Why is stress management important for students?
What is stress?
All of us experience stress throughout our lives. There are common stressors we all recognise, such as major life changes, uncertainty about the future, illness, conflict, and financial problems. Although these can cause real challenges to our mental health, stress isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, in certain circumstances, short-term positive stress can actually motivate us to succeed and overcome obstacles. However, throughout the Covid pandemic, stress levels have risen for nearly everyone, and especially for young people.
A 2021 report by UK charity Student Minds highlighted that “Young adults have been especially badly hit during the pandemic with a triple whammy of curtailed education, diminished job prospects and reduced social contact with peers.” 1
So, are students particularly susceptible to stress?
Yes, we know that stress is really common in students. The NHS says, “University can be a stressful experience, as well as being fun and exciting. You may feel stressed about starting university, exams, coursework deadlines, living with people you do not get on with, or thinking about the future.” 2
Even before the pandemic, numerous studies in Europe and America consistently reported a high percentage of students suffering from stress and anxiety caused by a multitude of factors. Many of these students were worried about disclosing their mental health concerns and felt they might be stigmatised for seeking support.
Why do students experience such high levels of stress?
Going to university or college is a significant life transition that brings with it a variety of challenges. As well as adjusting to academic demands and deadline pressures, many young people will simultaneously be coping with their first experience of independent life. It’s a time of rapid adaptation from familiar childhood routines to the realities of adulthood: learning to get along with housemates in a new town, making friends, managing a limited budget, and perhaps having the responsibility of a part-time job along with studying. All of these changes can bring anxiety as well as excitement.
Some of the factors students most commonly cited as contributing to stress are:
- Study pressure and deadlines
- Time management difficulties
- Unhealthy habits like drinking too much alcohol
- Feeling lonely or homesick
- Poor eating habits due to budget/circumstances
- Financial pressure and debt
- Poor quality accommodation
- Friendship or relationship difficulties
- Adjusting to a new environment
- Fear of failure
- Worries about future job prospects
What are some of the signs that I might be experiencing stress?
The UK charity MIND explains that some of the common signs of stress are frequently feeling:
- Unable to enjoy yourself or look forward to life
- Unable to calm your mind, concentrate or switch off
Over time, these feelings can make student stress worse by leading to a vicious cycle of being unable to make decisions, avoiding situations instead of facing them, eating or drinking too much, and alienating friends and family. They can also lead to increasingly debilitating physical symptoms like panic attacks, insomnia, muscle pain, stomach aches and headaches. Stress can badly affect our emotional and physical health, so it’s important to recognise the signs and take action to address and manage them.
What can I do to address the causes of stress and help me cope?
If you’re a student who’s feeling stressed, your worries probably fall into one or more of these areas:
- Study stress
- Accommodation stress
- Social stress
- Financial stress
No matter what challenges you face, there are some key strategies and skills that anyone can learn to help them alleviate and manage their stress.
Take control and stay positive
Feeling that your problems are out of control is one of the main causes of stress. By taking active control and facing up to your fears you’ll feel empowered to find a solution. Having a positive outlook and looking for things to be grateful for is also a great way to counter stress – there is a broad range of mindfulness apps available that can help with this.
Manage your time
It can feel really stressful when a deadline is looming and you’re running out of time. When you know time management is a problem for you, try using apps to help you get organised by breaking tasks down into manageable chunks that you can tackle without feeling daunted. Make sure you schedule breaks for rest and food, prioritise urgent and non-urgent tasks and create a written schedule so you feel more in control.
Learn to budget
Create a simple spreadsheet to make sure you’re balancing your incoming and outgoing funds. Look out for student deals and discounts in-store and online, and be smart about how to make the most of your budget.
Look after yourself
Try to get into a regular sleep pattern – going to bed and getting up at regular times helps combat stress hormones and keep you feeling positive. Exercise and healthy foods are important for your wellbeing, too. Try not to rely on alcohol, as this is just a short-term fix that could ultimately make you feel worse. Consider taking a break from social media when you’re feeling low – remember, other people’s lives aren’t usually as glossy as they appear online. Take time to do the activities you love, whether that’s reading, listening to music or baking cakes.
Express yourself and ask for help
Talk to friends, talk to family, or ask for help from your college or university’s Student Wellbeing service. Sometimes just sharing your worries can be the first step to feeling more able to cope, getting a different perspective, or finding resources to help you.
Find your tribe
Finding a like-minded community helps you feel connected, boosts your mood and gives you important social support. Look out for activities like clubs and societies, because whatever you’re into there’s sure to be a group to join, whether it’s sports, music, computing, gaming or amateur dramatics.
How will learning these stress management skills help me in future?
The good news is, if you can learn to manage study stress now, you can turn it into a positive for the future. When you see a stressful situation as an opportunity rather than a threat, you can harness the power of that stress to boost your energy, sharpen your focus, and give you the motivation to respond to adversity. Every time you react positively to a challenge, such as delivering an essay under time pressure or making a presentation to your peers, you’re proving and enhancing your own ability to achieve your goals.
Once we’ve learned to overcome and master stressful situations, our ability to deal with stress in the future increases. By managing stress well, we’re rewiring our brains to cope more effectively the next time and developing our resilience. We can even begin to actively welcome positive stress by pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone with new experiences, whether they’re physical, mental, or emotional. The more we succeed, the more confident and determined we become, and the more easily we’ll weather any setbacks or disappointments.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, who gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time in 2013 about the upsides of stress says that when you learn to reframe the way you think about stress, you become less anxious and more capable. McGonigal says,
“If you think stress is to help you run away from a tiger, of course, that’s not a helpful way to respond to life. But if you understand that what you experience as stress is the biological mechanism by which you are going to learn and grow and develop your strength, now that’s a totally different way to understand.” 7
Students who learn stress management skills will be able to face problems and overcome obstacles without fear. This personal growth reinforces their self-belief and generates a positive cycle of progress and benefit. By learning to stay calm – even in demanding situations – they will be successful, fulfilled, and healthy. Perhaps most importantly, these crucial life skills will be an invaluable asset in job interviews, internships and ultimately when students enter the world of work.
Where can I begin to reduce my stress?
In 2020, the WHO (World Health Organisation) produced a free workbook full of practical information, tips and techniques for anyone, anywhere, who experiences stress.
Doing What Matters in Times of Stress recommends:
- Grounding: learning to focus, engage and pay attention
- Unhooking: managing difficult thoughts and feelings
- Acting on your values: finding ways to act on what matters to you, and positively influence the people and situations around you
- Being kind: to ourselves and to others
- Making room: for challenging thoughts and situations rather than trying to avoid them8
- Reach out for help
- Don’t skip classes or avoid deadlines
- Practice self-care
- Get involved in extra-curricular activities
- Exercise and eat well – stay healthy in mind and body
- Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
- Stay connected with friends and family
- Laugh, dance and have fun to create balance
- University Mental Health: Life in a Pandemic Listening to higher education communities throughout 2020/2021
- Student stress
- Mental health statistics: stress
- University students’ strategies of coping with stress during the coronavirus pandemic: Data from Poland
- Undergraduate Student Reference Group
- How to manage stress
- A Stanford psychologist has a simple mental exercise for tackling student stress
- Doing What Matters in Times of Stress