Our time at school is meant to be a time of self-discovery, education and self-improvement. However, we must also remember that it can be one of the most stressful periods in a person’s life. If chronic stress is ignored for long enough, it can eventually lead to mental and physical breakdowns and even depression. The effects of stress only get worse as time goes on so the most effective interventions are those that begin early. This is most likely to happen when the underlying causes of stress, as well as the warning signs, are understood properly, both by the students themselves and by the faculty.
When Is Stress a Problem?
The first thing that needs to be understood is that people do not respond to stress in the same way. Stress is simply what we feel as the result of how the human body reacts to certain internal or external demands. Each student will respond differently, even if the demands they face are identical. This means that it would be wrong for any student or faculty member to simply dismiss the stress caused to a certain student, just because others are not experiencing the same level of stress.
Faculty and students should also be careful not to dismiss situations where some level of stress is expected. For example, everyone is stressed during exams, and this can make it a lot easier to miss the warning signs regarding one particular student. It is easy for an individual’s symptoms to be missed or ignored in such a situation. This is a time where the faculty should be at its most alert, and ready to offer help and counseling to those students who might need it.
At the same time, stress is not always a bad thing. Oftentimes, just the right amount of stress will encourage a student to study more or to try harder. The stress caused by knowing that they need a passing grade on their next test in order to pass a class, for example, might determine a student to stay up and study the night before when, normally, they might have gone out with friends. As the University of Georgia (1) defines it, this is something called positive stress. It adds short-term tension to the body that provides it with an additional burst of adrenaline in order to overcome a certain challenge.
Even positive stress comes with noticeable effects that can be both mental (anxiety, fear) and physical (headaches, nausea). However, these effects go away once the challenge is overcome. Students who are experiencing positive stress are usually able to return to a relaxed state, one where the effects of that stress go away. When the students are no longer able to ‘bounce back’ like this, they are deemed to be subject to negative stress. As this negative stress goes on and becomes chronic, it begins to take its toll on the body and cause physical, mental and emotional problems. As the exhaustion of the HPA axis continues and adrenal fatigue sets in, students will have more and more difficulty continuing their studies.
Causes of Stress
The average student faces many potential sources of stress at school. Here are a few of them.
Coping on your own
For many students, arriving at school is the first time that they are truly living on their own. They have left the safe environment of the family home, and they no longer have a responsible adult watching over them. They are expected to take care of themselves as best they can, figuring out tasks like washing their clothes, cleaning their room and cooking for themselves. While most college students are up to this task, it is still a significant, life-changing event with an initial shock that can generate stress for many people.
Distance from loved ones
Studying often means being away from our loved ones for long periods of time. Up until this point, most students will have never spent this much away from their parents, relatives, and friends. Now, all of a sudden, they find themselves in a new environment, surrounded by new people, with everyone they care about hundreds of miles away. Things get even worse for international students. Their families are not only much, much farther away, but they also have to deal with a totally different culture. Of course, this is not the situation for everyone – some students go to college with friends; others go to college somewhere close to home so they can drive back when they have some free time. Even so, many students are able to return home only a few times a year.
A major source of stress faced by students is the same one that most other people have to deal with too – money. College can be very expensive, and even students with wealthy parents often have difficulty making ends meet. Besides tuition, there are other expenses such as lodgings, books and other study materials, money for necessary expenses, car maintenance, and more. All of these add up, to the point where only a very few students go through college without having to worry about money at all. Most students finish college with substantial debts and no secure employment for the immediate future. This is understandably a huge source of stress.
A demanding schedule
Another source of stress faced by many students is the lack of free time. The human body and the mind need time to unwind on occasion, and indeed taking some ‘downtime’ is often the best way to get rid of stress. However, college life often does not allow for this, particularly for those students who are struggling to keep up or who have taken especially demanding courses. Foregoing rest and leisure time leaves them exhausted and unable to recover their energy levels. You sometimes hear it said that during college you can choose any two from sleep, fun, and study, but you can never have all three.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress is best dealt with as soon as possible. In order to do this, students need to know the early warning signs that they or someone they know is being overstressed. There are many symptoms that can be the result of stress, both physical and mental. Stress and adrenal fatigue bring about the depletion of crucial hormones and neurotransmitters that control many functions in the body. The University of Dundee (2) outlines the symptoms of student stress very thoroughly.
