Break the Stress and Self-Esteem Cycle to Improve Your Academic Performance

September 7, 2021
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There is no doubt that college students are faced with more than their share of stress. A new study from the American Psychological Association reports that 90% of the college students surveyed reported education as a significant cause of stress. Aside from the stress resulting from Covid-19, trying to manage the cost of education, and balancing work, family, and college life can be overwhelming. Eventually, too much stress can spiral into low self-esteem, which then leads to poor academic performance, which leads to more stress. When self-esteem and stress form this harmful feedback cycle, it is critical to break the link before the student’s academic record is tarnished.

Research on self-esteem shows that the relationship between stress and self-esteem is inextricably linked and that self-esteem can affect many areas of life, including academic and professional success. As a result, the lower a college student’s self-esteem falls, the worse he or she performs academically. This, in turn, starts the cycle over again with more stress, lower self-esteem, and poor grades. With stress and self-esteem feeding off each other, building healthy self-esteem and confidence in college performance can lead to happier, more successful students.

What is the Relationship Between Self-Esteem and Academic Performance?

How does self-esteem affect student learning? How do grades affect students’ self-esteem? While these two questions appear to be the converse of each other, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Sciences, the answer is the same: “There is a significant relationship between self-esteem and academic achievement in students.” In other words, the effects of low self-esteem on academic performance often appear as subpar grades; whereas, high self-esteem can result in higher grades. A positive correlation between self-esteem and academic success would indicate that focusing on self-esteem issues in college students is important for overall student success and improved mental well-being.

The definition of self-esteem is ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities.’ For many college students, their self-worth is tied to their grades. Undergraduate students who base their self-worth on academic performance may study harder and longer, but they often experience more stress. They then fall back into the self-esteem/stress feedback cycle, and they still do not receive higher grades.

According to an article by Dr. Jennifer Crocker, psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, college students who tie their self-worth to external sources, such as academic performance, can experience more anxiety and stress and higher use of drugs and alcohol. On the other hand, says Crocker, students who focused on internal sources, like being virtuous and keeping high moral standards, received higher grades.

Raising Self-Esteem in College Students Through Goal Setting

The key to improving self-esteem among college students, according to Crocker, is to support them in adopting goals that look towards something larger than themselves, like how they can contribute to others. Still, others believe that when setting the right goals, putting the focus on the process, rather than the result, can ease stress and improve success in achieving the result. How does goal-setting work for college students, and what is the relationship between goals and self-esteem?

In the article, “Set Goals that Work for You to Improve Your Self-Esteem,” from HealthyPlace, goals can give a person a sense of purpose as well as the motivation to achieve that goal. When college students are encouraged to set the right goals, it can lead to personal growth as well as improved self-esteem.

Following the SMART goal-setting method popularized by corporate America, college students may find that by setting goals they can better manage class assignments, deadlines, and exams by focusing more on the process to get them there, and not the result. The improved focus on things within their control, may lower their stress, improve their self-esteem, and by association, improve their grades. 

If you are a college student who has asked yourself, “Does self-esteem affect performance?”, SMART goals may benefit you.

SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, and Time-bound. When setting SMART goals, consider how rewarding and satisfying it will feel when you complete them. Rewarding and satisfying have such positive connotations, that simply associating them with your goal can start to improve your feelings of self-worth.

Specific. While building self-esteem may be your goal, this is actually an outcome. Consider instead, this goal: “Complete all assignments 24 hours before the deadline.” This is specific and serves a dual purpose by helping you complete your assignment and by reducing your stress as you will not be racing the clock to come in under the wire.

Measurable. Goals need to be measurable so you can recognize that you completed them. Maybe you have a budget goal of limiting monthly online shopping to $200. Did you spend $200 or less last month? This is specific and measurable. 

Achievable. Be realistic when setting a goal, and make sure the completion of any goal is 100% within your control. For example, a goal of meeting twice a week to study with a classmate could easily fail if the classmate cancels. Instead, consider setting a goal to study 10 hours a week.

Reasonable. If raising your GPA or grades is a goal, be reasonable in how high it can be raised during the time period. For example, are there enough graded milestones within the time frame to meet your goal?

Time-bound. Establish a deadline for every goal, and, if necessary, set mini-goals with shorter deadlines. 

Goals are beneficial in shifting your mindset from comparing yourself to others, to instead focusing on what you want. This shift can result in higher self-esteem.

Improve Self-Esteem and Lower Stress

Aside from goal setting, there are other steps you can take every day to help minimize your stress and raise your self-esteem, thus breaking the vicious feedback cycle.

  • Daily Affirmations. Speak a positive affirmation into a mirror every morning. Just like goals, make sure to keep them believable. One Atlanta teacher of fourth-grade students applied this technique in the classroom, and she says the practice “is giving her students confidence and a boost in self-esteem.”
  • Focus on your strengths. Identify something you are good at and spend time enjoying an activity that uses that strength. Whether this is writing, running, or drawing, take some time for yourself and feel good about growing that strength.
  • Be Intentional. Lower stress by honing your goals and being clear about what you want to achieve as well as taking action to achieve it. People who are intentional often report more effective use of time and resources as well as improved interpersonal relationships.  

With stress, self-esteem and academic performance tied so closely together, take the time to focus on your self-esteem along with your studies and watch your grades improve.

William Peace University offers confidential, professional counseling services through its on-site mental health counselors. If you are concerned about your mental health, are experiencing anxiety or stress, or just need someone to talk to contact the Wellness Center by email, phone at 919-508-2163, or stop by The Wellness Center at Joyner House.