University life can be stressful for even the most relaxed of students, but if you’re suffering don’t worry – help is at hand
There are many potential causes of student stress, such as: examinations, deadlines, leaving assignments to the last minute etc
There are a number of common reactions to stressful circumstances such as these, including:
- Behavioural reactions – these could involve avoiding or escaping from the situation and turning to alcohol or drugs.
- Physical reactions – you may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, headaches, butterflies and over-breathing.
- Psychological reactions – stress can lead to fear, panic and the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
‘Stress occurs when the demands upon us are greater than our ability to cope with them,’ explains Dr Paul Blenkiron, an NHS consultant psychiatrist. ‘There’s a difference between stress and pressure. I may have a busy job where I’m under pressure, but I may be coping and even enjoying it without stress.
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‘We perform best with a moderate amount of pressure, not too little. Imagine taking an exam where you were totally relaxed – you wouldn’t perform at your best.’
However, if stress is beginning to affect your mental wellbeing, try exploring the following five coping mechanisms.
This doesn’t have to be a gruelling gym session – you simply need to get your heart racing, for example by going for a brisk walk or a bike ride.
‘Exercise can be hugely beneficial for the mind as well as the body,’ says Glyn Williams, senior wellbeing practitioner at the University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol. ‘Regular exercise releases endorphins – feel-good hormones that can help to reduce tension and allow the mind to focus on something other than worries and concerns.’
Stephen Bradford, senior mental health adviser at Birkbeck University, adds that just 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week can have a significant effect. ‘There’s some suggestion that, for mild depression, moderate exercise is as effective as medication and cognitive behaviour therapy,’ he explains.
A relaxation technique originating in Buddhism, mindfulness is now used by clinicians to improve patients’ physical and mental health. It can significantly lower stress levels.
Mindfulness is most often practised through deep breathing or guided meditation. Free smartphone apps such as Calm and Headspace are available to provide this. ‘Mindfulness has been shown to reduce worry and rumination through focusing on consciousness and the here and now,’ Stephen says.
For an excellent introduction to the field, follow this ten-minute practice exercise by mindfulness expert Professor Mark Williams.
3. Talking to someone
Isolation can have an extremely negative impact on your happiness. ‘Accepting that you may need some help is often the first step to feeling better,’ warns Glyn.
Speak to your friends and family – they know you best and care about you most. What’s more, studies suggest that socialising with a friend just once every week can reduce your stress levels and improve your mood as much as therapy or counselling. ‘You may find that you both feel better for the social interaction,’ Stephen adds.
Alternatively, the majority of universities offer free counselling and support groups on ways to manage student stress. Sessions tackle wide-ranging themes, from surviving freshers’ week to coping with post exam stress.
4. Time management
People often get stressed when they feel that they’re running out of time to complete something. However, simple time management techniques can help you to feel relaxed and focused.
Try creating a written work schedule, breaking your tasks down into manageable chunks and planning accordingly. Divide your work into urgent and non-urgent tasks, and important and non-important tasks.
Stephen recommends that your daily plan also incorporates frequent study breaks, around eight hours of sleep and time to participate in enjoyable activities.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
If stress leads you to feel anxious or depressed for more than a few days, CBT may become one of your best options.
This psychological approach teaches you to cope better with your mental health issues by changing the way you think and react to everyday situations. For example, you’ll be encouraged to consider whether apparent problems are actually in fact just challenges.
By Dominic Claeys-Jackson, prospects.ac.uk