Coping with stress
By Margaret Adolphus
"The best days of your life" was how time at university used to be described. It still can be, but the phrase better reflects a past era when people on a moderate income (usually provided by their parents or a state grant) did a moderate amount of academic work. Paid work was generally confined to the vacation, and there was ample time for socializing and getting involved in the extracurricular activities on offer.
But now, as perhaps never before, students are suffering from stress.
In the UK, for example, students can end up with debts of around £23,000 and find themselves working in paid employment for 30-40 hours a week on top of their study time (TheSite.org, 2010). They are also, according to a British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy survey, experiencing increasingly severe mental problems, with 10 per cent of those seeking help being suicidal (TheSite.org, 2010).
In the US, an Associated Press-mtvU survey found that 85 per cent of respondents surveyed frequently experienced stress (MacDonald, 2009). In Australia, a study at the University of Queensland (The Australian, 2008) found that half the 384 students who attended the health service also had some degree of psychological disorder.
Nor is this a Western phenomenon. The Bollywood blockbuster, 3 Idiots described the enormous pressures on students at India's top engineering schools, where near perfect marks are needed to succeed, and where there is no such thing as an extension on compassionate grounds (Menardi, 2010).
And in China, some universities are setting up "psychological catharsis chambers" for students to offload their stress. Here, they can punch things, scream or write down their concerns (Hohua, 2009).
Why do students get stressed?
There are all sorts of stresses – academic, financial, social and emotional – associated with being a student:
Constantly having to meet deadlines, anxiety about grades and those ever-looming exams, money worries ...
Then there is the social element, university is a great chance to make friends and develop and enhance your social skills, but with social life comes peer pressure, which at best can be daunting and at worst dangerous: "Everybody is pairing up, who can I find quick? I have nothing lined up for Friday night!! Should I go along with the crowd when they go on drinking binges/take drugs/indulge in casual sex?".
Such pressures have always been there, but now there are additional ones as universities try and meet the demands of twenty-first century society.
- The curriculum is more complex and assignment requirements more varied.
- Universities, in their attempt to meet growing student numbers, are also becoming more impersonal and less friendly.
- Financially, too, students are under increasing pressure and often need to juggle paid employment with full-time academic study.
For some students, the fees and the opportunity costs of full-time study may just be too high, and they may opt for part-time or distance learning. For these people, it's more a matter of fitting part-time study into full-time work, rather than the other way around, so again there are huge time pressures.
Accommodation may also be a problem: finding it, and affording it. In Australia, for example, The Sydney Morning Herald reported (Gilmore, 2010) that such was the increase in the student population, two-thirds of university students were suffering from "rent stress", which is defined by the Australian federal government as rent exceeding 30 per cent of a person's gross income.
For many students, living at home may be the only option, but this may bring its own problems if there isn't access to a quiet place to study, or to a computer, or to the Internet.
Women in particular may face problems due to their caring responsibilities, which they have to fit in around academic work.
International students may not only face all the pressures of home students, but also those associated with trying to cope in a different culture, speak a foreign language and navigate their way through an unfamiliar educational system (Misra and Castillo, 2004; p. 15).
And stress may also come from those upon whom we usually rely, such as family. For example, the pressure which comes from high parental expectations.
What is stress, and is it always bad?
Not all stress is bad: a certain amount is necessary to perform at an appropriate level. Just as a concert pianist or an Olympic medallist needs a certain degree of tension to play a piece or undertake a sporting feat, so too do you need to be keyed up (i.e. feel tense, nervous, excited) and have a sense of urgency in order to write a paper or deliver a presentation. It is when the anxiety becomes so great that performance is inhibited that stress becomes a bad thing.
Stress is a physiological reaction which helps us deal with life's challenges: it causes the body to produce adrenaline which creates a burst of mental and physical energy. This sort of positive stress, without which most of us would not get anything done, is known as "eustress".
However, when stress persists for a long period, when we are no longer able to cope with the demands of life, the stress chemicals don't get broken down and stay in the blood, then stress takes a toll on one's body and one's mind. This is known as "distress".
Physical symptoms include:
- palpitations as the heart beats faster,
- dryness in the mouth, and
- increased muscle tension which in turn leads to headaches, dizziness, insomnia, a feeling of "butterflies" in the stomach, and sweating.
