University Mental Health Day: managing student stress

Being a student can be stressful. This University Mental Health Day, Head of Birkbeck’s Counselling Service Charlotte Williams looks at the causes and impacts of mental distress on students, practical tips to manage stress, and where to turn if you need help.

What are the main causes of student stress?

Stress to some degree is a normal part of life, it is only when the amount of stress we are experiencing exceeds our capacity and resources to manage that we can run into difficulty and find ourselves using unhelpful defence mechanisms to try to manage and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of stress.

Many factors cause stress to students including the demands of juggling their studies alongside work and family responsibilities;  relationship difficulties; housing problems;  financial concern;, loss and bereavement; transitions and achieving their academic goals, essay writing, public speaking, exams. However what causes stress really is a subjective matter, what causes one person intense stress can be managed relatively effortlessly by another. It is important to be aware of things that stress you in particular and prepare to take care of yourselves at times of increased stress triggers.

Be aware of the first signs of stress in yourself and make a conscious effort to get on top of it and stop the cycle of stress getting a hold. Often when we are stressed we revert to old coping mechanisms some of which may be outdated and not helpful long term such as drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking more caffeine, eating sugary foods, staying up late, isolating ourselves, ruminating, avoiding matters, obsessing. When the cycle of stress gets a hold we need to break into it and make a conscious effort  to resist falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms and make conscious choices to do things that may help. What helps will differ for individuals but here are some of the key things that can help manage stress.

What 3 practical things should a student consider doing to manage their stress if suffering?

Exercise:

A meta-analysis (Cooney et Al, 2013) showed that exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms, as talking therapies or antidepressants. Another comprehensive study adds to previous evidence suggesting exercise is not just good for reducing symptoms of depression, but may also prevent it.’ (NHS, 2018). Birkbeck University Counselling Service, in conjunction with the YMCA has developed a MIND BODY MATTERS scheme and offers 8 week free gym passes including personal trainer to students suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety. Exercise helps to rebalance the physiological system when stressed and boost natural endorphins to improve mood.

Sleep:

Maintaining a sleep routine is of paramount importance to mental health and managing stress. Taking time to relax before you go to sleep can help the quality of your sleep. Try to go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time each day – 7-8 hours is the recommended amount of sleep but of course this differs for each individual needs. Take a bath to wind down or watch something gentle on television like a nature or holiday programme rather than something that stimulates anxiety such as horror or thriller. If you study in the same room you sleep in, cover your books and desk with a sheet or a screen at around 9.00 each night and take some time to rest before sleep. For more tips on sleep read our self-help leaflet entitled Sleeping Problems.

Food and Drink:

If possible avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it’s a vicious cycle which will make you feel worse in the end. Also try to avoid relying on caffeine to keep you going If you are stressed and tired you need to rest, eat well and exercise at suitable times. Use herbal teas to calm and soothe such as camomile before bed; mint if your digestive system is upset and lemon in the morning to wake and refresh you. Avoid sugary carbohydrates – they will pick you up temporarily but you will soon crash – try to eat a balanced diet – some protein, carbohydrate and vegetables each day at regular intervals and carry nuts and seeds for a boost of your energy dips whilst on the go.

Manage your Mind

When we are stressed our minds sometimes behave in ways that hinder rather than help. Rather than ruminating over the problem, catastrophizing about the future or critically analysing your latest attempts,  take time out to focus your mind on something relaxing and positive. There are lots of apps and websites that offer mindfulness exercises and distraction techniques and links to those can be accessed from the Counselling Service Website Further Resources section. Alternately take a break, go visit a friend and tell them about the problems you are facing and then tell them about the good things in your life, ask them to help you to gain some perspective. Sharing difficulties can help: however going over and over them often doesn’t and is likely to tire your friends so ask them to listen first and then help you to get a different angle on things or a plan going forwards.

Manage your Behaviour

Our behaviour can also be affected by stress, some people avoid the problem, others tackle it manically never taking a moment for fun or rest. Avoidance increases our anxiety about something so breakdown the problem, set a plan and approach the issue step by step reminding yourself of similar situations where you have coped. If you behave in the opposite way make sure you take time out to  visit a friend, go to the cinema, or read a novel to give yourself a break.

Who can a student suffering from stress turn to for help/advice?

If you have tried all of this and just can’t seem to get a grip on the cycle of stress alone it’s fine to ask for help. The Counselling Service runs a workshop each turn entitled Stress Less and a self-help leaflet on managing stress is available for free download. You can also write to the counselling service and ask to meet with one of the counsellors to talk things through and think together about how to manage and move forwards. It may also be worth visiting your G.P to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are indeed stress related and there are no underlying issues.

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