The Relationship Between Stress, Coping Strategies, and Problem-Solving Skills Among College Students

Abstract

The study investigated stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills among college students. A total of 202 university students completed this study. The purpose of this study was to address gaps in the existing literature regarding stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills in college students. To date, no research in this topic area had been conducted with this sample of college students in this region of the United States. This study helped to advance the field of psychology because new knowledge was contributed about the relationship between college students' stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills by adding a new sample of university students. It was also important to know what was related to stress and coping in these students right now. By adding a new sample of students to this body of research, more information can be learned about the interaction of these variables and how it can affect college students in an attempt to help students make more mindful and healthy choices on how to cope with stress now and in the future. In general, the results suggested that as stress increased for students, the utilization of several coping skills also increased.

Students decide to attend college for several reasons. These reasons include career opportunities and financial stability, intellectual growth, a time for self-discovery, norms, obligations, and social opportunities (Aggarwal & Sharma, 2018). Outside demands in society, such as technology changes, and increased educational demands also drive the need for more students to attend college (Bettis et al., 2017). The students then spend the next few years trying to discover a path and find their way so they can become successful.

The transition to college presents students with many new challenges, including increased academic demands, less time with family members, interpersonal problems with roommates and romantic interests, and financial stress (Coiro et al., 2017; Sajid et al., 2017). Competitive academic work and uncertainty about future employment and professional career were also noted as sources of stress (Lin et al., 2019). Other studies have cited lack of sleep and poor coping skills as top sources of stress (Garett et al., 2017).

The transition to college represents a process characterized by change, ambiguity, and adjustment across all of life’s domains (Yusufov et al., 2018). The transition towards independence and self-sufficiency has been characterized as ‘stress-arousing’ and ‘anxiety-provoking’ by many college students. Failure to accomplish and develop these characteristics of development and maintain independence may result in life dissatisfaction (Aktas et al., 2019). Emerging adulthood has also been noted to augment college students’ vulnerability to stress (Sajid et al., 2017; Yusufov et al., 2018). Many students experience their first symptoms of depression and anxiety during this time, but a growing problem is that college campuses do not have enough resources to help all of these students (Sajid, et al., 2017). Past studies noted that 75% to 80% of college students are moderately stressed and 10% to 12% are severely stressed (Sajid et al., 2017).

The purpose of this study was to address gaps in the existing literature regarding stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills in college students. To date, no research in this topic area had been conducted with this sample of college students in this region of the United States. This study helped to advance the field of psychology because new knowledge was contributed about the relationship between college students' stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills by adding a new sample of university students. This gap was important to fill in the literature because students need to make important decisions during this time, and it was important for them to make healthy choices and to find healthy ways to cope with their stress now and in the future. It was also important to know what was related to stress and coping in these students right now. By adding a new sample of students to this body of research, more information can be learned about the interaction of these variables and how it can affect college students in an attempt to help students make more mindful and healthy choices on how to cope with stress.

Stress and College Students

Lazarus defined stress as “the psychological state which derives from peoples’ appraisals of their adaptation to the demands which are made of them” (as cited in Quine & Pahl, 1991). Stress can also be described as a negative emotional and/or physical state that results from exposure to a threat (Earnest & Dwyer, 2010). Numerous studies on stress in college students have been done, and a majority of these studies noted that stress creates many problems for college students (Aktas et al., 2019; Garett et al., 2017; Morgan, 2017; Peer et al., 2015).

Stress can also have an effect on students’ physical and emotional health, and noted symptoms of physical illness (Peer et al., 2015). These problems can include headaches and colds (Jennings et al., 2018), back pain (Tran et al., 2018), and migraine headaches (Smitherman et al., 2011). A study in Malaysia found that stress has also been found to contribute to fatigue, dizziness, gastrointestinal symptoms, and irritability (Ramachandiran & Dhanapal, 2018). Emotional problems may include anxiety (Bettis et al., 2017; Lin et al., 2019), depression (Katirai et al., 2018; Wallace et al., 2017). Stress has been found to be related to smoking, substance abuse, illegal activities, and moral issues (Sajid et al., 2017). Unhealthy behaviors have both immediate and later consequences. In the short-term, unhealthy habits make it harder for students to study, and it has been noted that healthier students are known to have better academic success (Meyer & Larson, 2018; Podstawski et al., 2013).