Mental symptoms include:
- obsessive worry which obscures rational thinking,
- inability to make decisions, and
- negative thoughts.
People can also become irritable, withdrawn, less sociable, prone to panic attacks, self-doubting, angry and impatient.
People respond differently to stress. The high-flying business person or politician who travels widely and puts in 15-hour days may thrive on stress. Equally another person might find even a small additional task difficult to cope with and become distressed.
What are the signs and symptoms of excessive stress?
How do you know if you or one of your friends is suffering from distress? Here are some signs:
- difficulty sleeping, or, sleeping a lot and still feeling tired;
- changes in patterns of eating – for example, eating in short bursts, losing your appetite and snacking on junk food;
- somatic symptoms, such as frequent headaches, or colds and other minor illnesses, muscle ache;
- persistent sense of time pressure;
- spending a lot of time on study to the exclusion of one's social life, forgetting how to enjoy oneself;
- working long hours, but never feeling that you are on top of things; and
- not being able to relax when you have stopped working.
How to cope with stress
If you feel that some of the symptoms listed in section 3 apply to you, then you may find it helpful to talk to someone.
You may be lucky enough to be at a university that has a counselling service which can offer you a supportive, and entirely confidential, environment in which you can offload. There is no stigma to this.
No one need know that you even went there, apart from you and the counsellor. Such people are very highly trained, and can help you see things in a different light.
Some university counselling centres offer their own stress-reduction programme, or lend out relaxation tapes. There may also be a gym with an appealing exercise programme.
If you don't know how to contact a counselling service, then your university's medical or health services team should be able to help.
Some universities also have a system of personal tutors, whose function is to keep an eye on the well-being of a group of students. Alternatively, there may be friends in whom you can confide. Some places have a system of peer-to-peer counselling, with "peers" being experienced students (in all probability, they will have experienced what you are now going through at some stage). If you belong to a faith group, you could speak to someone at your church/temple/mosque.
Whatever steps you take to offload the burden, remember you won't be the first student to have experienced stress, nor will you be the last.
Some tips on stress management
1. Take care of your health
If your body is in good shape, you will be better able to cope with stress. There are a number of aspects to this:
- Avoid too many fast foods, and eat as much wholefood as you can – grains, fruit, vegetables, unprocessed meat and fish. These contain the necessary vitamins to help you deal with stress.
- Avoid too much sugar and caffeine – these substances give you a short-term high, after which your energy levels drop again.
- Keep your blood sugar levels steady by eating small, frequent meals.
- Have plenty of healthy snacks available, for example fruit, crunchy vegetables, nuts and raisins.
- Carbohydrates (bread, cereals, rice, pasta, etc.) are good when you are going to exercise, but protein foods (beans, lentils, dairy products, meat, fish, poultry and soy products such as tofu) are better for long periods of sedentary study.
- Always eat breakfast.
- Drink plenty of water.
Take physical exercise
Try and establish an exercise routine – this doesn't necessarily mean sport or going to a gym. Dancing, yoga, Pilates, or just plain walking (at a brisk pace) will do just as well.
Exercise will make you healthier and better able to withstand stress. There is also a proven link between exercise and good mental health.
When you feel you are getting nowhere with a particular assignment, get up from your desk and go for a brisk walk. You will be surprised how it can clear your head.
Don't abuse alcohol and/or drugs
These may provide a tempting escape, but are easily abused. Drunken binges and drug use can lead to fights and getting into trouble, being hurt, hangovers and poor performance. It is best to drink in moderation (check safe amounts with your medical centre) and avoid drugs altogether.
Get plenty of sleep
Tempting though it may be to put in that all-nighter to complete an assignment, or stay up late to keep on top of your studies, you should be aware of the dangers of too little sleep.
These include greater anxiety, irritability and general failure to cope, reduced concentration, lethargy and poor coordination.
Try if possible to avoid too many late nights, and have a regular bedtime.
Make time for relaxation
Cultivate an attitude of relaxation: there are some simple exercises you can do to help you feel less stressed. Practise them on a regular basis and also whenever you experience heightened tension. If you are seeing a counsellor, he or she will be able to offer you more detailed advice.
