Know about... stress

We would all agree that student life today can be pretty stressful. Decisions need to be made, problems solved, assignments completed (yesterday), exams revised for, money (or the lack of it) managed, relationships worked out and not forgetting those library books that are six weeks late.

It's often very difficult to find the time, energy and resources to deal with everything that university life throws at us and it's not hard to see why stress levels can soar. We are all more aware of stress, it's a word often used to describe how we feel, but what is it?

What is stress?

Stress can be described as our body's reaction to the everyday demands of life. It's the natural, healthy, hormonal reaction which helps us tackle challenging situations. Adrenaline is produced as a response to the demand, giving us extra energy and alertness. You may have heard it called the 'fight or flight' reaction and it's this which has helped the human race to survive. In our dark and distant past this reaction helped us to survive the dangers of predatory animals and aggressive neighbouring tribes, or the hazards of nature.

How to recognise the stress response

When faced with a situation which we interpret as a demand being made upon us, the following reaction occurs:

  • adrenaline is released, our senses are activated and we become mentally alert
  • our breathing rate speeds up, nostrils and air passages in the lungs open wider to get more air in quickly
  • our heart beat speeds up and blood pressure rises
  • sweating increases to help cool the body
  • blood and nutrients are concentrated in the muscles to provide extra strength

Though events which we experience nowadays may not, in the main, present a physical danger, they can still be sufficient to produce the fight or flight reaction. However, if all of this pent up energy provided by the adrenaline cannot be utilised, the physical results of the stress response will continue, with the body remaining on 'full alert' for long periods of time. It is this long-term response which can adversely affect our physical and mental well-being.

Some of the signs to look out for:

  • decision making becomes difficult
  • getting to sleep becomes difficult due to worrying about tomorrow
  • feelings of guilt when relaxing
  • feeling tense, impatient or irritable; feeling the need to interrupt when others are talking
  • feeling frustrated when people don't/won't do what you want
  • feeling that you have too much to think about and finding concentration difficult
  • drinking or smoking more than usual
  • loss of appetite or a tendency to eat hurriedly
  • a tendency to argue more
  • life seems full of crises

What causes stress?

The stress response is linked with our perceived ability to cope with a given situation. If we feel we can cope, we feel in control and the need for the fight or flight adrenaline response is reduced.

The saying 'one man's meat is another man's poison' sums up the answer to the question of what causes stress. We are all different and will respond differently to the same situation. Some people love loud music, while others would find it a huge aggravation.

Students' comments...

"It's the amount of work we have to do to time deadlines... I suppose we do tend to leave things to the last minute, which doesn't help."

"You want to do well for everyone, not just yourself. You know that your family are expecting some results at the end of all this."

"Coming to university is exciting and stressful, especially at first. You soon realise that you have to make loads of decisions about all sorts of things, mostly on your own. It was easier at home because you had your family and friends there to ask."

"Half the time I'm too tired to feel anything but if you don't work you won't have enough money and then you get stressed because you can't afford to pay your bills... but then you're too tired and don't have the time to study. Trying to sort out one problem just leads to another."

So what can you do about it?

Talk to someone about how you feel - Voicing your worries out loud, sharing them with someone, is one of the best ways to ease things. Talking about the amount of work you have to do with someone in a similar situation can help to put things into perspective and help you feel less isolated.

Take regular exercise - For health reasons we are advised to exercise for at least 20 minutes three times a week and the same can be said for coping with stress. If possible, 30 minutes a day doing something you enjoy will help you unwind and use up all the pent up energy created by stressful situations. Relaxation, yoga, tai chi and meditation can also help.

Have a regular dose of fun - One of the best de-stressers is laughter. Admittedly, not easy when you're worried, feeling wound up and stony broke, but trying to see the funny side of things can help you unwind.

What not to do about it

There are lots of things you may feel like doing to overcome stress, but some coping strategies are unhelpful and can make the situation feel a lot worse. Drinking alcohol to excess will probably make you feel worse in the long run (alcohol is a depressant). Whatever it is that is causing your stress will still be there when you sober up and drinking will actually increase stress if it is related to your financial situation. There is nothing in a cigarette that relieves stress. It is only the craving for nicotine which is relieved. Stress can be added to if you are worrying about the long-term effects on your lungs, and again using your meagre money rations on fags will only compound financial worries.

Where can I get support?

The University Counselling Service offers confidential, non-judgemental counselling. Talking to someone who is not involved in your life can help you recognise patterns of behaviour and find your strengths. Counselling sessions usually last 50 minutes and the number of sessions will be decided by you and your counsellor. You can arrange an appointment by telephoning 01642 342277 or by calling into the reception of the Student Centre.

Your GP may be able to help by referring you to counselling or other support services. In some cases, short-term medication can help relieve severe anxiety and stress, however, it is important to bear in mind that this is only part of the solution.

You can talk confidentially to the Student Health Adviser and the University Chaplain who will listen and offer help and support. They can also act as the bridge between yourself and an outside support agency if you want further help. To make an appointment just call into the Student Centre or phone 01642 342277. If you are living in halls, you can also talk confidentially to your sub warden.

If you know what it is that is causing your stress levels to soar, then you might want to try talking to someone who might be able to offer some advice and/or point you in the direction of someone who can address your difficulties directly. For example, money is often at the root of many problems - students may feel like they have no option but to work to keep their heads above water. Of course, this then puts pressure on academic work and relaxation. Students' Unions recommend working no more than 15 hours a week. You might find it helpful to make an appointment to see a Financial Adviser in the Student Centre. Either call in or phone 01642 342277.