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How College Students with ADHD Can Manage Stress

By Patricia O. Quinn, MD and Nancy Ratey, Ed.M.

There are three important keys to managing stress:

  1. Recognizing it - many students overlook stress until it has created serious problems

  2. Knowing its effects - illness, susceptibility to infection, increased ADHD symptoms

  3. Identifying its causes - such as overcommitting or not getting enough sleep on a regular basis

The hidden challenge for ALL college students is to learn one's own limits (independently, without parental guidance) and being able to set appropriate boundaries. Students with ADHD often don't learn from their mistakes and have trouble setting boundaries. To make matters worse, students with ADHD often use stress as a tool - for example, waiting until the last minute to complete a paper or study for an exam. ADHD and stress coexist, but if not managed correctly, the combination can quickly become overwhelming.

Many times students with ADHD don't know how to maintain their health, and those who do, often forget to engage in good health practices to counteract the effects of stress. Only after the fact, when they become sick, do they take notice. They perhaps have taken for granted the healthy home-cooked meals or resented their parents nagging them to get to bed by 11 PM. Practicing good health and learning to listen to one's body are both crucial to keeping stress at bay.

A not so obvious cause of stress for students with ADHD is to operate out of areas of weakness. Students with ADHD can become worn down by constantly overcompensating without understanding how to correct the situation. It is imperative to know and understand one's strengths and set up situations and environments that draw on these strengths. For example, if note-taking in class is difficult for a student with ADHD, he or she should not place that stress on themselves, but make arrangements for a note-taker or to audio-tape class lectures.

If a student's stress becomes unmanageable or if they are experiencing depression, panic attacks, or insomnia, they should consult with a physician or other medical or mental health professional.

Strategies for the Student

Practice extreme self-care: This means eight hours of sleep, eating three meals-a-day, drinking lots of water and exercising regularly. Create a system so that you can follow through on these things. Creating healthy habits helps to keep up your energy reserves and you will be less likely to be affected by stress.

Exercise: Adopt a "no excuses" attitude when' it comes to exercise. There is too much evidence about the positive effects of exercise on reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Even short bouts of exercise (like jumping rope or a brisk 10-minute walk) have been shown to reduce stress levels. So, don't let anything stop you - get up and move when you are feeling anxious.

Plan ahead: If you know that certain situations are stressful for you - for example, writing papers - keep this in mind well in advance of the due dates and plan accordingly. This way, a conscious plan for stress reduction can be made ahead of time. Typical strategies might be exercising more and getting more sleep, or canceling any extra-curricular obligations around those dates. This helps you self-protect against the up-coming stress. The fact that the stress will not catch you off guard is powerful in and of itself.

Listen to your body: Try to identify what happens to your body when you get stressed. Do you clench your jaw? Bite your nails? Tighten your back or neck muscles? Get an upset stomach? If you can identify what these things are, you can keep track of stress by asking yourself such questions as, "How much have I been biting my nails lately?" "Has my stomach been upset this week?" This will help you to pay more attention to what your body is telling you so you can take measures to de-stress.

Use your strengths: Identify what kind of learner you are and where your strengths lie. Give yourself permission to use strength-based strategies, even if they are seen as unconventional (like dictating a paper, or listening to books on tape, etc.)

College life can be a roller-coaster ride for students with ADHD who don't learn to recognize and manage their stress. By using good stress management techniques such as those listed above you can eliminate the pattern of living from one crisis to the next.

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