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6 Signs That It May Not Be "Just College Stress"

When parents should worry and how to help

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The frantic call comes late at night, when college exams, essays and an over-burdened schedule threaten to engulf your child. But when is it "just college stress" and when is it something more frightening? And as a parent of a college student, how do you even tell long distance?

"Stress isn’t bad," says college stress expert Maria Pascucci, founder of Campus Calm.com. "We all need a healthy amount of stress in our lives because it keeps us motivated and challenged as we try new things. (But) when stress becomes overwhelming and we don’t know how to deal with it in healthy ways, that’s when it starts to interfere with our lives."

If you think your child's health may be at risk, urge him to visit his college's student health center. Universities have a broad array of student counseling services, ranging from peer support groups to full on, one-on-one psychiatric help. It's important, says Pascucci, to "take the shame out of discussing mental health. Have you been to a counselor? Tell your child that."

Pascucci was so overwhelmed by stress in her college years that anxiety-related medical issues dogged her into adulthood. Symptoms vary from person to person, of course, but these are stress warning signs she says that should have sent her running to the student health center.

  1. Change in sleep patterns: too much or too little sleep
  2. Change in eating habits: either too much or too little
  3. Becoming angry over nothing or crying very easily
  4. Frequent stomachaches, headaches, skin breaking out
  5. Constant negative self-thoughts and anxiety over everyday things
  6. Withdrawing from friends and loved ones.
"Obviously," Pascucci says, "these things are easier to notice if your student is still living with you. If she dorms on campus, you’re going to have to work harder to assess her stress levels. Have your phone calls changed? Is your student distant, angry, always talking about how stressed or tired she is? Ask your student the question directly, 'Is this exam week - or rush week or intro to college week - stress or do you think you’re dealing with some chronic stress that we need to address together?'"
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