Does any of this sound familiar?
- Right when you wake up, you grab your phone and check if you have new messages.
- You get bored in class almost immediately, so you sneakily put on headphones and turn on your latest Netflix binge.
- Your Facebook feed distracts you from finishing an essay you put off all evening.
- You hurry to the gym once class lets out, not even considering how much work your professor assigned.
- You glance at the clock and realize you needed to leave work two hours ago… but you only have three projects left—you can finish those before you leave.
All of these are typical cases of how to cope with stress for most college students.
This “escapism” gets students away from stress triggers in schoolwork and the fear of failure but ultimately cause them to enter a form of alternate reality…and I can warn you now that it’s not as exciting as it sounds.
The escape method that appears most often on university campuses is a complete focus on social media. Roberta Seldman, a counseling psychologist at the University of Florida, said that technology in general has a huge effect on student life, and the desire to stay online around the clock affects your happiness.
Along with staring at a Twitter feed or checking Facebook notifications all day, students now have the option of extending their virtual time by taking web courses. “Online college is one of the worst things that’s ever happened,” Seldman said. “Some of my students never leave their homes, and it creates this great sense of isolation and loneliness.” If you do take online classes, make sure to leave your computer every now and then—slip on some sneakers and go on a run or meet up with a friend for lunch. Look at something real and learn how to cope with stress outside of the virtual world.
Researchers in Denmark conducted a study that found that 55 percent of people who quit their social media for a week felt less stressed, less lonely and more sociable. These people started interacting more and feeling more empathy in their daily lives instead of distant apathy for other people. Staying online momentarily keeps you connected to the information flow of the world, but it also limits your ability to feel emotionally interactive.
Seldman also mentioned that while social media certainly affects the greatest amount of students, exercise and alcohol are also risky forms of how to cope with stress. “We all have this shaky fundamental restlessness inside. The root of all addiction is this sense that we don’t love ourselves, so we’re constantly in a state of self-improvement or escapism.”
You can daydream about that hot guy in class or start watching the latest football game—but too much can become an obsession. “When we start to feel anxious, we start focusing on obsessions until it numbs us out,” Seldman said. You know the feeling: you bombed that final, so you sit on your couch eating popcorn and drinking wine and watching Game of Thrones until you forget it’s even a school night.
Alcohol and drug use pop up every time someone asks about addiction, but escape methods and coping with stress come in different ways. Listening to music, reading, watching TV and even daydreaming are more common examples, other than social media and exercise. And these are some of the most complicated to diagnose because they seem so innocent.
Other escapes, like workoholism, eating disorders and pornography, barely make it onto an addiction radar because of the inability to discuss them. You get applauded for constantly working because it increases productivity in a very consumerist society—and getting that raise becomes an act of pride. Eating disorders are usually propagated by the societal pressures to look a certain way… and nobody ever wants to talk about pornography.
There’s a fine line between guilty pleasures and escape, but understanding that line of how to cope with stress is crucial to a student’s mental health. Things like going to the beach, listening to Lemonade or even watching the latest episode of Stranger Things to blow off steam actually do help with a person’s mental health. “That’s not really escapism, that’s coming back to reality. That’s enjoyment,” Seldman said. It’s OK because it’s in moderation—it’s not an addiction that controls you behind the scenes.
Addiction itself is pretty difficult to classify. “While alcohol is genetic, I think it’s a cop out to say that someone has an addictive personality,” Seldman said. Every person has a different tolerance level before being considered an addict. And sometimes the way you escape or cope with stress leaves you with that negative label. “Maybe you’re just passionate and alive and love to be able to dig deeply into something. That doesn’t make you an addict.” It’s when the escape starts affecting your health or the safety of those around you that you need to acknowledge your addiction.
Weaning yourself off your addictive coping method is never a bad thing. If the problem is drug or alcohol related, it’s highly recommended that you go and see a doctor; but you should probably meet up with a therapist regardless of the nature of how you cope with stress. It’s okay to get help. The modern (and frankly, useless) stigma of going to a therapist never outweigh the cost of succumbing to the addiction.
- Experimentation: You’ve started testing how to cope with stress. You don’t know yet whether this activity will consume your every waking moment; but after the first hit, you realize that this is your new favorite pastime.
- Social Use: Though this stage can be skipped in some cases (like with workoholism, pornography or daydreaming), it appears in most forms of escapism like video gaming, partying and social drinking. Social media, by nature of its name, automatically enters this stage.
- Misuse: Once your coping method starts causing harm, to you or to others, you’ve entered the abusive stage of misuse. The word “harm” ranges from physical (say you injured a muscle because of how often you work out) to mental (when you start feeling depressed every time you lose a caffeine high).
- Addiction and Dependency: The moment your ideal action or substance causes changes to your body, mind and personality, you’re addicted. This means that, no matter how terrible the consequence, you won’t stop or control your escape method. In the case of cigarettes and other drugs, you could be dying as a result of use—yet you continue to abuse it.
- Recognize the Addiction: Once you acknowledge the addiction of how you cope with stress, your chances of making sure it doesn’t control your life from that point forward increase exponentially. Sticking with it is a bit more difficult, with relapse rates between 40-60%. Trust yourself and make sure to ask for help.
- Consideration: Now is when you realize just how much your method of escape was affecting those around you. Your family and friends have watched you sink into the escape haze and it hurts them to know they can’t do anything—you may have even hurt them physically for trying to help.
- Take Action: You have fully moved beyond denial and begin to research how to cope with stress in the real world without your escape.
- Recovery: Different addictions require different forms of recovery. If you obsessed over the distraction of checking cell phone notifications, you could consciously leave the phone in another room and focus on schoolwork. Different addicts have different recovery times, too. Don’t feel bad if you need someone to lean on throughout the process.
Learning how to cope with stress doesn’t arrive overnight like an Amazon prime shipment. Forms of escape are beneficial in small doses.—don’t worry, you can still check out Snapchat stories and go to the gym every day—just make sure that you know when to stop before your alt-reality becomes an addiction.