Coping and College Students

Lazarus et al. (1974) defined coping as “the problem-solving efforts made by an individual when the demands of a given situation tax adaptive resources” (as cited in Quine & Pahl, 1991). It is a process by which people try to manage the demands in their lives and their resources in a stressful situation. Coping strategies are actions taken that are intended to reduce stress, such as expressing emotions, asking for help, or appraising the problem (Quine & Pahl, 1991). Sajid et al. (2017) noted a few of the top coping behaviors of college students to be sleeping, playing sports, listening to music, watching movies, and spending time with friends. It is important to learn about these coping techniques in college students because some students will choose the positive ways of coping with stress, while others will choose more negative and damaging ways of coping with stress.

Higher levels of perceived stress have been found to result in an increase in efforts to cope with stress. Coping patterns have been found to have varying degrees of value, such as attempts to deal with the stress, deny the situation, or look for ways to distract oneself (Krypel & Henderson-King, 2010). Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, behavioral disengagement as well as self-blame were found to be associated with higher levels of stress (Sajid et al., 2017). The controllability of the situation has been found to play a role in the choice of coping strategy.

A study conducted in New Zealand by Chai et al. (2012), looked at stress levels for international students compared to domestic students and found no differences in the stress levels between Asian and European students. In order to cope with stress, Asian students noted that they were more likely than the European students to use religious coping strategies, and this was found to significantly improve psychological and social quality of life. It was found that religious coping had a beneficial effect regardless of whether stress levels were seen as high or low (Chai et al., 2012).

Problem-Solving Skills and College Students

The need for cognition (NFC) according to Cacioppo & Petty (1982), signifies the inclination for a person to participate in and enjoy thinking. Cohen et al. (1955) described the need for cognition as a need to structure pertinent situations in significant and cohesive ways in order to understand the environment (as cited in Cacioppo et al., 1996). People with higher NFC have a greater desire to seek and reflect back on information to make sense of different aspects of their world (Cacioppo et al., 1996).

Problem-solving skills include cognitive and psychological behaviors that individuals execute for the purpose of making changes to their life (Sivrikaya et al., 2013). Problem-solving skills include cognitive-behavioral abilities for identifying problems, generating solutions, evaluating and implementing a plan, monitoring progress, and evaluating outcomes (Shewchuk et al., 2000). In addition, problem-solving involves choosing the right coping strategies. Therefore, problem-solving should be seen as a process that allows students to implement coping strategies to deal with everyday demands and emphasizes that social skills are extremely important for students in order to have better interpersonal experiences (De Almeida Santos & Soares, 2018). Stress has been found to hinder concentration, problem-solving skills, and other abilities important for student learning (Abdollahi et al., 2018). The ability to be able to problem-solve has been found to be related to higher levels of optimism for overcoming negative events and a higher sense of self-efficacy among students in order to help them recover from negative situations (Akandere et al., 2010). The need for cognition relates to problem-solving, specifically when making decisions, because those individuals high in need for cognition are more likely to think about his or her options and explore additional information before making a decision. People high in the need for cognition engage in more thinking, and are likely to be more aware of their thinking, and are “more likely to evaluate their thoughts for validity” (as cited in Hevey et al., 2012).

Cognitive Transactional Model of Stress and Coping

The cognitive transactional model of stress and coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), explains that an individual’s reaction to a stressful event is facilitated by one’s appraisal, availability of social support, and coping behavior (as cited in Honey et al., 2003). Appraisal involves evaluating the stressful situation as relevant to the individual, and, if the stress is determined to be relevant, deciding if there is a potential harm or benefit from experiencing this stress. It also involves determining what can be done to overcome or prevent harm, or to improve the chances of benefitting from the situation. This approach is seen as a process which involves continuous interactions and adjustments called ‘transactions’ between the person and the environment (Quine & Pahl, 1991). Many times, when one experiences stress, there can be a mix of positive and negative emotions that accompany this stress. This idea of experiencing emotions while under stress suggests that during a transactional encounter within the environment, emotion(s) direct the individual’s attention towards a relevant event (the one causing the stress), and away from what is less relevant (an event that’s perceived as nonthreatening). Therefore, this suggests that there is a cognitive interpretation of the emotions that one experiences while under stress.

Methodology and Research Questions

This paper asks whether there are any significant relationships between stress as measured by the PSS, coping strategies as measured by the Brief COPE, and problem-solving skills as measured by the NCS? Moreover, it is hypothesized that that as stress increased for students, coping strategies and problem-solving skills would also increase.

Participants

The population of interest was college students which included both males and females attending a university in the Southwestern region of the United States. Students who attended the university constituted the sampling frame for this research. The total sample size for this study included 202 participants. The ages of participants ranged from age 18 to age 51. The largest group of participants were 18 and 19 year olds, for a total of 116 of the participants (57.4%). The gender distribution for the study included 45 males (22.3%) and 157 females (77.7%). Racial background included 96 white/Caucasians (47.5%), 74 Hispanics (36.6%), 17 African-American/Blacks (8.4%), 5 Asian (2.5%), 4 Native American/Indian (2.0%), and 6 classified as other (3.0%).

