College Stress 101: How to Succeed as an Online Student

Learn about the mental and emotional challenges online learning presents in college and find the information, resources, and expert advice you need to manage your stress and stay mentally healthy while in school.

Last Updated: 04/22/2021

Meet the Expert
Hilary Russo

The HIListically Speaking™ Health Coach

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Hilary Russo is The HIListically Speaking™ Health Coach. In addition to being a college professor of communications at St. John’s University in NYC, she’s also an award-winning health/wellness journalist, certified holistic health coach, and certified Havening Techniques practitioner. Hilary not only incorporates Havening, a neuroscience-based approach into her own daily life, but she also puts the power of emotional well-being in the hands of her clients and students to encourage them to be kind to their minds. 

The beginning of your college career marks the start of a new and exciting period. Between getting your feet wet in a subject you’re passionate about and socializing with your peers, there’s a lot to look forward to. But college isn’t all fun and games. From cramming for important exams and writing A+-worthy essays to preparing presentations, there’s no doubt you’ll be challenged during your tenure at school. And while it’s normal to feel the occasional bouts of stress over your studies, what happens when the mental and emotional challenges become too overwhelming?

As an online student, it’s important to become acquainted with the unique psychological challenges of the virtual classroom. Though both the traditional college experience and the digital one carry similar sets of hurdles, there are key differences to be aware of as your kickoff your online studies. Learn how to recognize the mental challenges of online learning, find strategies to combat them, and get expert advice and resources for staying mentally healthy while you’re enrolled online.

The Psychological & Emotional Challenges of Online Learning

Online learning offers a variety of benefits for busy students seeking affordable pathways to higher education. Yet, the virtual mode of learning is not without its own set of unique mental and emotional challenges that differ from those of the traditional classroom. Here are some of the major challenges you may encounter as you begin your online education.Hard skills are learnable abilities that can be easily measured or assessed. You acquire these skills through education and refine them through practice and repetition. These hard skills often stem from a shared knowledge base and correlate with core competencies specific to your discipline. Hard skills in psychology, such as the ones detailed below, enhance your learning experience and your qualifications as a working professional.

Social Isolation

Social isolation occurs when you don’t see friends, family, classmates, or others frequently enough. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, people need social connections to feel their best and to feel connected to the larger world. Online students who lack friend and family connections outside of school often experience heightened isolation with increased distance learning. Social isolation symptoms include:

  • Trouble connecting with individuals on a personal, deeper level
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of self-worth
  • Feeling unrelentingly alone, even when around others
  • Withdrawal from existing relationships
  • Lack of opportunities to interact with other humans

Increased Stress

Without a proper online learning area, you may feel increased stress because of distractions, lack of access to campus-based resources, and difficulty meeting deadlines. This could be especially true if you transitioned to online learning quickly and had to learn the required technology platforms without much time for practice. Symptoms of increased stress for students include:

  • Inability to stay on task, trouble keeping motivated, and/or consistently feeling overwhelmed
  • Trouble regulating sleep
  • Issues concentrating on and/or remembering coursework
  • Continued racing thoughts or feelings of concern
  • Changes in eating and/or drinking habits

Anxiety

Anxiety takes on many forms and has many causes in college and beyond. For example, anxiety often develops around technology. Did you correctly attach your assignment, and did it reach your teacher by the deadline? What if you cannot log in for a live, timed test? Whether your anxiety centers around workload, technology, or another issue, you’re not alone. Common anxiety symptoms include:

  • Excessive and continued feelings of worry that you can’t pinpoint
  • Feeling tight, on edge, or agitated continuously and often without reason
  • Inability to focus and brain fog
  • Easily becoming fatigued in unlikely situations
  • Panicked with a racing heartbeat, tight chest, sweating, and nausea

Virtual Learning Fatigue

Nearly everyone today, student or not, now understands the concept of electronic fatigue. Within the context of education, it refers to the feeling of being overwhelmed and oversaturated by online learning because of so much time spent virtually such as while participating in Zooms, conversing over forums, or turning in assignments through a learning platform. Common symptoms of online fatigue include:

  • Lack of interest or motivation
  • Growing feelings of anxiety about participating in endless online meetings
  • Eye strain and/or headaches
  • Difficulty staying focused as the days/weeks seem to go on

