The number of students with stress and anxiety feelings has risen during the last couple of years. Since 2013, the number of students feeling stressed aged 25-34 increased from 29,3 percent to 41,3 percent, and that’s just in Denmark. Also, younger students are beginning to report having stress-related problems. Within 16-24 year olds, the amount of students feeling stressed has gone up from 23,2 percent to 30,5 percent. This amount of stress is taking its toll. According to recent reports, one in five university students are affected by anxiety or depression.
The reasons, however, vary across individuals. Some students struggle with high self-expectations or pressure to build the perfect resume by the time graduation rolls around. Most of us end up stressing out about exams and feeling anxious about whether we’re in the right study line. There’s pressure to keep a balance between having the perfect social life and keeping your grades up. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s debt. With so many stressors lurking at every turn, it’s no wonder that there are so many students struggling with stress.
But what is stress actually? And is there a way to avoid it?
Stress is a survival instinct
Stress is actually a pretty important biological protection mechanism that affects our body and mind. Stress is used to help us in critical situations where we are feeling physically or mentally threatened. It’s a survival instinct that is activated when we are forced into battle or have to flee for our lives. All of our senses and abilities increase and we run faster, think faster, and hit harder—we perform better in all ways. This is actually called “Positive stress”. But this is not the kind of stress you feel, is it?
We know that midterms and finals suck, but we doubt that you feel your life threatened when exams are coming up. If stress is a survival instinct, and if positive stress makes you perform better, then what is that feeling you experience in your student life? It’s called “Negative stress”. Mostly negative stress appears because we feel out of control and very insecure about the situation we are in—because we ignore the symptoms of stress. Symptoms could be exhaustion, being forgetful, self-destructive/negative thoughts, headaches, having difficulties sleeping, and feeling drained physically, mentally, and socially. If you don’t take a break and just keep going, this often leads to a negative stress spiral.
Now let’s take a look at what you can do yourself to prevent and avoid stress.
You decide how you think
It is important to say that stress appears when you somehow feel threatened by a given situation. This means that to a certain extent, you can actually control your stress level. Your mind is much more powerful than you think. An exam is in no way threatening, but if you decide it to be so in your mind, stress is activated. Self-expectations are also built in your mind. You decide how you think and if you work on changing the way you think, you can learn how to take control over stress.
Plan your day and gain structure
Structuring and planning your day one of the most effective ways to not lose perspective or an overview, which in turn lowers the stress factor of your everyday life. Start by structuring your whole week and make sure you are being very realistic regarding how much you can take on. Look at the different to-dos and happenings during your day. The more you can schedule in the calendar, the better. When to get up, go to class, eat lunch, study, get fit, be social like go on coffee dates, do grocery shopping, laundry, paying bills—everything that can be written down goes in the calendar.
Now try to dig deeper and take a look at your bigger assignments. You can easily create a much better overview by breaking the assignments down into smaller pieces and phases. Schedule when to work on which phases and make estimates on how long you think it will take to complete this phase. Always remember: asking somebody else for help is nothing to be embarrassed about. Neither is saying “No thank you” to social events or other things if you really don’t have the time.
Take care of yourself
The most important advice is to remember to take care of yourself and to do something good for yourself. Make it a priority to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthy so your body and brain can keep up. Also, try to get some exercise—take a walk or go for a run. 20-30 minutes a day is enough to keep your body fit and energized. You also need to plan some “Me time” where you take a complete timeout and do something that makes you happy. It’s okay to have some “Me time” every day, though maybe you just need it once a week. It’s totally up to you, but you have to make room for it.
You are not alone
Feeling stressed as a student is very normal. But what’s not normal is accepting that it has to be like that, or letting it take a serious toll on your life. Think about which stress triggers are affecting you and identify when you are feeling them. Write them down. Consider whether social media is affecting you in a negative way. If so, try to give yourself some down time. It’s important that you remember to just be you and do what makes you happy. You don’t have to make everything look perfect on the outside. You are not alone, and you can take action against your stress level. Take responsibility and fight to change the way you think. Maybe you can even inspire another student to do the same.
Remember, help is out there, so be sure to reach out to someone—a friend, a family member, or a professor—if you’re feeling overwhelmed.