Instruments

Perceived stress scale

To measure stress levels, the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) (Cohen, 1983) was used. It is a measure of the level of evaluated stressfulness of situations in one’s life (Cohen, 1983). Items are used to discover how uncontrollable respondents consider their lives. The items in the questionnaire are related to current levels of experienced stress. Respondents are asked about their thoughts and feelings over the past month, and how often they felt a certain way (Cohen, 1983). An example question from the PSS states, “In the last month, how often have you been angered because of things that happened that were outside of your control?” This questionnaire is one major scale that includes 10 items of self-reported questions ranked on a 4-point Likert scale ranging from never, almost never, sometimes, fairly often, or very often for the responses for each item. All of the items were used in this study. Scores ranging from 0-13 indicated low perceived stress, while scores ranging from 14-26 were considered a moderate level of perceived stress. Finally, scores ranging from 27-40 were indicative of a high level of perceived stress. The higher the score on this scale indicated a higher level of perceived stress when compared to someone who received a lower score on this instrument. Coefficient alpha test-reliability for the PSS was .84, .85, and .86 for each of the 3 samples tested.

Brief COPE

The Brief COPE questionnaire (1997) was used to measure coping (as cited in Cooper et al., 2008). It is an abbreviated version of the Cope Inventory. Each statement deals with either approach or avoidant ways that people cope with a certain stressful event. These items ask what people usually do to cope with a specific stressful event. This questionnaire included 28 items of self-reported questions ranked on a 4-point Likert scale, with participants either engaging in each of these respective behaviors not at all, a little bit, a medium amount, or a lot to help them cope. All of these items were used in this study from this questionnaire. Each subscale consisted of two questionnaire items, and each subscale is analyzed separately. Higher scores on each of the subscales indicated either an approach or an avoidant coping technique. An example statement from the Brief Cope reads, “I have been turning to work or other activities to take my mind off things.” This statement is used for the subscale of behavioral disengagement, and behavioral disengagement can often be described as an ineffective coping technique, or a technique that is not as active for coping with stress. A statement for the humor subscale reads, “I have been making jokes about it.” Internal consistency reliability ranges from .72 -.84 in the 3 groups that were sampled (Cooper et al., 2008).

Need for cognition scale

The Need for Cognition Scale (NCS) was used to assess students’ problem-solving skills. A short form of the NCS consisting of 18 items was first developed by Cacioppo et al. (1984), on the basis of reanalysis of data from Cacioppo and Petty (1982) and a replication and extension involving 527 undergraduates (as cited in Cacioppo et al., 1996). Cacioppo et al. (1984) found that the Cronbach alpha reached an asymptote after entering the 18 items in the 34-item scale that had the highest factor loadings (as cited in Cacioppo et al., 1996). Reliability and factor analyses confirmed that the 18-item NCS was highly correlated with the original 34-item NCS (r = .95, p < .001), possessed high internal consistency (Cronbach ɑ = .90), and was characterized by one dominant factor (accounting for 37% of the variance).

Procedures

Institutional Review Board approval (DRA-092718) was granted prior to the beginning of data collection for this study. A convenience sample was used to recruit students to participate in this study. Participants volunteered for the research as an optional means of fulfilling a course requirement or to receive extra credit for a class. Participants volunteered in the online study via PsychData, a secure online survey system for social science researchers. Once students signed up for the study, they were provided with an informed consent document to review and electronically sign prior to completing the study. Once consent was given, each of the three questionnaires were presented one at a time, allowing the participants to select their responses. Once the three questionnaires were completed, demographic information was collected in order to describe the sample. Finally, an electronic debriefing form was provided for the participants directing them to faculty members in charge of the study in the event that the participants had questions or concerns. Once the electronic debriefing form was provided to the participants, the study was considered completed.

Results

A correlational analysis was conducted to assess any potential relationships between level of stress, coping skills, and problem-solving skills. Coping skills were measured using 14 different variables through 28 questions on a Likert scale of 1 to 4. These 14 variables stayed separate throughout the analysis. The Perceived Stress Scale was scored by summing the answers to the ten questions from the survey. The items were on a Likert scale of 0 to 4 and scores could range from 0 to 40. Individual scores on the Perceived Stress Scale ranged from 1 to 38 (M = 22.56, SD = 6.94). The problem-solving skills portion of the survey consisted of 18 questions on a Likert scale of 1 to 5. Individual scores ranged from 26 to 89 (M = 57.18, SD = 11.78).