Lack of Motivation

Everyone lacks motivation from time to time, and online students are certainly not immune. While sometimes lack of motivation is a symptom of depression, it can also come from other sources. Contrary to what some may say, it has nothing to do with actually being lazy. If you’re not physically sitting in a classroom with other students and an instructor, finding and staying motivated can be difficult. A lack of motivation might include:

  • Feeling burnt out by school
  • Wishing to change up your routine but feeling unable to
  • Being so overwhelmed by your workload you feel mentally paralyzed

Depression

Most people experience a depressed season or episode at some point. While some types of depression come and go, depression can also be a serious mood disorder. You might feel depressed when schoolwork gets overwhelming, you don’t receive the grades you hoped for, or you face difficulties outside of school. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Lack of interest in classes, people, etc. that previously brought joy or interest
  • Trouble getting out of bed or wanting to sleep all the time
  • Lack of energy
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness

Combatting the Challenges of Online Learning

Online learning comes with certain challenges, but you can overcome them if you know what to do. This section looks at several strategies to help you avoid certain symptoms and overcome those you struggle with, so you can thrive in an online learning environment.  

How to combat social isolation as an online student

Social isolation can be difficult to overcome as you struggle to build relationships with students you rarely, if ever, see in person. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can take to feel less alone, including creating opportunities for students who may feel as you do.

Solution #1

Schedule virtual get-togethers

Even if you sit in virtual lessons with your peers multiple times a week, learning is not the same as spending leisure time together. In addition to creating a space where you can get to know one another better, schedule time to talk about something other than school projects and homework.

Solution #2

Study in public places

Sometimes studying around other people, even if you don’t interact with them, helps with feelings of social isolation. Find a local coffee shop, library, or another area with Wi-Fi, and bring your laptop and textbooks. Seeing others working and making real-life eye contact, even in passing, can also help with motivation.

Solution #3

Call friends for a catch-up

If your friends or family live in a different city than you, schedule time to catch up. Whether while on a walk at the end of the day or roaming the grocery store aisles, make time for both quick and extended calls with those you love who know you well.

How to combat increased stress as an online student

Solution #1

Break work into smaller pieces

If you look at your planner and see a wall of assignments spread out over the next couple of weeks, it’s normal for stress levels to increase. Rather than considering each assignment as a big, overwhelming project, break each one into smaller, more achievable tasks. Then, focus on accomplishing what’s next for each one.

Solution #2

Take plenty of breaks

While it may seem like the only way to get all your work done is to plow through everything without looking up, this approach often leads to stress and burnout. Even if only for 5-10 minutes, get up from your desk and get away from your work regularly.

Solution #3

Ask for help

If a particular class, subject, or assignment makes you feel stressed out, don’t wait until the last minute to ask for help. Instructors, student success mentors, and even fellow learners can help you feel less stressed by the task at hand both by listening and by making suggestions for solutions.

How to combat anxiety as an online student

Solution #1

Turn your camera off

If being on camera for hours a day with classmates and instructors is upping your anxiety, simply turn your camera off. You can still listen and participate fully and even turn it on for short amounts of time, but having it off periodically can help you feel less perpetually on the spot.

Solution #2

Limit caffeine and alcohol intake

Caffeine and alcohol are traditionally seen as stress relievers for many college students, but they’re definitely not for those who deal with anxiety. Aim for decaf coffee and herbal teas and try to limit your alcohol intake as much as possible.

Solution #3

Do breathing exercises

It may sound simple, but controlled breathing often helps ease anxiety. Try doing some controlled deep breaths, counting slowly to ten on each inhalation and exhalation. Let your abdomen fill with air as you inhale and flatten it as much as you can when you exhale.

How to combat virtual learning fatigue as an online student

Solution #1

Order physical textbooks

Whenever possible, order the physical version of textbooks rather than digital copies. If you’re going to spend hours poring over required reading, you can reduce digital eye strain and fatigue with a traditional book rather than spending even more time staring at a screen.

Solution #2

Get a standing desk

A standing desk can help mitigate some of the effects of distance learning, specifically the feeling of being tied to a chair. Working at a standing desk also allows you to stretch and move while working, giving your back and tailbone much-needed breaks from the strain of sitting so much.

