Amidst all the fun and freedom, university can be a stressful time. Exam stress, financial worries, pressures to fit in and make new friends, all bring with them a unique set of challenges which can feel overwhelming if we don’t have the tools to cope… (Not to mention trying to navigate all of this in the middle of a pandemic).
Learning how to manage stress – and getting familiar with the warning signs that we might be struggling – is an important first step towards looking after our mental health, whatever life stage we’re at.
But learning these skills when we’re young means we’re also setting ourselves up for life.
Before we take a look at the causes of student stress more specifically, let’s get a better understanding of what stress actually is.
What is stress?
Stress can be defined as any type of trigger or change that causes us physical, emotional or psychological strain.
When we feel stressed, our fight or flight response gets triggered. A rush of hormones and chemicals get released into the body, designed to spring into action. This biological response can be traced back to our hunter-gatherer days when responding quickly to threats was (quite literally) a matter of life or death.
And it still holds an important role today – believe it or not, some stress is actually good for us. It can spur us on to meet an important essay deadline and drive us forward to meet our goals.
But stress should always be temporary. Once the stressor is over, we should find that both our mind and body calm down again.
However, if we experience prolonged stress, we can sometimes end up getting stuck in fight-or-flight. And this is when it becomes problematic. Our fight or flight response was designed to help us survive – it’s not a physical state we’re meant to live in day-to-day. Long term, it causes wear and tear on the body and can be both physically and mentally damaging.
What are the symptoms of stress?
The symptoms of stress can be divided into the following categories:
– Body aches and pains
– Digestive problems
– Sexual dysfunction
– Sleep issues
– Brain fog
– Difficulties concentrating
– Negative thoughts
– Low energy
– No longer finding enjoyment in things
– Becoming withdrawn
– Turning up late or not showing at all to classes
– Substance abuse
– Risky behaviour
What causes stress in university students?
University is a time of huge upheaval as you make your first steps towards independence and throw yourself into a new living environment, very often away from family and friends… All whilst partying, studying and trying to secure somewhere/someone to live with. This makes it both an exciting but also highly pressurising time.
University is also the moment when many of us start exploring the kind of person we want to be. What we want from life – our purpose and goals. It might also be the first time we start exploring intimate relationships, our sexuality and the kinds of people we’re most compatible with.
Without the right tools to cope, all of these factors can easily build up and leave us feeling overwhelmed.
When stress becomes a problem – what to do next?
As mentioned before, some stress is healthy and normal. In fact, we all feel stressed from time-to-time. It only becomes a problem when it starts interfering with everyday life – and impacts our mental and emotional wellbeing.
If you think stress could be a problem for you, here are some simple, initial steps you can start taking:
Try and identify what’s causing you stress – is it your workload, relationships, money worries? Whilst you won’t necessarily be able to drop all of it, see if you can prioritise what’s important and take realistic steps where you can to lighten your load.
Ensure you’re looking after yourself – are you burning the candle at both ends? Our mind and body are deeply connected. Make sure you’re eating healthy, nutritious food, exercising and getting plenty of sleep. Alcohol can disrupt our sleep pattern too so try limiting it if you can.
Try mindfulness meditation – mindfulness meditation helps unwind a busy mind. It can also help us become more aware of unhelpful thinking patterns that provoke stress and how we can become tangled in them in ways which are not necessarily helpful.
Reach out to someone – whether it’s a friend, a family member, your tutor or a therapist… If stress grows unchecked, it can become chronic and seriously damage your mental, emotional and physical health. A therapist will help you identify your triggers and develop a toolkit of new, healthier coping mechanisms to deal with them. The sooner you get the right support, the faster you’ll be able to get back to your usual self.