By Paulina Munoz, college intern, and Dr. Divya Babbar

It’s that time of year where the pressure of the semester is building with assignments piling up. Are you feeling anxious under all of that weight? Anxiety is especially prevalent in college students with studies reporting that at least eight in ten college students experience periods of persistent stress (AUCD, 2016). This is likely caused by excess workload and newfound responsibilities. Inadequately addressing and managing stressors can actually magnify a student’s measure of stress. Let’s investigate how we can understand and tackle this.

Our Emotions

As humans, we are capable of feeling an abundant number of distinct emotions that enhance our experience of events that occur in our day-to-day lives. Some portions of our emotional pools can feel negative or unpleasant, causing our initial responses to verge on escape or caving into these feelings. Our emotions, without doubt, influence our attitudes and approaches to daily situations. In a world full of existential, environmental, relational, and financial problems, it is easy to get lost in our feelings. However, if we learn to listen and sit with our difficult emotions, we can turn them into navigators rather than roadblocks.

The Root of Difficult Emotions

What exactly causes us to experience difficult emotions? To answer that, we need to explore what a stressor is. It is a response to any event, condition, or stable environment capable of making a desired goal feel unattainable (Sapolsky, 2004). How one responds to stress can vary depending on the individual and their environment, process of evaluation, coping mechanisms, and more psychological or physiological influences. Our brains are capable of naturally adapting to change. When we perceive a danger or a threat, our bodies react and respond accordingly, allowing us to return to a stable equilibrium. However, since human emotions are so complex, we can worsen or elongate stress for ourselves – even when there is no actual threat or risk present at that given moment. This can manifest in rumination or anticipation, which can cause self-imposed affliction.

How Our Difficult Emotions Can Guide Us

Growth is the most prevailing result of discomfort, and your mind is the variable. When faced with a stressor, it is easy to lose perception of reality by concentrating on what you are feeling over why you are feeling it. If you take a moment to pause and monitor the thought process that led you to the anxiety, you can become aware of what prompted your fear and evaluate the actuality of the threat.

When faced with anxiety, your attention becomes intrinsic –the first challenge to maintaining control. Essentially, the causal factor of how stressful an event is results from how realistically you appraise it.

Tap into your potential by trying these strategies when faced with overwhelming feelings and stressors:

Evaluate the situation

Ask yourself:

Is the situation causing me immediate pain or damage?

Does it suggest future damage?

Establish solutions.

Ask yourself:

How can I cope with this event?

Am I familiar with this situation? If so, how have I overcome it in the past?

Who can offer me support in navigating the situation?

What factors can I add or remove from the situation to make it better?

How can I face the challenge rather than run from it?


Ask yourself:

What positive outcome can I gain from this negative experience?

How can I apply this to future situations?

What might this situation tell me about myself, and how can I improve in this realm?

If someone else experienced a similar situation, what advice would I give them?

Although we can teach ourselves to take a different approach when dealing with stressors, we don’t have to do it alone. Georgetown Psychology offers resources and therapists to help guide you through the challenges often accompanying difficult emotions.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: the acclaimed guide to stress, stress-related diseases, and coping. Henry Holt and Company.

The American Institute of Stress. (2022, November 29). College students. Stress in College Students.