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'Adjusting the sails' on student stress

ASU professor's study on coping with stress in college earns Lasting Impact Award

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May 14, 2024

The impact of stress on individuals in work and educational contexts poses a significant financial burden, particularly in the workplace, estimated at around $300 billion annually.

And while some stress is to be expected as part of the college experience, according to Christopher P. Neck, the pressure for college students to excel and find a good job is more complex and pervasive than ever before.

Neck, a professor at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, co-authored a paper titled “Effective Stress Management: A Model of Emotional Intelligence, Self-Leadership, and Student Stress Coping” with four other academicsNeck’s co-authors include Jeffery D. Houghton, Jinpei Wu, Jeffrey L. Godwin and Charles C. Manz. to explain the complex interplay of emotional intelligence and self-leadership in enhancing students' ability to manage stress effectively.

5 tips for stress regulation

1. Cultivate emotional intelligence: Develop your emotional intelligence by enhancing your ability to perceive, understand and regulate your own emotions.

2. Practice self-leadership: Embrace self-leadership principles to take control of your thoughts, feelings and actions. 

3. Engage in positive self-talk: Foster a positive mindset by engaging in constructive self-talk. 

4. Utilize stress coping strategies: Equip yourself with effective stress coping strategies to manage academic pressures and life transitions.

5. Foster a growth mindset: Cultivate a growth mindset by embracing challenges as opportunities for learning and personal growth.

The Journal of Management Education published the paper in 2012, and a decade later, the research’s relevance has not only persisted but also gained recognition for its enduring impact on the field.

That’s why it was awarded the 2023 Lasting Impact Award by the Management and Organizational Behavior Teaching Society and Sage Publications. This accolade is awarded to publications that have significantly influenced management education or educators, providing insights that remain relevant and vital over the years. The recognition underscores the article’s substantial influence and role in shaping educational approaches to stress management.

As we approach the presentation of this award at the 51st annual MOBTS Teaching Conference in June 2024 and in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, it is poignant to reflect on the developments since the article’s publication and consider the future trajectory of this research area.

ASU News spoke to Neck about how the landscape of student stress has evolved over the years, and what new understandings we need to integrate into our educational systems.

Editor's note: Answers may have been edited for length and/or clarity.

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Christopher P. Neck

Question: How has stress become more intense for college students over the years, and what don't people understand about what students are dealing with today?

Answer: The adage “You can’t control the wind but certainly can adjust the sails” rings true here. In short, there seems to be a lot more wind facing college students today. Stress among college students has evolved significantly over the years, becoming more intense due to various societal and cultural factors. One prominent contributor is the increasingly competitive nature of academia, with higher expectations for academic achievement and a greater emphasis on career prospects post-graduation. The pressure to excel academically while balancing extracurricular activities, internships and social obligations can be overwhelming.

Additionally, the rise of technology and social media has created a constant state of connectivity, making it challenging for students to disconnect and relax. The pervasive influence of social media also contributes to feelings of comparison and inadequacy, as students often compare themselves to their peers’ seemingly perfect lives portrayed online. Also, the proliferation of social media creates a situation where students are usually multitasking — a problem that increases anxiety and stress.

Furthermore, financial burdens play a significant role in exacerbating stress among college students today. The rising cost of tuition, coupled with concerns about student loan debt and job prospects after graduation, adds additional pressure. Many students also juggle part-time jobs or internships to support themselves financially, further adding to their stress levels. Moreover, issues such as mental health challenges, societal expectations and the uncertainty of the future contribute to the complexity of stress experienced by today's college students. Overall, the multifaceted nature of stressors facing students today highlights the need for comprehensive support systems and effective coping strategies within higher education institutions to help students “adjust the sails.”

Q: In your paper, you specifically name two types of stress students experience: distress and eustress. Can you summarize each type and how it uniquely applies to college students?

A: Distress and eustress are two distinct types of stress that college students commonly experience, each with unique characteristics and implications.

Distress is the negative type of stress, characterized by feelings of overwhelm, anxiety and pressure. In college, distress often arises from academic deadlines, performance expectations, interpersonal conflicts and personal struggles. ... Distress can harm students' mental and physical well-being if left unaddressed, impacting their academic performance and overall quality of life.