Deep breathing is one of the best ways of relaxing: breathe slowly and evenly through your nose and from your abdomen. You should feel your stomach rising.
Some people find meditation techniques helpful; you can also try visualization, where you imagine a very peaceful scene, perhaps somewhere where you have been on holiday.
If your muscles are tense, try standing up and stretching. If you are in a public place, you may just want to tense your muscles, hold and then release.
2. Be as organized as possible
You can also help yourself by being as organized as possible with your money, your time and your goals.
Our study skill: "Getting organized" contains lots of useful advice. Note in particular the advice about not just putting deadline dates for assignments in your diary, but also blocking out time for preparation. Also be aware of the importance of "to do" lists as an organizational tool – you are less likely to be distracted by an item, and more likely to get it done, if you have created a written reminder.
Above all, don't leave things until the last minute. This is a sure recipe for stress.
3. Take control of your finances
Finance is another source of stress for students, and too large a topic to be gone into here in any depth. However, here are some general pointers:
- Create a budget, looking at sources of income as well as expenditure.
- Track your spending, to see where the money is going.
- See if there is anything that you can cut down on.
- Make sure that you are getting all the help you can. For instance, banks often have special packages for students, and if you have a student accommodation office, they may point you in the direction of affordable housing. Your student union may also offer advice.
- Set long-term (this year or semester) and short-term (this day or week) goals. Prioritize your tasks and activities and focus on the things that will help you achieve them.
4. Maintain a positive attitude
There are a number of steps you can take to ensure that you maintain a positive attitude.
Much stress is caused by the way we think. For example, you might think, "I'll never get this assignment done in time", or "I can't write essays". Try thinking in a different way (this is called "cognitive restructuring"). For example, "I did this before, I will do it again", "I am quite capable of writing essays", "Last time was a panic, this time I am better prepared".
Reassess, and downsize, your commitments. Much stress is caused by the fact that we over-commit ourselves. Students in particular, in the euphoria of freshers' week, tend to sign up for all sorts of societies and activities. Do you really need to belong to six bands? Can you cut down on your paid work? Sure, it's good to have the extra money, but not at the expense of stressing you out. Can you drop a class? Also learn that it's fine, in some circumstances, to say "No".
Make sure you have a good support network, through family and friends. At the same time, some relationships can be destructive, and if you are having a relationship with someone that causes you stress, then it is time to reassess. In a healthy relationship, you should feel able to be yourself, have fun, communicate, and handle conflict well.
Spend some time alone every day. You could go for a walk, write a journal, meditate, or just spend time enjoying nature.
Express the way you feel – talk to a counsellor, a health professional, a colleague, a fellow student, or a tutor. Communication is important.
Never underestimate the power of humour – try and have a good laugh. Laughter can be the best medicine!
Maintain a balance between study and relaxation. If you have too many non-study activities, these will encroach on your academic work, but it is important that they are there and you have time for relaxation. If you are always feeling guilty about not working when you aren't studying, then you will not relax properly. The following guidelines were issued by the Counselling Service of the University of Adelaide (University of Adelaide, 2010):
Counselling Service of the University of Adelaide guidelines (reproduced with kind permission of UAD)
Stress hits students everywhere, for many reasons including the high cost of fees, high expectations, grade pressure, and the need to succeed on a number of different fronts. Admitting it and taking steps to ensure that when you do, inevitably, meet times of high stress you are better able to cope, is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Perhaps the situation can best be summed up by the following quote from an unknown Chinese author:
"A lecturer was giving a lecture to his students on stress management. He raised a glass of water and asked the audience, 'How heavy do you think this glass of water is?'. The students' answers ranged from 20 to 500 gm. [The lecturer told his students] 'It does not matter on the absolute weight. It depends on how long you hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it is OK. If I hold it for an hour, I will have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you will have to call an ambulance. It is the exact same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.
'If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, we will not be able to carry on, the burden becoming increasingly heavier. What you have to do is to put the glass down, and rest for a while before holding it up again.' We have to put down the burden periodically, so that we can be refreshed and are able to carry on. When you return home from work, put the burden of work down. Don't carry it into your home. You can pick it up tomorrow."
Know when to put down that glass, and university can still be one of the best times of your life.
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