Stress is an inevitable part of the student journey. Alongside all the laughs and good times you'll have to deal with worries surrounding your academic, work and social life. Here are five things you can do to minimise feelings of stress
'The stress response (fight/flight) is vital for human existence as it alerts us that something is wrong. It gives us the opportunity to act and respond,' says Alison Simmons, mental health and counselling manager at the University of Chester.
Student stress can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
- struggling with your mental health
- loneliness, homesickness or relationship difficulties
- finding it hard to save money or deal with debt
- not knowing how to balance work and study
- worrying about revising for exams
- struggling with writing essays or dissertations
- feeling unsure about what to do after graduation
- harmful use of, or withdrawal from, alcohol or drugs.
There are a number of common reactions to stressful circumstances including:
- Behavioural - these could involve avoiding or escaping from the situation and turning to alcohol or drugs, a change in appetite or an inability to concentrate.
- Physical - you may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, headaches, butterflies and over-breathing.
- Psychological - stress can lead to fear, panic and the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
'Ideally we should engage with stress management strategies all the time as part of our daily and weekly routines, this supports us in responding to challenges and helps to minimise the feeling of complete overwhelm,' explains Louise Gill, wellbeing adviser at Queen Margaret University Edinburgh.
'When you recognise that you have become overwhelmed with stress and are struggling to work through solutions, it's a good time to ask for help or adopt strategies to help you manage your triggers more effectively.'
This doesn't have to be a gruelling gym session or a ten mile run - you simply need to get your heart racing, for example by going for a brisk walk or a bike ride.
'Regular exercise can help relieve stress in many ways,' says Louise. 'There is breathing centred exercise like yoga and Pilates, which is good for grounding and breathing management. Aerobic exercise can equally manage stress hormones, release tension and increase endorphin levels creating a 'feel good' vibe. Team sports and activities can add a social dimension that can additionally support someone with stress management, as we know that social engagement benefits our mental health and wellbeing.'
If you'd like to get moving but are struggling for inspiration, see what schemes are available at your institution and get involved with clubs and societies. There's usually an array of activities on offer from hiking to dancing, basketball to boxing and martial arts to cycling.
A relaxation technique originating in Buddhism, mindfulness is a popular coping mechanism for those tackling stress or anxiety. Used by clinicians to improve patients' physical and mental health, it can significantly lower stress levels. It is most often practised through deep breathing or guided meditation.
Alison explains, 'mindfulness can be useful at allowing us time to step away from automatic thoughts and reactions, to remove intensity from our emotions. It is more effective if practiced regularly. There is evidence to show that after eight weeks of regular practice, mindfulness can improve the body's response to stress and changes the shape of the brain.'
One of the most accessible ways to practice this is through free smartphone apps such as The Mindfulness App, Calm and Headspace. A number of books are also available on the subject.
Look into what mindfulness activities are available at your university. At Queen Mary University there’s a mindfulness programme that is free for all students and staff.
For an introduction to the field, the Mental Health Foundation provides an online mindfulness course.
Talking to someone
Isolation can have an extremely negative impact on your happiness. Accepting that you need help and talking to someone is often the first step to feeling better.
'Stress thrives in the dark, it convinces us we can't cope, so reach out to people who can help. Talking about what's stressing you out can be useful. Be clear on whether you're looking for advice or just need someone to listen,' says Alison.
Speak to your friends and family - they know you best and care about you the most. What's more, studies suggest that socialising with a friend just once a week can reduce your stress levels and improve your mood as much as therapy or counselling.
If you talk to other students on your course, you’ll probably find that you’re not alone. This can help put things in perspective. Ask them what techniques they use to manage stress.
'Sometimes sharing with someone can create perspective as well as lead to additional support, which can relieve our sense of overwhelm and stress experience,' advises Louise.
Alternatively, make an appointment with your student wellbeing service. The majority of institutions have these and they should be your first port of call if you're worried, stressed or upset about anything. They'll provide a listening ear and can signpost you to specialist services if needed. While wellbeing services don't provide counselling support, most universities offer free counselling and support groups. Sessions tackle wide-ranging themes, from surviving freshers' week to coping with post-Christmas exam stress.
Do you ever feel like there aren't enough hours in the day? Well, you're not alone. People often get stressed when they feel that they're running out of time to complete a task - this could be study or work related, or even stem from feeling overwhelmed with social activities. However, simple time management techniques can help you to feel more relaxed and focused.
Try creating a written schedule, breaking your tasks down into manageable chunks, planning accordingly and allocating yourself time every day to relax or socialise. Divide your work into urgent and non-urgent tasks, and important and non-important tasks. Read up on our 7 time management tips for students.
Take a look on your institution's website. Most universities produce useful content pages, skills guides and toolkits to help you get to grips with soft skills such as time management and organisation.
Getting enough sleep
This might sound like an obvious solution but it's often overlooked. Your mental health and wellbeing relies on you getting enough sleep, as no one functions at 100% when they're tired.
Try to wake up and go to sleep at the same time each day. Seven to eight hours of sleep is recommended. This might not be realistic every night of the week but aim towards this goal more often than not.
'Sleep is important for recuperating the body's systems and allowing us to process memories. If we don't get enough sleep, this can make us more irritable, impact on our concentration, coordination and memory and make us more vulnerable to mental health problems or exacerbate existing ones,' explains Alison.
Try to do everything you can to relax yourself before going to bed. Take a bath or have a warm shower to wind down, watch your favourite TV show, listen to a podcast or sit quietly and read. Avoid screen time as much as possible and switch off laptops, phones and tablets at least an hour before going to sleep.
If you study in the same room you sleep in, put all study materials away.
Other stress-busting methods
- Take your mind off it. Do something you enjoy and that will distract you for a while like listening to music, reading, baking or crafts.
- Eat healthily and consume fresh foods.
- Change your mindset and adopt a positive attitude.
- Take a break from social media. Comparing yourself and your productivity to others is a recipe for disaster.
- Laugh. Laughing out loud actually increases oxygen and blood flow, which immediately reduces stress. Spend time with a funny friend, watch something silly or book tickets to the local comedy club.
'Self-care is really important when we are facing challenges and experiences that have the potential to overwhelm us and create stress,' adds Louise. 'Consider establishing a self-care routine and schedule and prioritise activities that will support your coping mechanisms - for example, exercise, eating regularly and well, fluids, sleep, hygiene, social engagements and 'downtime' hobbies.'
If you've tried all these coping strategies but can't conquer the cycle of stress, it's a good idea to visit your GP to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are in fact stress related, and that there are no underlying issues.
Find out more
- Discover how to make the most of university life.
- If you're worried about your wellbeing, get in touch with mental health charity Student Minds.