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:
Recognizing it - many students overlook stress
until it has created serious problems
Knowing its effects - illness, susceptibility
to infection, increased ADHD symptoms
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
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
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.