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Mental Health

Popular Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms in College

As a current junior in college, I have watched both myself and friends grow from little freshmen into slightly more mature versions of the same people. Going directly from being provided for in a family home to living on your own is harder than many people give credit for. Regardless of whether you've moved into a dorm or an off-campus apartment, this adjustment period can be really rough on some people. Unfortunately, this “roughness” doesn’t end after the beginning years of college. Education and study can be very difficult, no matter if you’re just starting off or have been actively struggling for years.

In order to cope with the stresses of academic and general life issues, we tend to adopt certain coping mechanisms. Some are actually useful, some aren’t particularly effective but harmless, and some can be both alarming and actively contribute to damage already done. It's always seemed strange to me that many of the ways in which we cope with stress are likely to make our situation worse, and yet we continue. It is the perfect example of human beings existing in all of our flawed glory. Here are some commonly seen unhealthy coping mechanisms that I've often viewed in either myself or others during our college years. 

Spending Money You Don’t Have on Things You Don’t Need

I’m a personal fan of this one and tend to practice it with embarrassing regularity. I am fully aware that I have neither the means nor the right to go to Target more than once a week for their overpriced and slightly underwhelming clothing section. The truly frustrating part comes in when this awareness does absolutely nothing to change my behavior and the greatly reduced state of my wallet.

I wish that buying that new pair of jeans would do something to improve my grades, but sadly it didn't accomplish much beyond a very temporary thrill. This commonly results from working to the point of exhaustion during the school week and then adopting a very “I deserve this” mentality to try and make up for it. It may serve as temporary justification for why I suddenly need to lay down some money on an unreasonable number of graphic tees, but it definitely becomes more damaging to my emotional state and bank account later on.


I've found that this one is particularly popular with freshmen and often isn’t necessarily limited to just alcohol. It often results from a student finally leaving their family home behind and being confronted with sudden and much-anticipated freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom is often used to its fullest potential in dark and crowded party environments.

There’s nothing wrong with going out and having fun but I feel that this can occasionally turn into that person turning to drinking (or other options) as either one of their only stress relievers or relied on as their main source of fun. As convenient as that would be, temporary relief from real life and the issues that accompany it don’t ever really equate to those problems being solved. 

Sleeping Too Much or Too Little

I feel like sleep issues are one of the more common problems among students. Especially in college, running off of 4-5 hours of nightly sleep has been fairly normalized. The workload for many college students can be pretty overwhelming, whether it be from an extra challenging courseload or having taken that one credit hour too many. I've seen that although it depends on the person, being overworked often results in one of two options. Some people struggle to stay up and push through the vast amount of essays and studying, even at the risk of it becoming detrimental to their health. Others tend to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of projects and exams and attempt to nap away the pain.

I’ve managed to do both during my time as a college student and can say that they both have their pros and cons (definitely more cons). While not getting enough sleep over the course of several days can put you in a deprived haze, getting too much rest can do something very similar. There have been a number of studies dedicated to how not getting enough sleep can negatively affect mental and physical health, especially in students.

Sleeping too little can cause memory issues, sudden mood changes, trouble concentrating, risk of weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, and a weakened immune system, according to Healthline 2020. On the other hand, according to Hopkins, continued oversleeping can actually result in some serious adverse health effects as well. These include increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, as well as being both a possible cause and symptom of depression. Overall, even if it seems these are the only options available to you as a college student, I would highly recommend trying to get in your nightly 8 hours. This would be for the sake of not only your physical health but also your sanity.

Sending That Good "You Up?" Text (or Any Ex Related Tomfoolery) 

Reaching out to an ex of any kind, no matter the time, is not generally a good thing. There was most likely a reason the relationship ended, and no amount of sleep deprivation or late nights spent studying at the library should change that. As your past partner was most likely seen as a prior source of comfort, it would make sense to reach back during times of extreme stress. However, adding that extra emotion to what may already be a dumpster fire of anxiety and academic strain should really be avoided at all costs.

It’s surprising how many times I’ve had a friend (whether it be out of boredom or some misidentified form of self-loathing) ask if I think it’s advisable that they casually reach out to an ex. Although I usually answer with a solid “absolutely not,” this doesn’t mean I’m necessarily listened to. In all honesty, if I had my heart set on something similar, I probably wouldn't listen to me either. During times like these, I normally just back away and try to avoid the emotional splash zone.

I have a very specific memory of last year, sitting in a library study room at 3 A.M with a friend of mine. We were halfway through our increasingly overwhelming note packets when she decided to send a sleep-deprived and frustration fueled “hey” to some boy who had dropped her several weeks prior. From there, no matter how much I advised against it, she proceeded to abandon her study material and leave the library to go “say hello” at his place. Needless to say, she didn’t come back, and I did much better on the test than she did.

Making a Tinder

This specific coping method often follows shortly after the one mentioned above. Although having and operating a Tinder may not actually be actively unhealthy, I'd be hard-pressed to be convinced it is at all helpful during times of stress. I understand that having a partner can make dealing with life struggles much more manageable. Having that extra person to rely on would as social support, in theory, actually would act as a healthy coping mechanism.

However, trying to get to that end goal by swiping through endless faces and infinite bad pick up lines is not. In fact, it seems likely that this would worsen your mood and overall situation rather than make it better. However, I would also say it's one of the less alarming ways to deal with life pains.


In comparison to our last coping mechanism, this one is a bit more serious. It is at this point that I’ll begin to branch from my preferred tone of dark humor to that of more serious mental health. With the world constantly overloading us with academics, financials, people, relationships and the maintenance of our personal health and safety, things can get pretty overwhelming. When this happens, it seems common for people to withdraw into themselves rather than reach out for help. However, this often becomes and causes more damaging than the stress or complications that may have prompted issues in the first place.

I fully understand the appeal of just disappearing into your own head for a while, even if the accompanying thoughts may be painful. However, it’s when this starts to be seen and treated as the only option that things can become a bit problematic. These are the times in which we should make an increasing effort to check up on those closest to use and make sure everyone feels and knows they are supported. I’ve had friends drift away for seemingly no reason, only for me to realize later on that they were quite literally holed up in their room due to feeling as though this was the only option.

There’s nothing wrong with needing some time to yourself. Personally, I go a bit stir crazy when I feel as though I can’t get that level of needed separation. That being said, it should never be someone's only option, and it is of the utmost importance that no student ever feel as though that is the case.

I wish that coping with life stressors was as simple as finding what works and powering through. However, things are rarely that simple. We’ve been forced to find other less ideal ways of coping. Many of these techniques seem to hurt rather than help, especially in the college student population. All we can do is try to find similar but slightly more functional ways of dealing with the combination of disasters that may make up our current lives. As we grow and mature, so will our ways of processing the world, and we can only hope that this results in less unnecessary Target runs, an avoidance of Tinder and a comfortable reliance on those around us. 

Emma Ostenfeld is currently a Junior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying psychology. She is interested in creative (or any other form) of writing and has joined Her Campus in order to improve her skills and experience in this field. Originally from NOVA, she loves everything about living in Richmond Except that she had to leave her three cats at home and misses them dearly. She loves her friends but is enough of an introvert that alone time is a necessity for the sake of her mental health and the sanity of those around her. She is an extreme foodie and always appreciates any restaurant recommendations.
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