Study Examines Stress, Coping Mechanisms and Gender Differences in Undergraduate College Students
College life can be very demanding, often requiring students to work and function under pressure. Academic load, the classroom environment, faculty interaction, illness and emotional concerns outside of the classroom also add to their stress levels. Students who lack appropriate stress management skills may find it difficult to balance these responsibilities.
According to the “Spring 2019 Health Assessment” by the American College of Health Association, 34.2 percent of undergraduate college students had indicated the top impediment to learning was stress, with 45.3 percent having more than average stress. This stressful environment has left college students vulnerable to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidality. Although studies have measured academic performance, research on coping skills is sparse.
Researchers from Florida Atlantic University and collaborators examined stress, coping mechanisms and gender differences in undergraduate college students. They measured both the psychological perception of stress and evaluated how males and females cope with stress. As they hypothesized, the differences are vast.
Results of the study, published in PLOS ONE, showed that overall, undergraduate female students were much more stressed than their male counterparts – with the majority experiencing medium to higher levels of stress compared to males. Among the major dimensions of coping, females used emotion-focused approaches more than males. There was a significant gender difference on endorsement for four coping strategies: self-distractions, emotional support, instrumental support, and venting, more so than the males. No gender differences in problem-focused or avoidant coping strategies were found.
Females had significant differences compared to males with self-distraction, a coping strategy that may provide immediate relief. Individuals who use this strategy to manage their stress levels do so because of a lack of another positive coping method. Instrumental support was another higher emotional support coping method used by females in the study. Considered a positive support mechanism, instrumental support relates to subjective well-being such as listening to or providing tangible assistance to another individual. Females also used venting as another coping strategy. This style allows an individual to express anger and may result in a cathartic relief from the immediate effects of stressful situations. Venting is considered passive or ineffective at managing stress and may, in fact, intensify one’s stress level.
“When individuals, such as the female college students in our study, find themselves in undesirable situations that are stressful, they may seek to assign blame to internal or external sources,” said B. Sue Graves, Ed.D., senior author and an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion within the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “We found that male college students in our study sought much lower levels of support, since they either may lack the social network or may not have developed those skills. Thus, gender was the important component in this study, which should be considered when being mindful in reducing stress in college students.”
Study findings highlight how institutions of higher education should give serious consideration to the different needs of male and female students to enable them to separately develop successful lifelong coping skills and to handle stressful situations.
“Students may need educational interventions to develop effective and healthy coping strategies to last a lifetime. Our study provides pertinent information in order to reduce stress, more specific to gender,” said Graves. “Possibly, more effective stress management and adaptive sessions could have more emphasis incorporated into classes, especially at the freshman and/or sophomore level. This evidence also can be used to apply to the design of future studies and possible guidance in undergraduate students, again, specific to gender. Faculty and other university officials may want to highlight and understand these various factors to protect the students’ well-being in their classes.”
Study co-authors are Michael E. Hall, Ph.D., an associate professor; and Carolyn Dias-Karch, both in FAU’s Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion; Michael H. Haischer, M.S., Athletic and Human Performance Research Center and the Program in Exercise Science, Department of Physical Therapy, College of Health Sciences, Marquette University; and Christine Apter, FAU’s Campus Recreation Department.