Student stress is very real. Thankfully there are simple ways to reduce stress, however tough things feel right now.
What is Stress? Wikipedia defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” And what could be more demanding than deadlines, exams, work pressure and family life all rolled into one? Stress produces a physiological reaction in your body. And student stress can make you think you’re on the wrong path in life.
How do you know you are Stressed?
Typical signs that you’re experiencing stress include trouble digesting food, shaking, tunnel vision, panicked breathing and an increase in heart rate, as well as dilation of pupils and flushed, red skin.
Experts often refer to this as the “fight or flight” response. Our bodies release the hormones adrenaline and cortisol when we’re stressed. Thanks to these hormones, we would have the energy needed to run away from a real threat, like a bear who is about to attack.
But when the thing causing stress is a big assignment, or money pressures, we have nowhere to run. It’s not a physical problem, but one that takes over our minds. The pressure stays with us and the stress increases. This vicious cycle can affect our sleep patterns, our mental well being and, eventually, our relationships and livelihood, too. If the stress gets really bad, it can take you to an extremely dark place. In a recent study, 1 in 5 US college students reported thoughts of suicide.
It’s vital to work out how to manage student stress as soon as you realize you’re suffering from it.
Stress in Students
But how big a problem is student stress? Well, according to recent research, it’s a big issue that is only getting worse. Harvard Medical School researchers found that more than 20 percent of students reported experiencing six or more stressful life events in 2018. Stress exposure was strongly associated with mental health diagnoses, self-harm and suicidality.
In the study, published in the American medical journal Depression and Anxiety, 3 out of 4 college students said they were stressed, with many reporting suicidal thoughts. In a survey by the American Psychological Association, 45 percent of students reported experiencing stress. 2018 statistics from the University of South Carolina show that 1 in 4 students have been so stressed, it has negatively affected their grades.
And it’s not just students in the US who suffer. Every second student at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) experiences stress ‘often’ or ‘very often’ according to a new study from the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs DM.
Causes of Student Stress
But what is the cause of student stress? Well, the pressure of examinations and the struggle for good grades can be a major contributing factor. There’s also the challenges of living away from home, often for the first time, and trying to balance finances, family commitments, a social life — not to mention the pressure of working out a career and life plan after graduation.
There’s also FOMO, the fear of missing out, coupled with loneliness, which can make it harder for students to have people to talk to. After all, if you’ve made a new group of college friends, you’re unlikely to want to be the one to start a conversation about stress and how bad you’re feeling while everyone else is laughing through life, or coasting along. It’s easier to keep these emotions to yourself and hope that they go away. Sadly, they are unlikely to disappear without a strategic plan.
Here are some very useful things you can do to help beat student stress, if you can feel it building up.
How to Beat Student Stress
1. Pack your diet with healthy fruit and vegetables
It’s age-old advice, but it’s important. Make sure you are eating enough fruit and vegetables so your body is accessing the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals it needs. Experts recommend five portions per day as a minimum. You should also try to eat mood-boosting foods such as asparagus.
Depression has been linked to low levels of folic acid; a couple stems of asparagus already provides a whopping two thirds of your daily intake. Other mood-boosting foods include Brazil nuts, salmon, eggs, and pumpkin seeds.
2. Exercise and get your heart-rate up
A wise yoga teacher once said: “Have a mini heart-attack now, in class, to avoid a big one later.” It sounds flippant, but there’s logic behind her advice. Taking regular cardiovascular exercise — the kind that increases your heart rate for around 20 seconds at a time, can help strengthen your heart muscles so you are more able to cope with stressful episodes when they arrive.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that, for substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week. Work out what activity you love the most, be it yoga, pilates, TRX, jogging through the park or joining CrossFit classes or triathlons. Whatever you enjoy, simply doing it regularly will give you a natural endorphin boost. This endorphin spike will lead to an increase in feel-good hormones, making you instantly happier. Plus, you’ll sleep better when you’ve tired out your body in a healthy way.
3. Meditate for ten minutes every day, minimum
If you’re a student at a campus college, it can be hard to find time and space to get away from the buzz of campus life and take time for yourself. But if you’re a home-learning student, like students at University of the People, the great advantage is you can manage your own schedule and pause for breath whenever it suits you.
Download an app like Headspace and start meditating daily for ten minutes at a time with one of their guided programs. Or, to try it alone, simply sit on a comfortable chair with both feet on the floor. Place your hands on your legs, palms down, and begin breathing deeply whilst closing your eyes.
Try to let the thoughts and clutter from the day flow out of you with every breath and focus on bringing a calm, clean new energy in with every inhale. Ten minutes is enough to deep-clean your mind and send stressful thoughts away, leaving you more able to cope with daily stress.
4. Quit smoking and drink moderately
You know the drill on this one. According to the US Centre For Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol consumption is associated with a variety of short and long-term health risks. And binge drinking — which typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours — can be very dangerous for your health.
