If seeing the word stress starts to make you feel a little stressed, you’re not alone. It has deep-rooted, mostly unpleasant connotations. We constantly hear about the deleterious effects of chronic stress, and the phrase “I’m stressed” has become a ubiquitous catchall for all sorts of negative physical and emotional sensations ranging from exhaustion to sadness. This in turn has created a vicious cycle in which each time we say we’re stressed, we begin to really feel stressed, and frankly, it doesn’t feel very good. To make matters worse, we often find the words college and stress in the same sentence.

However, stress isn’t good or bad—it’s just stress. When we experience stress negatively, we’re actually experiencing distress. We all know that one. Like a week or two of poor sleep, it goes on for far too long, it isn’t fun, and it leaves us feeling worn down. On the flip side of distress, there’s eustress, something we all experience but of which we may not be fully aware. Eustress has a clear beginning and end, promotes positive adaptation and growth, and leaves us feeling stronger and more prepared to face another challenge. Winning the conference basketball championship after practicing hard all season or starring in a musical on opening night after months of rehearsals are both examples of this “good stress”; neither of them is easy, but each one makes us better. Just like distress, eustress follows the steps of the stress response but with a different result. 

So when we experience stress in college, is it distress or eustress? More often than not, it’s probably eustress. Here’s why:

Homeostasis: Our not-so-humble beginnings

Most of the time, we’re in a state of homeostasis, or equilibrium, where we feel comfortable, normal, and safe. All systems are running smoothly, and we know what to expect. Depending on our age, our resting heart rate is somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute, our blood pressure is in the ballpark of 120/80, our body temperature is roughly 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, we inhale and exhale 12 to 16 times a minute, and so on. We feel hungry, sleepy, or alert at roughly the same time each day. Typically, we don’t think much about any of these mechanisms. Our body does a pretty good job of keeping us comfortable via the heroic efforts of the hypothalamus, a pea-sized endocrine gland in the brain.

What does homeostasis currently look like for you? Right now, maybe “normal” is driving to school, attending classes for about seven hours each day, working on homework, going to sports practice or rehearsals, and then finally heading home to eat dinner and work on still more homework until bedtime (not too shabby for a mere 24 hours!). This daily rhythm has become routine, and you know what to expect from yourself and your surroundings. Everything feels pretty normal. However, after four years of this, maybe homeostasis is starting to seem a bit … boring. You might even begin to wonder if you unknowingly earned the starring role in Groundhog Day or if time-turners are actually real. That’s where college comes into play. 

The stressor: It’s all about balance

At its simplest, a stressor is something that disrupts homeostasis, which can be just about anything. Challenges to our physical, mental, emotional, social, existential, and environmental equilibriums throw us off balance. Each type of stress contributes to our “stress bucket” (called the allostatic load) in a slightly different way. A physical stressor would be a difficult workout or pulling an all-nighter, we encounter environmental stress when we find ourselves living somewhere new, and we experience a pretty strong emotional shift after entering a serious romantic relationship for the first time.

Stressors abound in the course of our lives; what matters most is how we respond to them.   

College is a stressor. It’s true. Moving away from home into a dormitory, eating in the university dining hall, not following a rigid schedule from 8:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., trying to find the nearest grocery store, choosing a major, joining a student organization, and going to visit a professor in office hours for the first time are all deviations from the comforts of four years of reliable routines in high school. Stressors abound in the course of our lives; what matters most is how we respond to them.

Stress response: Do be (mildly) alarmed 

Similar to when the alarm sounds at the beginning of a fire drill and the hallways suddenly seem a little too jam-packed with people, things can get temporarily worse during the stress response. Once your brain recognizes a stressor, it signals the rest of the body to take action. The sympathetic nervous system activates (think fight-or-flight), and your adrenal glands secrete adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones. Heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure increase; the immune system ramps up; and nonessential functions like digestion may shut down if needed. You feel more alert, focused, and energized. You’re ready for action.

