVs, cell phones, tablets and e-readers—can prevent you from falling asleep.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

The amount of sleep each person needs depends on many factors, including age, and getting a full night of quality sleep is important. Infants generally require about sixteen hours a day, while teenagers need about nine hours on average. For most adults, seven to eight hours a night appears to be the best amount of sleep. The amount of sleep a person needs also increases if he or she has been deprived of sleep in previous days. Getting too little sleep creates a sleep debt, which is a lot like being overdrawn at a bank. Eventually, your body will demand that the debt be repaid. We don’t seem to adapt to getting less sleep than we need; while we may get used to a sleep-depriving schedule, our judgment, reaction time, and other functions are still impaired. If you’re a student, that means that sleep-deprivation may prevent you from studying, learning, and performing as well as you can.

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People tend to sleep more lightly and for shorter time spans as they get older, although they generally need about the same amount of sleep as they needed in early adulthood. If you feel drowsy during the day, you haven’t had enough sleep.[3] Falling asleep often within five minutes of lying down can be a sign with your are sleep deprived of may even have a sleep disorder.[4]

Sleep deprivation is dangerous. Not only do sleep-deprived people perform as badly on coordination tasks as intoxicated people, but sleep deprivation makes the effects of intoxication more pronounced.[5]

Driving While Sleepy

“Driver fatigue is responsible for an estimated 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1,500 deaths each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”
– sleepassociation.org

Experiencing drowsiness is your signal that your brain is ready for sleep. Many people use caffeine and other stimulants to stay awake even while experiencing drowsiness, but those stimulants cannot overcome the effects of severe sleep deprivation.[6] The National Sleep Foundation says that if you have trouble keeping your eyes focused, if you can’t stop yawning, or if you can’t remember driving the last few miles, you are probably too drowsy to drive safely.[7]

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Falling Asleep

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify ways to ensure good sleep habits and high-quality sleep, especially during periods of stress

Man asleep with a cat on his face

Many people, especially those who feel stressed, anxious, or overworked, have a har time falling asleep and/or staying asleep, and this difficulty can shorten the amount of time and the quality of sleep when it actually comes.  The following tips can help you get to sleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling well rested:

  • Set a schedule: Go to bed at a set time each night and get up at the same time each morning. Disrupting this schedule may lead to insomnia. Sleeping in on weekends also makes it harder to wake up early on Monday morning because it resets your sleep cycles for a later awakening.
  • Exercise: Try to exercise twenty to thirty minutes a day. Daily exercise often helps people sleep, although a workout too soon before bedtime may interfere with sleep. For maximum benefit, try to get your exercise about five to six hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed: Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, which acts as a stimulant and keeps people awake. Sources of caffeine include coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, non-herbal teas, diet drugs, and some pain relievers. Smokers tend to sleep very lightly and often wake up in the early morning due to nicotine withdrawal. Alcohol robs people of deep sleep and REM sleep and keeps them in the lighter stages of sleep.
  • Relax before bed: A warm bath, reading, or another relaxing routine can make it easier to fall sleep. It’s also a good idea to put away books, homework, and screens (computer and phone) at least thirty minutes before bed. You can train yourself to associate certain restful activities with sleep and make them part of your bedtime ritual.
  • Sleep until sunlight: If possible, wake up with the sun, or use very bright lights in the morning. Sunlight helps the body’s internal biological clock reset itself each day. Sleep experts recommend exposure to an hour of morning sunlight for people having problems falling asleep.
  • Don’t lie in bed awake: If you can’t get to sleep, don’t just lie in bed. Do something else, like reading or listening to music, until you feel tired. (Avoid digital screens, though: watching TV and being on the computer or a smartphone are too stimulating and will actually make you more wakeful.) The anxiety of being unable to fall asleep can actually contribute to insomnia.
  • Control your room temperature: Maintain a comfortable temperature in the bedroom. Extreme temperatures may disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep.
  • Screen out noise and light: Sleep with earplugs and use an eye pillow to drown out any bright lights and noise of loud roommates, etc.
  • See a doctor if your sleeping problem continues: If you have trouble falling asleep night after night, or if you always feel tired the next day, then you may have a sleep disorder and should see a physician. Your primary care physician may be able to help you; if not, you can probably find a sleep specialist at a major hospital near you. Most sleep disorders can be treated effectively so you can finally get that good night’s sleep you need.

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microsleeps: very brief episodes of sleep in an otherwise awake person, often a mark of sleep deprivation

sleep debt: a cumulative sleep deficit for which your body will eventually need to compensate

stress: a condition characterized by symptoms of physical or emotional tension in response to a situation in which one feels threatened or anxious


  1. "One Year On: Unhealthy Weight Gains, Increased Drinking Reported by Americans Coping with Pandemic Stress." American Psychological Association, 11 Mar. 2021, www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2021/03/one-year-pandemic-stress.
  2. "Stress Management." Mayo Clinic, 2016, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.
  3. https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/what-is-sleep/
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.


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Stress, Stress Management, and Sleep Copyright © 2023 by Sonji Nicholas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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