Posted on: February 10, 2020
What is stress?
The NHS tells us that stress is ‘the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure. Pressure turns to stress when you feel unable to cope.’
As students you can often find yourself under a lot of pressure so it’s not surprising that it turns to stress for many. Juggling your classes, coursework, revision, exams, part-time job, homesickness, and everything else can make for a difficult time.
Feeling stressed occasionally is normal. Sometimes life just gets on top of us and we find it difficult to cope. In small amounts stress can be good for us. A little stress can boost our memory and enable us to work more efficiently. It is a vital warning to us that we need to slow down, that life is getting too busy and that we need to relax.
But too much stress is bad for us and can make us ill, so learning to identify when we’re feeling stressed, as well as understanding how to conquer it, is important to our wellbeing.
How do I know if I’m stressed?
Stress manifests itself differently for everyone, in both physical and mental signs. It is important that you know what to look for, to keep an eye on yourself and take care when you recognise how you’re feeling.
Are you having problems sleeping? Have you no appetite? Stress could show up in difficulty concentrating, headaches or muscle tension.
The mental symptoms can be just as debilitating, if not more so, than the physical symptoms. You may be short-tempered, have low self-esteem, feel anxious or irritable, find yourself constantly worrying or unable to control your racing thoughts.
The tips below are all proven to help people cope with stress. But it important to recognise that occasionally good self-care isn’t enough and sometimes we need more help than we can give ourselves. In that situation make sure you go and see your GP without delay.
Getting plenty of exercise doesn’t just help your body it helps your mind too. It releases endorphins which help to boost your mood, distracting you from your worries. When you’re feeling stressed it can be difficult to allow yourself time to exercise, time that you may believe could be better spent finishing that essay or cramming in an extra half an hour’s revision. But getting out for a quick jog or spending a little time in the gym will help relax you more than you realise and when you feel more relaxed your mind will be ready to learn.
In the middle of a stressful situation all you may want to do is run away or hide in the corner. In that moment what can you do to help yourself? Try some breathing exercises. There are a lot of great apps out there these days that can talk you through some basic exercises that you can learn to do anywhere and in any situation. Try the well-known Headspace site.
Take control – active not passive
Sometimes the stressful situations you find yourself in are out of your control. You can do little to change the situation itself. But other times there are things you can do and this is the time to take control. It’s not an easy thing to do when life is getting on top of you but by becoming an active participant rather than a passive one you will be able to take steps to resolve the situation faster than if you just let it continue as it is.
For example, you have three massive deadlines looming and you don’t know which task to begin with. It can be tempting to ignore all three until one becomes so pressing that you must deal with it. Instead, sit down, look at the work that needs doing for each. Block out the time needed in your diary for each task. Plan a time to visit the library to get the books you need, set time to do the reading, to start writing and make sure you include some time to relax. Become active in these stressful moments and you will feel more in control of all that is facing you.
Spend time with friends
Life, however busy, should always include time for your friends. In the hubbub of your daily life it can be easy to neglect your friendships. But times of stress are when you need your friendships the most, not just for people to talk to but for people to laugh with.
Stress and sleep are not an easy mix. Too little sleep increases stress hormones. And the more stressed we are the harder it is too sleep. Getting enough sleep will help you feel calmer, more in control and less stressed. There are a few things you can do to help yourself sleep better.
Make sure you stick to a routine, however dull that may sound. Make sure you go to bed at a sensible time and roughly the same time every night. Try drinking warm milk or camomile tea before bed as both will help you relax. Stay away from alcohol as, while it can encourage sleep, the sleep won’t be ‘good’ sleep. Relax before bed, watch an episode of your favourite show or read a book. And don’t work on your bed. Your brain will begin to connect your bed to being a place of work instead of a place of sleep.
As with exercising, or spending time with friends, it can be hard to justify time spent relaxing when you are busy. But in just the same way, having time to switch off and relax is important to stopping you feel overwhelmed. When you are well rested and relaxed you will find it so much easier to concentrate on your work. Block out time in your diary for simply doing nothing, curling up with a book, watching an episode of your favourite show. It may feel odd at first to be sitting around when you know you have a deadline looming, but you’ll be surprised how much more refreshed you feel when you get back to work and how much more productive you are.
Avoid bad habits
When you’re stressed it is easy to fall into bad habits, turn to junk food instead of a healthy meal because you think it is faster than cooking, to drink too much to distract yourself from that looming deadline. But these bad habits don’t help you, they can make your stress much worse. So, instead of drinking a gallon of coffee to enable yourself to stay up all night and finish that essay, or bingeing your new favourite box set, set yourself limits and say no to your bad habits.
Evidence shows that spending time volunteering can have a positive effect on your mental health and reduce your stress levels. When you’re a busy student it isn’t always possible to volunteer your time but if you can spare time occasionally it will be well worth it. How about helping out at a local charity run? If you have a little more time, try volunteering for a nearby charity shop.
Some people seem to thrive on deadlines, manage to achieve what they need to ahead of everyone else. Others struggle, spending many long nights finishing essays or cramming for exams until dawn. The secret is learning excellent time management skills. By knowing how to plan and manage all your tasks and deadlines you’ll find your commitments a lot less stressful and be able to approach each task with a calmer outlook and a clear plan. Take a look at our time management blog for tips on how to improve your skills.
Learn to say no
Saying ‘no’ is one of the hardest things to do. A friend invites you out for a few drinks. You haven’t seen them in a while, but you haven’t finished your essay for tomorrow. Your boss asks you to take a few extra shifts as other staff are off sick, but you’re meant to be revising for your exams. It can be difficult to say no. But, in busy times it is something you need to do. Explain to your friend why you can’t see them, arrange to meet in a few days instead. Tell your boss that normally you would be happy to but right now you must decline as you have exams coming up. Saying a flat ‘no’ can often come across badly but explaining to people why you have to say no will help them understand that you have other commitments. There’s a great article from The Stress Management Society that will help you learn how to say no.
Visualization can be a powerful tool in overcoming stress. Similar to daydreaming, it uses mental imagery to create a more relaxed state of mind and reduce stress. It may sound odd but spending time focussing on relaxing images, maybe a beach or a forest, does wonders for stress and worry. Try these exercises for yourself.