Finding your independence is one of the advantages of university life, but it can come with its fair share of stress. Study goals, money trouble, living away from home and the impact of COVID-19 can all play on your mind. Here's how to keep the worry at bay
Coronavirus (COVID-19) update for students
Whether you're a current undergraduate or an A-level student hoping to go to university in the foreseeable future, if you're worried about the current COVID-19 situation, advice on coronavirus and your wellbeing has been provided by the mental health charity Mind.
Student stress can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- struggling with your mental health
- loneliness, homesickness or relationship difficulties
- finding it hard to save money or deal with debt
- not knowing how to balance work and study
- worrying about revising for exams
- struggling with writing essays or dissertations
- feeling unsure about what to do after graduation
- harmful use of, or withdrawal from, alcohol or drugs.
There are a number of common reactions to stressful circumstances such as these, including:
- Behavioural - these could involve avoiding or escaping from the situation and turning to alcohol or drugs, a change in appetite or an inability to concentrate.
- Physical - you may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, headaches, butterflies and over-breathing.
- Psychological - stress can lead to fear, panic and the feeling that something bad is going to happen.
'Stress is a normal, and in some cases, helpful part of everyday life,' explains Kate Aitchison, team manager of the counselling and mental health team at Newcastle University. 'The adrenaline that comes as part of our stress response can be motivating and actually help us to perform better. The difficulty comes when stress tips over to distress. When stress is having a negative impact on day-to-day life, when it stops you achieving, relaxing or communicating - that’s when some support may help.'
Successful coping mechanisms differ for everyone, but if stress is beginning to affect your mental wellbeing, try the following strategies.
This doesn't have to be a gruelling gym session - you simply need to get your heart racing, for example by going for a brisk walk or a bike ride.
'Exercise releases endorphins, it makes us feel good,' says Kate. 'We feel a great sense of accomplishment from exercise and it also often goes hand in hand with other positive steps towards good mental health, such as spending time with other people or time outdoors.'
Charlotte Williams, counselling services manager at Birkbeck, University of London agrees, 'research has shown that exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms, as talking therapies or antidepressants. Birkbeck University Counselling Service offer students suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety an eight-week free gym pass, including personal training sessions.'
If you'd like to get moving but are struggling for inspiration see what schemes are available at your institution and get involved with clubs and societies. There's usually a huge array of activities on offer from hiking to dancing, basketball to boxing and martial arts to yoga.
A relaxation technique originating in Buddhism, mindfulness is a popular coping mechanism for those tackling stress or anxiety. Used by clinicians to improve patients' physical and mental health, it can significantly lower stress levels. It is most often practised through deep breathing or guided meditation.
One of the most accessible ways to practice this is through the use of free smartphone apps such as The Mindfulness App, Calm and Headspace. A number of books are also available on the subject.
'When we are stressed our minds sometimes behave in ways that hinder rather than help. Rather than ruminating over the problem, catastrophising about the future or critically analysing your latest attempts, take time out to focus your mind on something relaxing and positive,' explains Charlotte.
For an introduction to the field, the Mental Health Foundation provides an online mindfulness course.
Talking to someone
Isolation can have an extremely negative impact on your happiness. Accepting that you need help and talking to someone is often the first step to feeling better.
Speak to your friends and family - they know you best and care about you the most. What's more, studies suggest that socialising with a friend just once a week can reduce your stress levels and improve your mood as much as therapy or counselling.
'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,' suggests Charlotte. 'Sharing difficulties can help. However, going over and over them often doesn't and is likely to tire your friend, so ask them to listen first and then help you to get a different angle on things.'
Talk to other students on your course and you will probably find that you’re not alone. This can help put things in perspective. Ask them what techniques they use to manage stress.
Alternatively, make an appointment with your student wellbeing service. The majority of institutions have these and they should be your first port of call if you're worried, stressed or upset about anything. They'll provide a listening ear and can signpost you to specialist services who can offer specific support if needed. While wellbeing services don't provide counselling support, most universities offer free counselling and support groups. Sessions tackle wide-ranging themes, from surviving freshers' week to coping with post-Christmas exam stress.
If you're a student and the coronavirus pandemic has affected your life, help and support is available. Student Minds has set up Student Space to help you through this troubling time. Here are some ways it can help:
- You can talk to trained volunteers by text, phone, email or webchat about whatever issues are on your mind.
- Discover what support is available at your university.
- You can access dozens of articles and videos, written by expert clinicians and students, to help you through the challenges of student life.
People often get stressed when they feel that they're running out of time to complete a task - this could be study or work related or even stem from feeling overwhelmed with social activities. However, simple time management techniques can help you to feel more relaxed and focused.
Try creating a written schedule, breaking your tasks down into manageable chunks, planning accordingly and allocating yourself time everyday to relax or socialise. Divide your work into urgent and non-urgent tasks, and important and non-important tasks.
Getting enough sleep
'Maintaining a sleep routine is of paramount importance to mental health and managing stress,' says Charlotte. '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 up at the same time each day. Seven to eight hours is recommended.'
Stress can often interrupt your sleeping pattern so try to do everything you can to relax yourself before going to bed. Take a bath to wind down, watch your favourite TV show or sit quietly and read. Avoid screen time as much as possible and switch off laptops, phones and tablets at least an hour before going to sleep.
'If you study in the same room you sleep in, cover your books and desk with a sheet or a screen,' adds Charlotte.
Other stress-busting methods
- Take your mind off it. Do something you enjoy and that will distract you for a while like listening to music, reading, baking or crafts.
- Eat healthily and consume fresh foods.
- Change your mind set and adopt a positive attitude.
- Take a break from social media. Comparing yourself and your productivity to others is a recipe for disaster.
- Laugh. Laughing out load actually increases oxygen and blood flow, which immediately reduces stress. Spend time with a funny friend, watch something silly or book tickets to the local comedy club.
If you've tried all these coping strategies but can't conquer the cycle of stress, it's a good idea to visit your GP to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are in fact stress related, and that there are no underlying issues.
This webinar featured in the Prospects Future You: Live event in November 2020.
Find out more
- Learn more about overcoming student challenges during COVID-19.
- Discover how to make the most of university life.