University Life: Stress awareness and management techniques

Written by Asif Akbar, author of The Agile Student, who gratefully acknowledges the input of others’

It deserves to be mentioned that students are placed under an absurd amount of stress, whether it is from parents, peers, tutors or even ourselves. We can be our own worst enemy, especially when we set and chase unreachable expectations for ourselves. While some students may know that there is support, you may not feel comfortable seeking it, or the stress has become so difficult you feel like you have nowhere to turn. This article provides some useful tips on where to get help. If you take one thing from this article, let it be this: your mental health demands just as much care as your physical health. Why? Well, the two are interconnected, a little like ‘yin-yang’: one can’t be completely healthy without the other.

What is stress?

Stress is something that most of us, if not all of us, encounter at some point in our lives. Although it may feel like it, stress actually is not a mental illness. Stress is defined as being a ‘state’, it can be mental or emotional and occurs when we experience demanding or difficult situations, such as university. It can also be difficult to distinguish the difference between ‘feeling stressed’ or ‘feeling under pressure’. While the two seem similar, they are entirely separate. Pressure is referred to as something that makes us feel uncomfortable, but if managed correctly it has the potential to be used positively. Stress is a burden; it might feel as though you literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Stress adversely affects our bodies, both physically and mentally. If you begin to notice that you are struggling to complete your daily tasks, not just your studies, and it is impacting your life negatively, then it is likely you are stressed, and you really shouldn’t ignore the signs.

How are you coping with university life?

Life can sometimes seem like a never-ending cycle, and when this happens, we often forget to ask ourselves how we are feeling. University life at times may seem like the ‘twilight zone’, the section of our life that is supposed to prepare us for the world of work, or the real world. You may be busy because of your coursework, or extra-curricular activities, part-time work or placement, but how often do you stop, and check how you are feeling?

It is important to reflect on how you are feeling, because if you don’t, the symptoms of stress may go unnoticed, and, as a result, life may end up seeming unbearable.

Recognising the signs of stress

When stress begins to affect your daily life, wellbeing and health, it is important to deal with it as soon as you recognise it. Stress affects us all, and in different ways, but here is a list of common symptoms and signs that you should be aware of:

  • Mood swings, or general changes in your mood
  • Irritability, or a short temper
  • Change in appetite, eating more or less
  • Different sleeping habits
  • Struggling to relax
  • Difficult to concentrate (even on the simplest of tasks)
  • Feeling overwhelmed (with the workload)

As I have highlighted, stress affects us all differently, and when stress becomes unbearable, some of us can experience more severe physical symptoms, such as muscle pain, nausea, constipation and more. Although I have mentioned that stress is not a mental illness, it can be the trigger of mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, as well as physical illnesses like liver, lung and heart diseases.

Stress is an undesirable experience, and it can cause damage to our bodies physically and mentally; people often think if they ignore it then it will go away. If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms for a long time, and especially if they are affecting your life and wellbeing, please speak to your GP.

Workload-related stress

There is a commonly held view that ‘work-related’ stress is solely for the workplace. However, it is something that you will deal with during your life at university, through individual assignments or research, group projects or part-time work. It is a common occurrence and one that many of us will, unfortunately, deal with. Here are some common causes of ‘workload’ or ‘work-related’ stress – but there are many more!

  • Demands – of your coursework, group projects or work placement.
  • Support – you may feel like you are not getting much support from your peers in group projects, or your tutors, or the university in general.
  • Role(s) – you are a student, and that title comes with expectations, from yourself and possibly family too. It is also your role in academic projects or your industry placements.
  • Change – adjusting to life at university (particularly for many first-year students), and especially if you have had to relocate from your family and close friends.
  • Relationships – the ability to build and maintain new friendships or relationships.

It is worth taking note of these points above as you could possibly encounter them when you graduate and when you enter the first phase in your career as an apprentice in industry.

Three Steps to deal with stress

The most important step is first accepting that, “yes, I am stressed”, and then finding healthy solutions to deal with the problem. There are some useful techniques to cope with and help deal with stress. Here are three tips that can help you to get back on track:

1. Exercise or Physical Activity

Now, I am not saying you need to have regular gruelling workouts at the gym to feel better – you just need to get your heart rate up. You can do this by going for a quick walk, jog or a bike ride. You might be feeling that you do not have enough time to fit in all your activities such as attending an hourly class at the gym, which is why you are feeling stressed – but I am merely suggesting doing 10-15 minutes here and there to get that much-needed adrenaline for your body. When you exercise, your heart rate increases and your body releases feel-good hormones (endorphins) that are known to help reduce the effects of tension and stress. When you exercise, your mind is focusing on something else, rather than your worries.

2. Talk to someone

Bottling up your feelings and isolating yourself can be extremely detrimental to your mental and physical wellbeing. Try talking to a trusted family member or friend; after all, these are the people who know you the best, and don’t forget that they care about you. If you feel like you can’t do this, then most universities do offer counselling or drop-in sessions; you may feel anxious about this, but speaking about your problems will be so beneficial to you, in more ways than one!

3. Mindfulness & Self-Reflection

Dedicate time to look after your wellbeing: meditation, yoga, or practising mindfulness have been shown to lower stress levels. Seek classes that offer such practices in your local area. This may put you in contact with others who are experiencing the same problems and, as a result, someone who you can talk to.

The Take-Away

Please know stress is not a form of weakness, but it is a human state of mind that we all will encounter at some point in our lives. The point is, knowing how to recognise stress and accepting it (for what it is), is crucial for your future wellbeing. So, treat this topic as part of your survival guide at university and put it into practice with the recommended three tips above. Putting your health first during university will certainly help you focus on your wellbeing once you enter industry, as an apprentice, and later on in life as a future professional.

If you would like other effective methods to combat stress and build your mental resilience, read The Agile Student.