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Countering college student stress: a Q&A

There has been growing interest in college student mental health, particularly regarding stress and anxiety levels. This seems particularly heightened due to circumstances associated with the pandemic and the societal re-awakening stimulated by the Black Lives Matter movement. Given the long-understood connection between music and stress, we asked three music therapy scholars to discuss reasons for underlying rising student stress levels and share musical methods for promoting college student mental health.

Kimberly Sena Moore: The saying goes that “college is the best time of your life,” so what’s causing stress and anxiety in college students?

Carolyn Moore: Broadly, the college experience involves many ongoing systemic issues that can cause or exacerbate stress and anxiety. For example, the cost of college is rapidly rising and students are having to make decisions about how to pay for college, decisions that can affect their financial stability (and by extension, quality of life) for years to come. At many universities, students from historically marginalized or underrepresented groups feel unsupported or unsafe, which impact stress and anxiety levels.

Lindsey Wilhelm: Yes, these type of life transitions can impact stress and anxiety. Many college students have moved away from home, are developing new social relationships and networks, and need to work while also attending classes. Additionally, many students are experiencing stress related to dealing with personal and situational factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including new or changing formats of course delivery. Even if exciting, these new and challenging situations can also lead to high levels of stress and anxiety.

KSM: Why does there seem to be an increase in college student stress and anxiety?

Jennifer Fiore: Students today are dealing with different stressors than students in previous years. For instance, almost all my students work at least part-time, and there are several who work full-time to support themselves while also going to college full-time. Technology has also increased the amount of information available, which brings positives and negatives. For example, this can result in additional readings and projects being included in coursework that were not an option years ago. Beyond school, students and their families are facing additional stressors related to racial tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals experience stress differently, and this can be impacted by previous life experiences, barriers to opportunities, finances, available social supports, existing diagnoses, and current use of coping skills.

CM: In my experience students seem more willing to talk about mental health concerns and seek help. Additionally, schools are developing and making available resources for addressing mental health. I think we’re seeing the increase because these issues are more out in the open and thus, are easier to recognize, examine, and analyze. I also think that in looking at the average age of college students, they’ve been exposed to unprecedented levels of trauma (e.g. gun violence). This is a topic that comes up when I talk to my students about stress and anxiety—they recognize the impact of trauma on their overall mental health.

KSM: What are some strategies students can incorporate to help them manage their stress and anxiety?

LW: While there’s no “one size fits all” answer, effective self-care behaviors include self-awareness (e.g., through personal reflection or mindfulness practices) and physical wellness (e.g., physical activity, balanced diet, sufficient sleep). Based on my interactions with students, strategies such as scheduling ten to fifteen minutes to do something they enjoy or using a mindfulness timer as a reminder to take two minutes to breathe are quick and simple ways to help decrease feelings of stress and anxiety. Especially now, students may find they need to modify their self-care practices as what worked in the past may not be as helpful to deal with current stressors. Opportunities for in-person social connections may be more challenging to safely navigate but are still possible, especially through the use of technology. Many universities are also providing additional resources and options to support students during this challenging situation.

CM: In general, I think doing things you enjoy doing, rather than things you think you should be doing, is helpful. And, I recognize that not all students may have the resources or access to professional therapy, but I recommend it for students.

JF: What can be hard to remember when stressed, there are protective factors, many of which have already been mentioned. I also suggest strategies specific for college students, such as scheduling time for studying, turning off technology while studying and at night, shifting from a reactive to creative mindset to manage tasks (such as planning out when to work on tasks and breaking them into smaller parts), and establishing a consistent sleep pattern. Specific to our current situation, maintaining social connections, engaging in physical exercise, and taking breaks from the news and social media if/when you find they are increasing your stress or anxiety response. It’s also important to reach out to someone to get the help you need if things become too much to manage on your own. Finally, mental health literacy is another concept that needs to be addressed to help college students. Universities need to help students be aware of strategies and services that are available to support them.

KSM: Are there any music-based strategies that might help? Even for non-musicians?

JF: Music-based strategies exist for both musicians and non-musicians. Keep in mind the music itself, and remember to practice your strategies frequently. Research indicates music does not have to be familiar to be relaxing. Be selective when choosing music and do not automatically use everything labeled “relaxing.” For example, the tempo (or pace) of the music should be similar to your walking speed, the rhythm predictable, and the dynamics (or loudness) consistent. In addition, people can pair other relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and visualization with the music.

LW: No matter your musical aptitude, listening to music is a coping strategy that can help with managing stress and anxiety. You may find that what you want to listen to changes from day to day and that is fine. I recommend students pick music strategically—do you want to increase your energy and overall mood, calm an overactive mind, regulate breathing… Each of these outcomes may call for a different type of music. For myself, I have created a playlist with a general theme of “things are going to be alright” that I have listened to daily for the past several months. While the theme has remained the same, the playlist has grown and is a source of comfort.

CM: One strategy is making playlists on Spotify to support different types of moods or themes. My students like selecting the songs and having easy access to their playlists. Plus, Spotify has tons of user-generated and platform-generated playlists, so anyone who wants to explore what’s out there can do so quickly.

KSM: What are future directions for examining the impact of music (or music therapy) on student stress?

CM: One thing that would be interesting to explore is how and if music students’ personal uses of music for stress relief change as they move through the curriculum. Do students still feel that listening to or creating music is important for wellness when they are engaged in it for school-related purposes nearly all day, every day? Do students create boundaries, intentionally or unintentionally, between “personal” music, music for classes/school, and music for clinical work? Finally, does music still hold the same ability to reduce stress when it is also a source of (school-related) stress?

LW: Future research could consider the experience of stress by music students in other degree programs, but perhaps more meaningful for the music therapy profession would be to explore how music therapy students and educators are incorporating engagement with music and/or in music therapy as a way to manage student stress. Additionally, incorporating music strategies for stress management into the curriculum can both benefit music therapy students and help inform how music and music therapy can be used to manage stress in clinical settings.

JF: I agree—teaching stress management techniques early in the curriculum could give students tools to help manage their own stress, as well as equip them for their future clinical work. Other future steps include determining the most important combinations of musical elements that help decrease stress, as well as examining recommended dosage for using music-based strategies for wellness and stress reduction.

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