There was a positive correlation between stress and seven of the 14 different measures of coping skills. Five of these correlations were statistically significant and were greater or equal to r = .22, p < .001. The other two included self-distraction (M = 2.99, SD = .74), r = .17, p = .02, and humor (M = 2.41, SD = 1.05), r = .14, p = .05 (Table 1). There was a negative correlation between stress and active coping (M = 2.78, SD = .77), r = -.36, p < .001 (Table 1). The majority of participants scored between 2 and 3 for active coping on the Likert scale. There was a negative correlation between problem-solving skills and the coping skill of disengagement (M = 1.72, SD = .75), r = -.14, p = .05 (Table 1). There was a positive correlation between problem-solving skills and active coping (M = 2.78, SD = .77), r = .26, p < .001 (Table 1). There was no significant relationship found between stress and problem-solving skills.

In general, the results suggested that as stress increased for students coping skills also increased significantly, but only for half of the coping skills measured. This included self-distraction, denial, substance use, disengagement, venting, humor, and self-blame. There was the exception with active coping, which had a significant negative correlation with stress. This correlation suggested that as a student's stress levels increased the level of active coping they performed was likely to decrease.

A median split was performed on the problem-solving variable, to investigate whether or not having a high versus low need for cognition impacted the previous eight subscales of coping and/or the perceived stress of the students. MANOVA results revealed a statistically significant difference in coping skills and perceived stress based on a high or low need for cognition, F(9, 192) = 2.681, p = .01; Wilks λ = 0.888, partial η2 = .112. More specifically, need for cognition had a statistically significant effect on the following variables independently: perceived stress (F(1, 200) = 9.42; p = .01; partial η2 = .045), humor (F(1, 200) = 4.21; p = .04; partial η2 = .021), disengagement (F(1, 200) = 0.16; p = .02; partial η2 = .001), and active coping (F(1, 200) = 9.51; p = .01; partial η2 = .045).

Discussion

The current study found a relationship between stress and certain characteristics of coping. These included self-distraction, denial, substance use, disengagement, venting, humor and self-blame. As a student's stress level increased he or she was likely to engage in some form of coping skills to hopefully help alleviate some of the stress. Disengagement and self-blame had the strongest correlations with stress in this study. Both of these unhealthy mechanisms for coping have been found to be associated with higher levels of stress (Sajid et al., 2017). Due to this, it could be that students were using disengagement and self-blame as coping mechanisms because these were found to be related to higher levels of stress. As stress increased, these students were more likely to engage in these two acts of coping. The more stress a student experiences, the more he or she may be likely to engage in certain characteristics of coping that may not help the situation and ultimately may create more stress for the student. These coping mechanisms may only alleviate stress for a short time rather than for a lengthier period of time, almost creating a cycle of finding short-term solutions for a long-term problem.

The findings did not reveal a relationship between stress and problem-solving skills. It is possible that this relationship may need further investigation in order to learn more about this relationship, or why there was not a relationship in this study. This finding was different from previous studies that have found a relationship between stress and smoking in college students, in which students who used smoking as an avoidant coping strategy had poor problem-solving skills (Jennings et al. 2018; Siegel et al., 2020). Niegocki & Aegisdottir (2019) found that problem-solving was negatively associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although this study did not reveal a relationship between stress and problem-solving skills, significance was found between stress and different mechanisms of coping. These results are important especially in the studied age of participants, being young adults and in higher education, they are often dealing with great levels of stress, and the study showed they were leaning toward unhealthy coping skills in order to try to lower the stress that they were experiencing.

The current research study found a few similarities and differences with existing literature on the topic of stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills in college students. It has been noted that many studies discuss stress, coping, and problem-solving skills, but it is important to remember that a single behavior can be influenced by other behaviors (Hirsch et al., 2019). For example, in the case of chronic stress, stress can lead to decreased energy levels, disrupted sleep patterns, concentration and emotional health problems (Ramachandiran & Dhanapal, 2018). Research also shows that after someone develops anxiety or depression, that unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as physical inactivity, increased alcohol consumption and overeating usually follow (Ramachandiran & Dhanapal, 2018).

Stressful events can be experienced by students that also create additional stress. This provided support for the current study’s theoretical framework of using the cognitive transactional model of stress and coping to help explain the relationship between stress, coping, and problem-solving skills. There are usually multiple causes and contributing factors to stress. Learning to cope with stress can also be viewed as a process as stress levels may rise and fall during the course of a semester, and stress is subjective for each student. This sequence of how someone can be impacted by stress illustrates how the transactional process of experiencing stress may bring about the cascading effects of stressful events, and how each transaction, or stressful experience, may bring about differences in appraisal and various coping techniques, depending on whether or not the stress is short-term or long-term.

