According to the American College Health Association's 2006 survey of college students, the one greatest health obstacle to college students' academic performance was academic stress. Of the 97,357 college students who participated in the survey, 32 percent reported that academic stress had resulted in either an incomplete, a dropped course or a lower grade. Academic stress can be the ultimate career stopper. The key to avoid becoming a drop-out, as a result of academic stress, is to identify and treat its source.

Causes of Academic Stress

One of the most common causes of academic stress is anxiety, reports Ranjita Misra, an associate professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A & M University. Professor Misra and her student, Michelle McKean, conducted a study surveying 249 college students at a Midwestern university. The study showed that anxiety, ineffective time management and a lack of satisfying activities outside of academia were strong predictors of academic stress. The study also showed that while female students managed their time more effectively than male students, they also experienced the highest levels of stress and anxiety.

Achievement Anxiety

Despite disagreement about the predominant cause of academic stress, researchers agree that the most common form of anxiety causing academic stress is achievement anxiety. Achievement anxiety is a fear of failure in an academic setting that arises when parents, teachers or the student's own expectations exceed what the student believes she can realistically achieve. Sources of achievement anxiety include failure to satisfy ambitious or overly critical parents' expectations in early childhood as well as early exposure to overachieving siblings or peers. Seeing others receive praise and rewards for their achievements can give students a false impression of what teachers and parents expect of them.

Stress and Motivation

Academic stress and achievement anxiety are, not surprisingly, inversely related to students' grades. Academic stress hinders optimal performance and requires time spent on coping rather than on preparing for class or tests. More surprising, perhaps, is the result reported in "Research in Higher Education" in 2000 which showed that academic stress and achievement anxiety can have a positive effect on motivation. A plausible explanation of this relationship is that students are aware that their increased stress levels may affect their final grades. Their stress, therefore, can make them more motivated to put time and energy into making up for the time spent coping with stress.

Student Athletes

Participation in athletic activities can be a buffer to stress and anxiety. But student athletes sometimes experience greater levels of stress and anxiety because of the dual demands from coaches and professors. In the late 1990s, researchers began to recognize the need for intervention, especially during the first year of college, reported Gregory Wilson, an associate professor of human kinetics and sport studies at the University of Evansville in Indiana. One of the most successful forms of intervention is to place student athletes in the same sections for their general education classes. Allowing athletes to share common experiences and to work in groups can help them adjust during the first crucial year of college.

Sleep Deprivation

Researchers now believe that one of the main contributing factors to academic stress is sleep deprivation. A study led by Seung-Schik Yoo, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and published in "Current Biology" in 2007 showed that sleep deprivation alone is enough to make the emotional brain behave as if an extreme danger were present. This reaction initiates the body's defense mechanisms and causes the nausea, tension, heart palpitations and shortness of breath characteristic of anxiety and psychological stress. Over a longer time period, this state of heightened alertness can semi-permanently alter the neural connections in the brain and cause serious psychiatric disorders, reports Professor Yoo.

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