In an academic setting, for example, this increased energy and focus create the perfect conditions for learning. You may feel a little on edge as your professor shows several slides of formulas for organic compounds on syllabus day, but this heightened awareness will help make those formulas stick. The same applies to the first conference game of the season—if everything seems to be moving in slow motion as you intercept a long pass, thank your stress response. Each stressor we encounter elicits a slightly new response as our body tries to get our attention and return us to normalcy.

Recovery: Not just for the pros

After our body has dealt with a stressor, it’s time to recover and fix any “damage.” Immune cells called macrophages clean up any leftover debris, and as we ingest nutrients via our food, we make new proteins and replenish our glycogen (energy) stores. Our cells create bigger and better mitochondria, so we learn to produce energy more efficiently. Inflammation decreases and our sympathetic nervous system relaxes, letting the parasympathetic system (rest-and-digest) take over. Heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure go back to normal. The levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol drop. You probably learned a lot about this “reboot” process in AP Biology, and you most certainly lived it in the aftermath of powering through the AP exam.   

Taking time to recover and rebuild is essential. While the word recovery may conjure up images of lying around doing absolutely nothing, the process of recovery is an active one (although sleeping and relaxing in bed are important, too). We need to provide ourselves with plentiful resources and opportunities for recovery, like nourishing our bodies and minds with good food and the company of our teammates after winning that conference game or making sure we spend some time outside after finishing a two-hour organic chemistry exam. We balance the demands of the academic year with time to rest during holidays, and there’s a reason why we’re more likely to remember what we learned yesterday if we got enough sleep last night. Recovering well from the variety of physical, mental, and environmental stressors we encounter every day during college is what helps us grow; it’s what turns stress into eustress.

Homeostasis 2.0: “New and improved”

Finally, we return to homeostasis, or to be more precise, homeostasis 2.0. Our cells are more fuel-efficient, our muscles and immune system are stronger, and our bodies are more resilient overall. The next time we run sprints, we won’t breathe quite as heavily. When we need to make a boxplot or a histogram during a Statistics exam, our fingers will dart from button to button on our graphing calculators without hesitation. When flu season comes, our immune cells will take action more quickly. 

After four or so years of college, you will have reached homeostasis 2.0—your new normal. If you didn’t know how to cook or grocery shop before living on your own, now you do. If you’d never had much of a choice regarding which classes to take, now you have a good sense of what interests you and what doesn’t. You can cite sources in MLA, APA, or Chicago format with your eyes closed, you’ve presented a research paper or two, and there’s a good chance you’ve picked up a second language. You know how to put together a résumé and a cover letter, and you can handle any question an interviewer might throw at you.

During your college experience, you’ll learn a lot inside and outside of the classroom. These new skills are clear signs of growth, demonstrating that you’ve successfully adapted to the challenges and stressors of college life. Some of these newfound abilities, like using VLOOKUP in Excel or managing stocks, will be directly related to the courses you complete for your chosen major, but many of them arise simply from navigating the overall stressor that is the college experience. The “you” crossing the stage at graduation won’t be the same “you” from four years ago, and you’ll have stress to thank for this magnificent evolution.  

Learning to embrace stress for what it is, a vehicle for change, and taking the time to properly recover help transform “bad” stressors into “good” stressors.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that we all experience and recover from stress uniquely. So as much as you can, approach the stress of college with open eyes and an open mind. Learning to embrace stress for what it is, a vehicle for change, and taking the time to properly recover help transform “bad” stressors into “good” stressors. Reframing our ideas about stress—by choosing to differentiate between distress and eustress, actively seeking “eustressful” experiences, and celebrating when we reach a new homeostasis—profoundly affects our relationship with stress. That said, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or struggling to think of finals week as “good stress,” don’t worry. Building a better relationship with stress takes time and can be easier with company, so be sure to remember that you can count on support from friends, family, professors, teammates, and staff as you navigate your own eustress journey.