Physical symptoms of stress include:
- A general feeling of sickness
- Loss of libido
- Erratic sleeping patterns
- A desire to weep
- Neck cramps
- Excessive sweating
- Lack of appetite
- Unusual food cravings
Mental symptoms of stress include:
- Loss of concentration
- Loss of interest in friends
- Difficulty in making decisions
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling guilty or inadequate
- Feeling helpless or a failure
- A loss of interest in relationships and in activities that you sufferer used to enjoy
Many of these signs may not always become obvious to others until they become really pronounced. By that point, a lot of damage may already have been done. That is why the best warning signs for stress are generally related to a person’s behavior. According to a study by Carleton University (3), these are some of the behavioral changes which might indicate that a person is suffering from stress and might need help:
- Skipping classes more frequently
- A sharp decline in grades
- Consuming more alcohol and drugs than usual
- Becoming more aggressive or more emotional than normal
- Becoming more isolated by choice
- Missing assignments
If a person experiences several of the above symptoms, it is highly likely that they are suffering from stress and need some help. Leaving this stress unaddressed and untreated for a long period of time can lead to depression. Depression can also appear if a traumatic experience occurs while the student is also suffering from stress. This is a very serious issue that may require professional help immediately. Some of the more common symptoms associated with depression include irrational thinking, excessive weight gain or weight loss, sleeping too much or too little, expressing feelings of hopelessness, or even suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
Dealing with Stress
The people best equipped to not only detect, but also deal with stress are students themselves. Here are some simple stress reduction techniques for students who are starting to feel overwhelmed.
Think positively, and keep things in perspective
Having a positive attitude can be a very effective tool against stress. Even when dealing with very stressful situations, approaching things from a positive perspective can be a good way to minimize the effect this has on the student. This is a technique commonly known as ‘reframing’, whereby finding a more positive angle enables us to deal with a situation much more effectively. For example, the stress of learning a life-skill like cooking can easily be reframed into a positive, learning experience.
Use your support group
Students should not be afraid to discuss their problems with those in their network. This network extends far beyond their group of acquaintances at school. Other options might be their family and friends at home, the counselors at their school, and any professors with whom they have developed a particular bond. Keeping problems hidden away inside only makes stress worse.
Stick to a healthy diet
Maintaining a healthy body is probably the best way to minimize the damage that stress can cause. However, in cases where students are stressed out due to lack of money or free time, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a lot easier said than done. Even so, many symptoms of stress are neutralized with a healthy diet. All of the core macronutrients, such as proteins, minerals, vitamins, fat and carbohydrates, are important for maintaining the body’s wellbeing, as well as emotional stability and optimal energy levels. Your diet during a stressful period should be balanced and nutritional.
A stressful period is not the time to try a new fad weight loss diet or the time to gorge on fast food and binge-drink coffee and energy drinks. Caffeine and sugar are unfortunately staples of the student diet, especially when there is a need to focus or study late, but both of these offer temporary solutions with negative long-term effects. Both caffeine and sugar will exacerbate the symptoms of stress. Excess caffeine can lead to poor sleeping habits, while excess sugar causes a depletion of energy levels and increased fatigue.
A healthy diet should be paired with regular exercise, which has been shown to increase energy levels, improve concentration, improve relaxation and help students get a better night’s sleep. Moreover, regular exercise also has a positive effect on our susceptibility to stress, as it enhances confidence and self-esteem. Common excuses to avoid exercise include a lack of motivation or time, but the truth is that the vast majority of students are able to find opportunities to exercise. They have access to facilities for a wide range of activities and sports at their college, so every student can find at least one activity they enjoy. If not, they can still find time to exercise during the course of a regular day by simply walking or biking to class and back.
Get enough sleep
A day filled with healthy meals and plenty of exercise should end with a long, relaxing sleep at night. Between the demands of studying and the temptation to go out partying at night, many students get far less sleep than they should. Going to bed early might put a damper on the plans of the average college student, but getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each day will result in the student being less anxious, more relaxed, more energetic and more focused the next day. One study performed by the University Health Center of the University of Georgia (4) showed that students average around 6 hours of sleep per night, but also that students who sleep 7 to 8 hours a night have a higher GPA than those who sleep less. The same study also showed that regularly scheduled naps can be highly beneficial, as is the importance of having a constant sleeping ritual.
1) University of Georgia, “Managing Stress: A Guide for College Students”, http://www.uhs.uga.edu/stress/index.html.
2) University of Dundee, “Coping with stress”, http://www.dundee.ac.uk/studentservices/counselling/leaflets/stress.htm.
3) Carleton University, “Coping with stress or crisis”, http://carleton.ca/studentaffairs/wp-content/uploads/Coping-with-stress-or-crisis.pdf.
4) University of Georgia, “Sleep Rocks.. Get more of it!”, http://www.uhs.uga.edu/sleep/index.html.