Stress or Something More?

College can be stressful. But how do you know what is “just stress” or something more serious?

That’s one of the most common questions asked of Ball State Professor of Psychology Jerrell Cassady. He and a colleague developed the “Cognitive Test Anxiety Scale” to help people find out if they have “high test anxiety” or “just regular anxiety.”

“The results of work with that and related scales has demonstrated that most people fall into the “moderate” level of test anxiety at some point during what we refer to as the ‘Learning Testing Cycle’—and that is a natural and normal process,” Cassady said.

In reality, this level of moderate anxiety is basically becoming aware that there is a stressor in your environment (a test, a project, for example) that you have identified that puts some degree of strain on your workload or emotional response to the academic setting. Anxiety is one outcome of those perceived stressors, he said.

A “healthy amount” of stress will give you the incentive to work toward overcoming that challenging task through study and preparation, Cassady said. However, two people with the same skills can have different responses to the same academic stressors. One could generate a positive response to the challenge with a little anxiety, while the other person will potentially develop high anxiety and have a significant negative outcome.

“Stress is a part of life, and certainly a part of education,” Cassady says. “The key is to learn how to identify the things that cause stress and plan your response to these stressors to help you manage the stressor and have a successful outcome.”

What to do if you are facing high anxiety?

  • Keep track of your feelings through a regular journal or diary. You might see patterns in times you have experienced stress and determine if your feelings are similar or worse, Cassady said. “Many times, in the moment we feel much more unduly pressured and think this is worse than ever—but when you look back at these journaled statements, you may find that this is pretty normal for finals week,” he said.
  • An outside perspective can help. Tell someone how you are feeling and see if they are also feeling that way. “You may find out that you are building this into a much bigger concern than others. That suggests intervention support may be needed,” Cassady said.
  • Look at your behavior. Students at highest risk for negative outcomes generally withdraw from the stressor—that is, they avoid the thing that makes them anxious. “If you (or someone you know) has stopped attending class in response to the stress of that class or have put off working on a major project for an unusually long period of time—those are both common behaviors we see when the stress has reached a critical level,” Cassady said.
  • If you notice physiological symptoms related to the stressor that are intense (stomach issues, headaches, sweating, shortness of breath, significant changes in sleep pattern)­—these are all signs that you may be experiencing unduly high levels of stress, and you should reach out for assistance. Most campuses have a learning center or student mental health support service that covers many issues.

“Stress is a part of life, and certainly a part of education,” Cassady said. “The key is to learn how to identify the things that cause stress and plan your response to these stressors to help you manage the stressor and have a successful outcome.”

Find a self-assessment at Ball State’s Academic Anxiety Resource Center (, as well as more information about academic anxiety.


Sometimes You Just Need a Break

  • Go to a park.
  • Take a break from electronics. Challenge yourself to put devices away for 15 minutes per day, or for a half day once a week—whatever feels a bit uncomfortable.
  • Drive, bike, or walk somewhere completely new.
  • Wander a museum.
  • Go to a farmers market.
  • Call—don’t text—a friend or relative.
  • Sit in nature.
  • Listen to a guided meditiation, such as
  • Sit in a quiet house of worship.
  • Care for plants.
  • Find a dog to walk, or a cat to hang with—you might pick up some extra money, too!
  • Take a yoga or meditation class.
  • Clean your space.
  • Write down what’s bothering you (as well as positive thoughts).

Other Quick Tips for Feeling Better

  1. Sleep more. Go for six to eight hours each night and you’ll be more productive during your waking hours.
  2. Plan ahead. Daily, weekly and semester to-do lists are a helpful lifetime habit.
  3. Cut out processed food. Food writer Michael Pollan said it best: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
  4. Adopt a morning routine. Wake up at the same time each day, ready to work at your college goals.
  5. Pay attention to how partying makes you feel. There’s nothing wrong with having fun, but drinking can make anything and everything worse, especially if you are already struggling.