All articles

Manage Stress in High School & Through the College Search Process

a road sign saying breathe

There’s so much to enjoy during your high school years. It’s a time of growing independence, personal exploration, and anticipation as you look ahead to life after graduation, whether that means college, work, travel, or other adventures.

But for high school students who struggle with their mental health, planning for the future can feel more stressful than joyful. In a recent survey conducted by Appily and teen mental health experts, Joonmore than half of all high school students surveyed reported feeling anxious most days. So, if you’re feeling stress or anxiety, you’re not alone.

The good news is that there are activities, strategies, and skills you can focus on to reduce stress and improve your overall mental health and resilience. 

How to protect your emotional well-being in high school

Mental health isn’t separate from the rest of your life. Rather, it’s woven into and dependent on all the other choices you make about how you spend your time and take care of yourself.

The Five Pillars of Emotional Wellbeing

Rob Danzman is a licensed clinical mental health counselor who works with teens and college students. He told us that the best way for students to optimize their mental health is by focusing on the Five Pillars:

  1. Sleep: try to get consistent, quality sleep.
  2. Nutrition: minimize fast food and instead try to eat more nutritious things.
  3. Exercise: ideally, you should get 30 minutes or more five times a week.
  4. Social interactions: we all need daily contact with REAL humans, not screens.
  5. Strong organization skills: maintain and stick to a daily/weekly calendar and to-do list.

“In my experience,” Rob says, “when students nail the Five Pillars, everything else falls into place” — they handle academic pressure better, function better, and in general, feel happier, more capable, and less stressed.

Practical changes you can make for your mental health

Considering the Five Pillars, let’s look at some changes you can make to feel your best. 

  • Use your planner to schedule everything from homework to extracurricular activities, exercise, socializing, and phone-free periods every day.
  • Aim for an earlier bedtime regularly. Keeping a sleep journal will help you identify any habits that are standing in the way of a good night’s rest. You should also put away all screens at least half an hour before bedtime.
  • Offer to help with your family’s meal planning and grocery shopping. Stock up on healthier snacks and research recipes to make together.
  • If you don’t currently play a sport or have other ways of being active, find a few fun new ways to move your body: check out a martial arts or rock climbing class, dance, hike, join a recreational sports league, swim laps.

Develop a stress management toolkit

Okay, you say. I’ve got the Five Pillars. But I still feel stressed a lot of the time! What should I do? 

The first thing to remember is that a certain amount of stress is normal in life. Feeling stress can mean you’re being pushed outside of your comfort zone, which is sometimes necessary to learn and grow. 

You might feel stressed as a due date approaches for a big school project or as you prepare for a performance you’ve rehearsed for weeks. There’s a lot at stake, and you want to do your very best. 

But when stress overwhelms you rather than motivating you to reach the finish line, you must know how to handle it. 

Lori Bender is a life, wellness, and executive functioning coach and student mental health advocate. In Lori’s experience, students who develop self-awareness and good self-management skills can maintain emotional composure even during stressful periods of their lives. 

“Be able to notice direct causes of your stress and where stress and anxiety LIVE in your body and your head,” Lori counsels. “Have a toolkit of stress-reducing practices ready to apply.” 

This toolkit will look different for everyone. In addition to focusing on essential health and organization basics such as the Five Pillars, Lori has a few suggestions:

  • Utilize nature; be outdoors in sunlight each day if possible.
  • Practice using stretching and breathing techniques to calm yourself. 
  • Always have a passion project to turn to as a break from academics. 
  • Be able to find joy daily.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional

Changing unhealthy habits can be challenging, even when you know the right things to do to make yourself feel better. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, it can feel impossible to move forward.

If you feel stressed all the time or if your stress evolves into debilitating anxiety, you should let your family or high school counselor know. You and your family members can learn about the difference between normal worry and anxiety disorders by clicking the link.

It’s also important to understand how alcohol and substance use can exacerbate or even cause mental health challenges. 

Your high school counselor and family doctor can refer you to therapists and other supportive resources. If needed, the SAMHSA hotlines will connect you immediately to support and information.

Ways to manage stress during the college search process

You won’t be surprised to hear that the study we mentioned earlier found the college search and decision process exacerbates existing stress and anxiety issues for high school students.