The results of this study indicated that the typical college student engages more frequently in certain coping mechanisms that are not as helpful, such as behavioral disengagement and substance use, possibly leading to more unnecessary stress. By engaging in more active coping strategies, such as planning and proactive coping, the college student population overall could benefit from stress that is shorter in duration, or possibly stress that is not as intense compared to stress that is experienced when coping strategies are not as proactive and helpful.

Limitations

This study also had limits to internal validity because it was not an experiment. People could not be randomly assigned to different groups, since there were no groups for this study, and cause-and-effect could not be determined. Causal conclusions about relationships could not be made, but significant correlations allowed the possibility for causal relationships between variables. Controllability of the situation could have also played a role in the choice of coping mechanism used by the students. This factor was not addressed in this study but could play an important role. The sampling frame also limited external validity for this study.

There were a few additional limitations to note about this study. The first one was to note that this was a quantitative research study that relied on self-reported data. Participants were asked to rate responses on a Likert-scale, which could have inflated the results because people may not be entirely consistent with their responses. The sample was also a limitation because it was restricted to only one university in the geographic region of the Southwestern United States. The findings may not have been representative of other areas that do not have a similar demographic description.

Recommendations for Future Research

This study provided an opportunity for further research investigating stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills among college students. Future research may focus on other samples of college students to determine whether these correlations are similar when compared to other college student groups. The relationship between stress, coping, and problem-solving skills needs further research to understand more about this interaction. It may also be useful to look at gender differences to see where males and females differ in relation to stress, coping, and problem-solving skills. Additionally, broadening the inquiry to include different constructs or health behaviors such as diet or sleep patterns is warranted to provide more clarity in understanding stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills. Finally, there is little research on which coping strategies are most effective for helping students to deal with stress or researching to further understand why students choose some coping techniques instead of other strategies. Either of these last two options would be possible ways to take the research to the next step in order to learn more about stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills in college students.

Conclusion

The purpose of the study was to address gaps in the existing literature regarding stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills in college students. This study helped to advance the field of psychology because new knowledge was contributed about the relationship between college students' stress, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills by adding a new sample of university students. The practical implications of the study extend to fields in health psychology, counseling and academia. Health psychologists can use this information because health psychology has become increasingly concerned with prevention, treatment, and management of diseases (Freedland, 2017; Weiten et al., 2018). Instructors in academia can use this information to encourage more student participation in activities and educate students about their unhealthy choices. Counselors can use this information to help educate their clients about the harmful effects of substance use as a coping mechanism for stress, and help them to learn to utilize more proactive, positive ways of coping with stress. This gap was important to fill in the literature because students need to make important decisions during this time, and it was important for them to make healthy choices and to find healthy ways to cope with their stress now and in the future. It was also important to know what was related to stress and coping in these students right now. By adding a new sample of students to this body of research, more information can be learned about the interaction of these variables and how it can affect college students in an attempt to help students make more mindful and healthy choices on how to cope with stress.

This study provided some insight into the factors that may have an impact on college students. These factors included stress that the students were experiencing while in college, and the coping techniques that students used in order to handle and reduce their stress, while the study also examined the problem-solving skills of these students. The current study provided support for the theoretical framework of using the cognitive transactional model of stress and coping to help explain stress as it is influenced by coping strategies and problem-solving skills, and that there are usually multiple causes and contributing factors of stress and ways to handle stress.

From the analyzed data, it can be concluded that as stress increased for students, coping skills also increased significantly, but only for half of the coping skills measured. These included self-distraction, denial, substance use, disengagement, venting, humor and self-blame. There was the exception of active coping which had a significant negative correlation with stress, meaning that as stress increased, the level of active coping a student performed decreased. As a result of these findings, it may be possible that students with higher levels of stress may have utilized more coping and problem-solving skills when compared to students who were experiencing lower levels of stress.


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Appendix

Table 1

Measure

Denial

Substance Use

Disengagement

Venting

Self-Blame

Self-Distraction

Humor

Active Coping

PSS

.37**

.22**

.55**

.26**

.54**

.17*

.14*

-.36**

Cognition

¾

¾

-.14*

¾

¾

¾

¾

.26**

M

1.47

1.48

1.72

2.19

2.68

2.99

2.42

2.78

SD

.70

.81

.75

.81

.98

.74

1.05

.77

Note. Correlations of the perceived stress scale (PSS) and the cognition scale (problem-solving skills) and various coping mechanisms.

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