Key stressors & resilience tips for university students

University Life & Stress

Starting university can be a stressful time for students. Moving away from home and family, you often find yourself far from people you would have normally relied on for support. Establishing a new social network is a knock-on consequence of this as well as managing on a tight budget and starting your studies. For most students, these changes are exciting and challenging but, for some, if unmanaged they can become overwhelming, which can negatively impact their health.

What Is Stress?

Stress is an inevitable part of life, which none of us can completely avoid, and is simply the body's non-specific response to any demand made on it. As the body responds to various forms of physical or psychological stress, certain probable changes occur. These include increased heart rate, blood pressure and secretions of stimulatory hormones. Stress can also affect our emotional responses where we can often feel a sense of fear, quite anxious or “on edge”.  It is often referred to as the "fight or flight" response. In small doses it’s good, because it pushes you to work hard and do your best. Stress heightens the senses and your reaction times, which can help enhance your performance especially at exam time. However if stress starts to become a constant in your life with no let-up it can cause unwanted physical, behavioural and emotional disruption.

Common Stressors for Students

If you are a student and you are feeling stressed you are definitely not alone. A recent study conducted by Nightline of UK students found that 75% of them experienced some kind of emotional distress while at university. Among these stress was the most common complaint reported by 65% of students followed by anxiety, loneliness and feelings of not being able to cope. Anxiety levels among college students have been on the rise since the 1950s as the world becomes more fast-paced and academic pressures increase.

The Most Common Causes of Stress Amongst University Students Are;

  • Greater academic demands and changes in learning and teaching methods from second level
  • Being on one’s own away from home in a new environment with greater responsibilities and decision-making
  • Financial responsibilities
  • Exposure to new people, temptations and pressure of ‘fitting in’ with new peers
  • Substance abuse may contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress, and decrease coping mechanisms
  • Awareness of one’s sexual identity and orientation
  • Preparing for life after graduation and future career

Recognising Stress

It is important that you keep an eye out for common symptoms listed below which may indicate your stress levels are getting too high and need to be managed;

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate                                                      
  • Poor judgement                                                                      
  • Seeing only the negative                                                        
  • Anxious or racing thoughts                                                        
  • Constant worrying                                                         

Emotional Symptoms

  • Moodines
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Sense of fear & panic
  • Agitation, inability to rela
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness                                                                      

Physical Symptoms                                                                 

  • Aches and pains                                                                
  • Diarrhoea or constipation                                                      
  • Nausea, dizziness                                                              
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat                                                      
  • Loss of sex drive                                                                    
  • Weakened immune system e.g. frequent colds                         

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

Top Stress Management Tips

Short periods of stress are normal and can often be resolved by simply completing a task that needs doing thus reducing your workload or by talking to others and taking time to relax. One or more of the following suggestions might help:

  • What in your life is making you anxious? - For example, is it exams, money or relationship problems? Try to resolve your problems and ease the pressure you’re under by talking to a friend, tutor or someone in your family.
  • Have a healthier lifestyle - Eat well-balanced meals including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Reduce your caffeine and sugar intake which can aggravate insomnia and anxiety, and get at least 7 hours sleep nightly and aim to do at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise per day.
  • Reduce intake of alcohol and drugs - These substances may cause headaches, poor concentration, decrease coping mechanisms, and add to depression.
  • Spend time with friends and hobbies – Make sure to set aside regular time for these which can help you to relax.
  • Relaxation and breathing exercises - May help you to relax such as meditation, mindfulness techniques yoga or tai chi. 
  • Get organised - Keep your study notes, living/study space and consequently your mind de-cluttered and organised.

If you find you are overwhelmed by your stress levels don’t struggle alone. Have a chat with a student counsellor in your university or visit your GP. Student counselling services usually have counsellors who specialise in stress and anxiety linked to exams, workload and other student issues. If you have a very busy schedule some universities provide online programs such as SilverCloud Health which you can access at any time to help you cope with stress and anxiety.

How you manage stress is the key to whether or not it develops into a mental health condition. If you learn to recognise the symptoms of stress and develop your own stress management techniques early on this will stand to you during your time at university and help you get the best out of university life.