On the other hand, eustress is a positive form of stress that arises from challenging but manageable situations. Unlike distress, which is overwhelming and debilitating, eustress is energizing and motivating. In college, eustress can stem from experiences such as starting a new project, preparing for an exam or pursuing personal growth opportunities like joining clubs or participating in extracurricular activities. ... Eustress can enhance students' motivation, focus and performance, helping them thrive academically and personally.

Understanding the distinction between distress and eustress is crucial for college students as it allows them to effectively identify and manage their stressors. By recognizing the difference between overwhelming challenges that may require support and manageable stressors that can enhance performance, students can develop coping strategies tailored to their specific needs. Additionally, fostering a positive mindset and reframing stressors as opportunities for growth can help students harness the power of eustress to successfully navigate the demands of college life.

Q: Your paper also discusses emotional intelligence and emotion regulation. What are these concepts, and how do they apply to this situation?

A: Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to perceive, understand, manage and utilize emotions effectively in various situations. It encompasses self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skills. Emotion regulation, on the other hand, refers to the process of managing and controlling one's emotional responses to different situations.

These concepts are highly relevant for college students and stress management for several reasons. Firstly, college life often presents numerous challenges and stressors, from academic pressures to personal relationships and career uncertainties. Developing emotional intelligence equips students with the skills to navigate these challenges effectively. For instance, self-awareness allows students to recognize their emotional triggers and responses, while self-regulation enables them to manage stress and maintain balance. Empathy and social skills help students build supportive relationships and seek help when needed, fostering resilience and coping mechanisms.

Moreover, emotion regulation strategies play a crucial role in mitigating the negative impact of stress on students' mental health and well-being. By learning to regulate their emotions, students can reduce feelings of anxiety, overwhelm and burnout commonly associated with college life. Effective emotion regulation also promotes adaptive coping strategies, such as seeking social support, engaging in problem-solving and practicing self-care — essential for managing stress effectively.

Q: You and your co-authors suggest that self-leadership is a primary way of dealing with stress. What is self-leadership, and how can students develop stress-regulating strategies?

A: Self-leadership is the process of influencing oneself to establish self-direction and self-motivation for effective performance. It involves adopting specific behavior-focused and cognitive-focused strategies to enhance individual effectiveness. In essence, self-leadership empowers individuals to take control of their thoughts, feelings and actions, facilitating goal achievement and personal growth.

For college students, developing self-leadership skills is paramount for effectively managing stress and navigating the demands of academic life. One way students can cultivate self-leadership is by practicing behavior-focused strategies such as self-observation, self-goal setting, self-reward and self-correcting feedback. Self-observation entails assessing one's behaviors to identify areas for improvement or change, while self-goal setting involves setting specific, challenging and realistic goals to focus one's efforts. Self-rewarding involves creating incentives linked to goal attainment to motivate and energize oneself, while self-correcting feedback entails evaluating failures constructively and redirecting efforts toward positive outcomes.

Additionally, students can develop cognitive-focused self-leadership strategies to reshape their thought processes and enhance their coping abilities. Cognitive strategies include positive self-talk, constructive mental imagery and challenging dysfunctional beliefs and assumptions. Positive self-talk involves fostering optimistic inner dialogues to combat negative self-talk and promote resilience. Constructive mental imagery visualizes success and positive outcomes to bolster confidence and motivation. Challenging dysfunctional beliefs involves identifying and reframing negative thought patterns contributing to stress and adopting more adaptive perspectives.

Q: What do you envision as the next steps in this field of research and practice?

A: Looking ahead, the next frontier in stress management research for college students lies in exploring the intersection of emotional intelligence, self-leadership and holistic well-being. While our model provides valuable insights into the mechanisms through which these factors influence stress coping, there is still much to uncover in terms of individual differences, contextual influences and long-term outcomes. Future research could delve deeper into the efficacy of specific intervention programs tailored to enhance college students' emotional intelligence and self-leadership skills, evaluating their impact on academic performance, mental health outcomes and overall resilience.

Moreover, as technology continues to reshape the landscape of higher education, there is a growing need to explore innovative approaches to stress management that harness digital platforms and virtual resources. From mobile apps and online support networks to virtual reality-based interventions, the possibilities for leveraging technology to promote student well-being are vast.  

For instance, I’m currently working on a study where students use a daily app on their smartphones to record their self-talk during a particular time each day. The hope is that by helping students become more aware of their mental processes, they can learn to realize when such self-dialogue is creating stress and how they can change this dysfunctional self-talk to less stress-provoking.

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