Lori Bender observes the pressure firsthand. She told us she sees it starting in freshman year for kids who know they will be college-bound. 

“For the next four years, it can seem as if almost every thought and action pivots upon the goal of getting into the college of choice,” Lori says. "For many students, these years are filled with stress levels that have never been felt—demands, expectations, advice, jumping through hoops, pressures to perform and have it all figured out.”

But applying to college doesn’t have to feel like being on a runaway train. You really are in the driver’s seat and can take control. 

Take charge of the search project

Putting together a solid support team (trusted family members and friends, your high school guidance counselor) is important. But remember that you’re the one calling the shots and getting things done, including:

  • Creating a list of higher education priorities and goals
  • Deciding what colleges to research, visit, and apply to
  • Learning about expenses, including financial aid and scholarship opportunities
  • Keeping track of deadlines and due dates

Why are you in charge? Because you’re the one who’s going to college! You. Not your parents. 

Here’s something else that’s interesting. Taking on more responsibility, which you might think would increase stress, is ultimately GOOD for your mental health. 

As Rob Danzman explains, “The last year or two of high school needs to be the time of a power transfer from parents/teachers/coaches to students heading off to college. We can't master what we don't practice. We can't practice what's not taught.”

Your parents might hover for the very best of reasons. They might want to help a little too much. Remind them that you are capable and will ask for the help you need.

If you do find yourself feeling passive or disinterested, this might be a sign that you are not quite ready to take this step. That’s perfectly alright to recognize. You have options.

Start planning for college early

As with any big project, leaving yourself more than enough time is key to managing stress. Procrastinating almost always makes anxiety worse.

  • Start the college conversation with your family by discussing the budget for higher education. Do you have a college savings account? Will you apply for financial aid and scholarships?
  • Make a month-by-month plan.
  • Use a calendar or spreadsheet to keep track of due dates and deadlines.
  • Ask for letters of recommendation early.
  • Leave lots of time to write and revise your essay(s).

Get help with college planning

It takes a village, and guess what? The village has lots of resources to offer you. 

Many public libraries host free workshops and drop-in sessions where high school students can get help with college planning, essays, applications, the FAFSA, and more. Your high school counseling office is also a resource you should take full advantage of.

Consider all of your options

As you make a college list, don’t overlook community colleges, state universities, and more. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with taking a gap year. This isn’t a cop-out. It’s better to be sure you want to go to college, feel ready, and know why you’re going. A year of travel, volunteering, or work can be empowering and clarifying.

Keep mental wellness in the foreground

You can repeatedly refer to the previous self-care tips during your college search and selection process. On any given day, you can push the reset button. You can pause to take stock of what you’re thinking and feeling. Listen to a song or step outside and just breathe for a few minutes.

In addition, make it a top priority to evaluate the campus culture and mental health and wellness services as you visit and learn about colleges. 

Choosing the right college matters, but it’s not about prestige. It’s about whether or not it’s an inclusive, health-oriented campus where student wellness is a priority. Where you will be able to find your “place.”

One of the best ways to take care of your mental health in high school is to remember that on any given day, you’re doing what you do for yourself and your own happiness, not for your resume or college application. 

Sometimes, that means letting go of an activity or sport you used to enjoy but no longer do. Resist the temptation to stretch yourself too thin with extracurriculars. One meaningful volunteer activity is worth more than a bunch of half-hearted commitments, and helping others is a tried-and-true way to boost your own well-being.

Break free of the comparison trap 

This may take some real work, especially junior and senior year when “where are you applying?” is the main topic and everyone’s wearing the sweatshirts they bought on college tours. 

In Lori’s words, “Comparing (the thief of joy) will make you jump track and land in the field of misery, sadness, and self-doubt.” Instead, “Celebrate your path — even apart from family and peer expectations.”

You don’t have to talk about college and only college with everyone you know. Where you are applying is your business. When people ask, and you don’t want to answer, feel free to respond politely, but don’t share information if you don’t want to. Realizing that you can choose not to answer those kinds of questions can be liberating and stress-reducing.

