5 ways to manage student stress

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
March, 2016

Managing university life can be stressful for many students, but help is at hand. Here are five ways you can deal with your worries

Stress can affect anyone, so it's a good idea to develop an understanding of what it is and how you can successfully tackle it. There are many different causes of student stress, including:

  • essays, exams and dissertations;
  • juggling study and part-time work;
  • managing your finances;
  • having to deal with practicalities like your living arrangements;
  • feeling lonely, suffering from homesickness or experiencing relationship difficulties;
  • harmful use of, or withdrawal from, alcohol or drugs (especially cannabis and ecstasy).

'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.

'We perform best with a moderate amount of pressure, not too little. Imagine taking an exam where you were not a little anxious and were totally relaxed - you wouldn't perform at your best.'

According to Dr Blenkiron, common symptoms of stress and anxiety (as opposed to pressure) include:

  • Physical reactions, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, headaches, butterflies, going to the toilet and over-breathing (which causes dizziness and tingling in the fingertips and around the mouth).
  • Psychological reactions, such as fear, panic and the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
  • Behavioural reactions, such as avoiding or escaping from the situation, and turning to alcohol or drugs.

So, if you're suffering from stress, be sure to consider the following coping mechanisms.


This doesn't have to be a gruelling gym session - you just need to get your heart racing. You could achieve this by, for example, walking briskly, riding a bike or using the stairs instead of the lift.

'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 antidepressant medication and cognitive behaviour therapy,' he explains.

Relaxation techniques

Mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing and meditation, can significantly lower your stress levels. With origins in Buddhism, these exercises are now used clinically to improve both physical and mental health.

Stephen says that mindfulness is most often practised through guided meditation. Free smartphone apps such as Headspace provide this facility. 'Mindfulness has been shown to reduce worry and rumination through focusing on consciousness and the here and now,' he says.

For an excellent introduction to this area, check out this ten-minute practice exercise by mindfulness expert Professor Mark Williams.

Talking to someone

Isolation has a significant negative impact on your mental health. 'Accepting that you may need some help with how you're feeling is often the first step to feeling better,' claims Glyn.

First and foremost, talk to your friends and family - these people know you best and care about you most. Indeed, studies suggest that socialising with a friend just once every week can be as effective as counselling or therapy for reducing your stress levels and improving your mood. 'You may find that you both feel better for the social interaction,' Stephen says.

Meanwhile, the majority of universities offer students free counselling and support groups. Sessions can, for example, provide advice for new students, guidance on how to cope with post-Christmas exam stress and tips on how to prepare for the year ahead.

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 more relaxed, controlled and focused.

Try creating a written work schedule. Look at your deadlines, break your tasks down into manageable chunks and plan accordingly. Divide your work into urgent and non-urgent tasks, and important and non-important tasks. Dr Blenkiron notes that a common mistake is forgetting to prioritise tasks that are important but not urgent, for example coursework with predictable deadlines.

Stephen recommends that your plan includes frequent study breaks and at least eight hours of sleep every day. You should also allow yourself time to participate in activities that you enjoy. 'Time management is about achieving high-quality work, not a high quantity of work,' he says.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

If stress leads you into becoming anxious or depressed for more than a few days, CBT may become one of your best options.

CBT is an effective psychological approach that teaches you to cope better with stress, anxiety and depression by changing the way that you think and react to everyday situations. For example, you will be encouraged to consider whether apparent problems are actually problems at all - or, in fact, simply challenges.

For an introduction to this area, check out Living Life To The Full, a free web-based self-help programme. If CBT is something that you feel would benefit your mental health, consider asking your GP for a referal.

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