Solution #3

Limit screen time where possible

As much as possible, stay away from your computer, smartphone, tablet, and other devices outside of schoolwork. Consider investing in a traditional alarm clock and moving your phone out of the bedroom while you sleep. Get outside and enjoy nature while on a walk with a fellow student or loved one.

How to combat lack of motivation as an online student

Solution #1

Create accountability

If you’re finding it tough to turn in assignments on time or put ample studying into your next big test, create accountability for yourself. This could mean finding a virtual study partner, telling classmates your plans for reviewing materials, or setting deadlines.

Solution #2

Develop a reward system

Creating a reward system can help you stay motivated and look forward to activities outside of schoolwork. For instance, set up a phone call with an old friend after completing an assignment, take a bike ride after a test, or treat yourself to a treat at your local bakery or coffee shop.

Solution #3

Set up a work area

If you’re trying to complete your degree from your couch or bed, it’s perfectly understandable that you would struggle with motivation, especially if there’s a television nearby. Create a quiet, dedicated space used only by you that minimizes distractions and allows for focus and sustained effort.

How to combat depression as an online student

Solution #1

Check with your school’s counseling center

Many colleges and universities now provide mental health resources that include counselors for online students, often at no cost. Check with your school’s counseling center to learn about the variety of resources offered and see if you can take advantage of some one-on-one therapy. An objective perspective may be just what you need.

Solution #2

Get outside

Even spending half an hour per day outside boosts your serotonin levels, increases your Vitamin D levels, and leads to greater feelings of happiness. Whether you sit outside your apartment, go for a walk in your neighborhood, or drive to a local park, make time for nature and letting the sun’s rays boost your mood.

Solution #3

Create boundaries

Your mental health must come before everything, including school. Create boundaries for how much time you’ll spend completing online assignments and be sure to stick with them. Knowing that you only must spend a certain amount of time per day/week on schoolwork can help you feel more optimistic.

Expert Insight: Mental Health as an Online Student

Q: What advice would you give to online students looking to stay mentally healthy while in college?

A:  Make time for yourself and disconnect from technology. You’re on that computer enough. Look for ways to “be kind to your mind” that allow you to be present. Even five minutes of mindfulness (like Self-Havening) or a walk outside or listening to music can do the trick.

Q: What are some of the mistakes this population potentially makes regarding their mental health?

A: Some mistakes people make are to assume they don’t need support and can handle it all on their own. Sometimes, a little guidance can help. And the support of others lets us see how we aren’t alone. Community is key.

Q: As online students, where can these learners turn for help?

A: Check with your school’s wellness department, or let your advisor or professor know. I let my students know my door is open from day one of class. If they need me, I’m there. If they need further support, I’ll help them find it. I also implement techniques in my class and do exercises that help them stay positive and focused as a collective and also when they are on their own.

Q: What steps can students take to create a better environment for mental health to thrive?

Thrive is my word! And we all have the ability to do it. Some great steps are to practice self-care daily. This can be anything from journaling to working out. When you feel those feelings creeping in, take a step back and tell yourself, “I can choose to choose.” Consider some powerful “I am” affirmational statements that empower you. And be open to trying new things. My students love Self-Havening and use it regularly to overcome everything from test and presentation anxiety to managing their online workload. It begins within. I’m happy to share more.

Additional Student Resources

5 ways to help students feel connected to your campus

Designed for faculty and administrators, this article by ECampus News looks at ways to create more opportunities for distance learners to feel like they belong.

11 Ways to Stay Connected if You’re Remote This Semester

Boston University looks at some inventive and innovative ways of getting to know your school and your peers no matter how far from campus you live.

How college students can make the most of remote learning

The Washington Post interviews several professionals in this article to provide ideas on how online students can keep their mental health in check.

Online Learning – How lonely is it?

The University of Edinburgh looks at common concerns about online learning before myth-busting them and showing how distance learning can be just as connected as in-person coursework.

Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning

From the Journal for Education in the Built Environment, this academic article looks at ways students and universities alike can contend with social isolation.

People Need People: Students Feeling Impacts of Online School Isolation

This article by Ryerson Folio highlights ways universities are working to keep distance students connected.

Ways to Connect with Your Online Classmates

The University of Illinois looks at some practical and actionable steps you can take to make sure you know your fellow online students