Breaking free of the comparison trap also means not fixating on the college rankings lists. By all means, compare schools in terms of important statistics such as freshman retention rate (i.e., how many students return for a second year, a key marker of student satisfaction and how well the college supports its student body), financial aid, percentage of students who graduate with debt, percentage of students employed on or soon after graduation, etc.

Keep things in perspective

Many students feel increased stress because they think “college is the biggest decision” they’ve ever (or will ever) make and that everything else in their life depends on it.

You definitely want to shake off that mindset if it’s present. College (where, when, or whether to go) is just one of many important choices you’ll make as you head into adulthood. 

As Lori says, “No matter what professionals, friends, and parents tell you, you do not ( and should not) have it all figured out at age 18!”

In addition, this is a good time to let go of the idea that there is one perfect school for you out there. In the words of author Frank Bruni, where you go is not who you’ll be. There are many colleges where you can thrive and achieve your personal and academic goals.

Finally, remember that applying to college is just one part of your life. It doesn’t define you. You have lots of other stuff going on. Stay present in your life. Enjoy these years!

“If we want the anxiety and mental health statistics in our country to draw back from psychological distress, it must become the priority of those involved in building students’ abilities and character to not only guide students through the college prep process with academic support, but more importantly with supporting the growth of ‘the self’ – social development, emotional development, and mental health. Academics is only one piece of the college experience.” – Lori Bender

How to plan for mental wellness as you transition to college

Here's a quick look at the months ahead for current high school seniors with ways to manage all that's coming up.

The College Choice: Keep It in Perspective

If you haven’t committed to a school yet, you are likely busy examining the pros and cons of the schools that admitted you. If possible, take a close, in-person look at your choices through campus visits or whatever else is available to you. 

Compare financial aid awards and make sure that if you borrow money for college, it’s going to be a manageable amount. Pay special attention to the support services and the strength of community at the colleges you’re considering. Talk to as many current students and recent grads as you can.

Remember, it’s not set in stone. You’re making the best decision you can right now, but sometimes paths diverge from our best-laid plans. Many students start college and then decide after a year or two to transfer or take time off. That doesn’t mean they will be less successful in the end; on the contrary.

A gap year is still possible if you decide the right time for such an experience. You can accept a spot at your college of choice and request a deferral.

Don’t leave before you leave. Enjoy what’s left of high school, and plan a summer you can look forward to!

Maintain self-care routines and build life skills

Continue to improve your self-care routines and make a mental inventory of life skills you need to level up on before moving away from home next fall. For example, if you’re not already managing your bank account and doctor’s appointments, now’s the time to start. 

There will be numerous tasks to complete in the late spring/early summer related to matriculating at college, which you will need to track carefully in your planner. 

Back to the Five Pillars, good organizational skills are essential to staying on top of things (and therefore reducing stress) during college. 

Says Rob Danzman, “Learning how to use a calendar, track appointments, and attend to a busy day and a busy week provides the true advantage students need today.”

College readiness is about more than academics — social and emotional preparation is just as important. Here are a few more keys to college readiness from Lori Bender that you can work on over the summer, at home, at your summer job, etc.

Keys to College Readiness

  1. Make sure you can self-manage all areas of your life but still be capable of asking for direction and clarification. Communicate your concerns, struggles, wants, and needs. Ask for help. Seek answers. Problem-solve.
  2. Practice flexible thinking. Your life experiences thus far may not have provided many opportunities for this, but being able to think flexibly will help you navigate the complexities that await you in college and beyond. Rigid, black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking creates tremendous stress. Instead, when an issue or challenge arises, practice wading into the “gray zone” which is where you’ll find options and solutions.
  3. Always strive for balance. Every area of your life deserves a portion of your attention, from academics to wellness, spiritual practices, financial management, and your social life.

How to find colleges with strong support systems

Now that you have what you need to plan for and protect your mental health and wellness, it's time to find colleges with a strong support system for your college list. 

Start by using Appily's college database for the most up-to-date list of colleges and their essential data points. You can search for colleges with support programs and resources, like Women's Centers on campus, Cultural Student Resource Groups, LGBTQUI student groups and resources, Test Optional Schools, HBCU's, and more

Just click the button below to get started. It's always free and easy to use Appily. 

Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now