Drinking a lot can feel like a stress-busting move at first, but after a while your stress will come back to surface and can manifest in a more dangerous way. To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harm, the 2015-2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation, up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, and only by adults of legal drinking age.
As for smoking, it’s scientifically proven to worsen your health over time, and can cause lung cancer and other incurable diseases. So quit the cigarettes and take up something more productive instead when you need a moment of calm: try singing, jogging, or doing a handstand to reverse the blood flow to the brain. All of these will mimic the effect provided by a cigarette, but they won’t compromise your long-term health.
5. Plan your day properly
Eating well and exercising can reap huge rewards, but if your to-do list is crazy long and your desk is a mess, those stressful feelings will manifest again the minute you get back to work. Stop this from happening by making a proper plan for your working day. Give each activity a specific time-slot so you know that everything will get done, from studying for module A to writing a paper for module B.
Give each element 30 minutes on your calendar and share it with a family member if necessary, so they know what you’re meant to be working on and when. Encourage them to check on you occasionally, and encourage you to stick to your plan, even if new emails pop in with new tasks. If everything has a time to be dealt with, everything will get done!
6. Take breaks and don’t forget down-time
Whether it’s a five-minute screen break every 30 minutes, or a proper 20-minute break after an hour’s study, experts agree you need a break to let information settle in and give your creative juices time to re-boot. Breaks also give you time to step outside of your immediate short-term focus and remind you that there’s more to life than your current challenge. Use the time to play your favourite song, do a five-minute stretch routine, cuddle your dog, or phone a friend.
7. Create a good sleep plan
Going to bed shouldn’t just be something you do five minutes after you slam the laptop shut. Establishing a good pre-bedtime routine can really help you slide into happy sleep — without the palpitations and panicked thoughts that often accompany anxious sleep.
If you have access to a tub, run a bath and add a few drops of lavender to the hot water to encourage sleep. Don’t look at a screen for 60 minutes before bed. However tempting it might be to keep up to date with social media and news stories, you don’t need to rake these into the bedroom with you. They won’t help you if you’re living with stress on a daily basis.
Instead, take relaxing music in the bedroom, dim the lights and make sure your room is at the right temperature; neither too hot nor too cold. Sipping a milky hot drink or herbal tea before you go to sleep can also help, but avoid caffeine or salty snacks before bed because they are instant heart-rate raisers and can leave you thirsty and agitated, which is the perfect storm for stressful thoughts to pop out of hiding and take over your brain.
8. Make sure you still make time for socializing
When you’re a student experiencing stress, it can be very tempting to shut everyone else out and fight the battle on your own. But this is not a recommended approach. Instead, laugh whenever you get the opportunity to. Whether it’s with other students in the same situation as you, or with your mom, dad, grandparents or children. Find pockets of time to spend with the people who make you happy. They say laughter is the best medicine and it’s not incorrect!
9. Journal it out
You might think the last thing you have time for is writing a journal, but sometimes writing down how you feel can get the thoughts out of your head and allow you to sleep more easily and feel happier, very quickly. In this case, it’s best to go old-school and write your thoughts down in a private notebook. Or type them into a password-protected Word document.
But don’t mistake your Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter accounts for a journal. These are public forums and whilst it’s fine to share how you’re feeling with your friends and followers from time to time, you’ll be self-editing your thoughts and presenting a version of events that you’re happy to share.
Instead, go off-line and write down how things really are. You can combine this with goal-setting and gratitude lists if you like. Summarise each day by writing a list of five things you’re truly happy about from that day, and five small things you want to achieve tomorrow.
The lists can be varied in content. You might be grateful that the New York Jets won the big game, and grateful that you had delicious tacos for dinner, whilst also planning to ace that assignment tomorrow and make an extra $200 this month from your part-time job. Mixing big and small goals is the key to success with this one.
10. Reach out for help
If you are really struggling and a casual talk with friends or family isn’t enough, there are organisations and online resources that can help. If you’re a campus college student, ask your student advisor for details of the campus counselling service, speak to academic advisers or speak to hall of residence staff.
If you’re studying from home at an online university, for example with UoPeople, there are support services available to you online.
You should also talk to your doctor or other health professionals and explain how you’re feeling. There are things they can do to help. From referring you to a registered counsellor or psychologist, to giving you medication or tips for helping you to reduce stress, it’s important to let others know how you’re feeling. If your thoughts turn to suicide, call a suicide prevention hotline in your area immediately.
In America, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached on 800-273-TALK (8255). Other countries will have other similar organisations, so Google it to find the appropriate numbers and keep them in a safe place.
Student stress is a very real challenge that all of us can face. But equally, there are quick, effective and very useful ways to reduce stress for students. Just don’t be too proud to try some of these methods — they really can work!