Coping with the Effects of Stress and Distress on Your Academics

There are a wide variety of potential sources of stress that can impact your engagement with and effectiveness in your academic work and learning. These include familial, financial, social and political events or issues at local or global levels. In addition, academics themselves can be a major source of stress - and sometimes distress - for many Princeton students. While chronic, extreme or excessive stress should prompt you to consider pursuing mental and physical health resources, there are a number of measures McGraw can suggest to address the unhelpful effects of academic stressors. Below are three:

Reframing Stress

Stress, unto itself, is not necessarily negative, though our perception of it often is. Psychologists (among others) distinguish between "good stress" (aka eustress) and "bad stress" (aka distress). 

Characteristics of Eustress Characteristics of Distress
  • Only lasts in the short term
  • Energizes and motivates
  • Perceived as something within our coping ability
  • Feels exciting
  • Increases focus and performance
  • Lasts in the short as well as in the long term
  • Triggers anxiety and concern
  • Surpasses our coping abilities
  • Generates unpleasant feelings
  • Contributes to mental and physical problems

If we conceive of stress as helpful and motivating (as opposed to negative or inherently harmful), we can transform its effect on us. Indeed, moderate levels of external stressors such as due dates, competition, and evaluation often motivate us to invest effort, persist in the face of obstacles, and seek growth to cope with demands. Internally imposed expectations and standards can also facilitate growth and learning, demonstrating that stressors are often the root of improvement. Reframing stress to highlight its positive functions can, in fact, reduce its negative effects. A useful Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal brings the above point home loud and clear: what we believe about stress may actually be more powerful than the stress/stressor itself, and we can alter our beliefs in constructive ways.

Tapping into Motivation

Sometimes temporary or situational features that have nothing to do with academics affect our capacity to attend and learn. In these instances, our attention may understandably be drawn away from why we take a particular course, pursue a field of interest, or even attend Princeton in the first place. Taking time to remind ourselves of the many reasons to engage with learning, and then using these reasons to motivate and guide our academic work can be a powerful antidote to stress. When thought of in this way, external stressors can actually strengthen our motivation for academics. 

To tap into your constructive motivations in the face of adversity, you can ask yourself questions to help clarify and articulate your own powerful reasons for undertaking certain activities, tasks, and other endeavors. Here are some examples:

  • How is it important or valuable to me? What personal values does it engage?
  • How is it relevant or useful to me (e.g. What skills can I learn)?
  • How is it meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying?
  • How does it help me achieve my short or long-term goals?
  • How is it enjoyable, interesting or exciting?


Academic engagement and learning are fundamentally social. When seeking to deepen our engagement under distressing circumstances we can strive to increase our academic-related social interactions. Joining (or creating) a study group, seeking out a study-partnership, attending instructor office hours and utilizing tutoring, coaching/consulting and workshops can simultaneously build your skills and develop or strengthen sustaining relationships. Both our morale and our self-efficacy are bolstered when we don’t isolate ourselves during difficult periods. Instead of thinking of increasing your academic engagement as solely a matter of individual will or actions, seek to create social interactions and relationships that are conducive to learning.

Additional Resources

Just as the stress on muscles from lifting weights results in added strength, the stressors of challenging problems, readings, and assignments can be crucial to building adaptive knowledge, skills and strategies. These demands can be understood as desirable difficulties, which prompt growth. However, trying to lift excessively heavy weights or doing so without proper preparation can lead to injury. In the same way, prolonged or extreme stress can have deleterious effects on attention; memory; problem-solving; and motivation that impact academics – as well as many other domains of our lives.

To help you effectively engage academic demands, manage healthy stress, and build on your strengths, we encourage you to explore the resources below.