Stress: What is it and how to cope with it?

Being at uni can be a stressful experience for anyone. Meeting new people all the time, exam and coursework overload and for some it can be the first time living away from home, so there’s a lot going on. As it’s Stress Awareness Month we’ve broken down what stress is, how it can affect you and how to cope when the stress feels a bit too much.

What is stress and the signs of stress?

Stress is essentially the body reacting to a challenge of some sort. Although it can feel uncomfortable, stress is perhaps one of our most natural feelings, and in small doses can lead us to perform better. However, when these feelings of stress take over it can lead to problems such as irritability and trouble sleeping, which can have a real effect on our lives. If we don’t manage our stress we can often spiral into more serious issues such as depression, anxiety or palpitations.

Stress triggers

If you are feeling stressed and you can’t shake the feeling, sometimes it’s good to know what is triggering you to feel this way. For students, there are three main areas that impact on our stress levels.

Social: This doesn’t just mean that you feel uncomfortable at parties or other social situations, but includes dealing with relationships, balancing your social life and living without your family.

Academic: We all know that the education you receive at uni is completely different to the very structured approach you were used to at school and it can be hard to go from a very hands-on approach that teachers take, to the very hands-off approach lecturers can take. At uni it can also feel like you are out of your depth and all this can lead to academic stress.

Managing daily life: This kind of stress can come from financial worries or trying to balance work and uni. They are the everyday stresses that can build up and making getting through the day a struggle.

Once you’ve figured out what has triggered your stress you can figure out which of the stress management tips below will work for your type of stress.

Way to manage your stress

This is in no way an exhaustive list of ways to help you deal with stress, and a lot of these techniques might not work for everyone, but these are some tips that have helped many people.

Think about what you’re eating

Food is one of the biggest factors that affects how you feel. After a week of eating takeaways and microwave food, who else has felt groggy and lethargic? Food has the same impact on your mind, too so make sure you’re eating plenty of fresh food and fruit/veg. You don’t have to be a chef to cook good healthy meals, but planning ahead and following simple recipes can help if your skills don’t lie in the cooking department.

Make sleep a priority

As tempting as it is to stay up watching ‘just one more episode’ of your latest Netflix obsession, having a bad sleep can make you vulnerable to more stress in your waking hours. Get into a sleep routine and stick to it, and make sure that routine includes the amount of sleep that makes you feel your best. If you find it difficult getting to sleep, use the time before you sleep to set the right mood and get your mind in the mood for rest. Stop using your phone 30 mins before sleep and go to YouTube and listen to some sleep music to help you drift off.

Do something you love

When we’re feeling stressed it’s easy to push the things we love doing aside, to make room for the things we are stressing about. However, keeping up with our hobbies can be a great stress reliever. For instance, if we’re feeling stressed about writing an essay, getting out and doing something that makes us feel good for an hour or so can help us feel more in the zone when we come back to writing our essay.

Don’t compare yourself to others

Falling into the trap of comparing yourself to others can lead you into a spiral of stress. You may be thinking things like ‘why did they get a better grade than me’, ‘how did he get that internship’ or ‘I’m never going to be able to do what they do.’ When these thoughts creep into your mind, remind yourself that everyone is different and what you perceive as ‘being better than you’ may just be a different set of priorities or opportunities. The only thing worth measuring is how far you’ve come!

Make time for yourself

Sometimes being surrounded by people you don’t want to be around whilst you have a million thoughts racing through your brain, can make your stress even worse. But just know that it is ok to make time for yourself. Sometimes saying no to that party or event is worth it if it means your mind gets a bit of relief.

Take time to breathe, literally

Breathing exercises can make you feel better in a moment when stress becomes too much, but practised regularly it can become part of a healthy habit to reduce stress. App such as Headspace can help you build up technique.

Learn to manage your time better

A lot of stress both academic and social can come from not being able to balance everything that you have going on in your life. Putting pressure on yourself to complete X amount of tasks in X amount of hours is a recipe for stress. Get into the habit of prioritising what will alleviate the most stress, and know that completing everything on your list might be causing you more stress than leaving it for a time where you feel less overwhelmed.

Reach out to your support system

Although it is important to take time for yourself, nothing is worse than isolating yourself when feeling stressed. The old saying goes ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ and although it’s a cliche, it actually rings true. Sending a text or calling someone who cares and letting them know you feel overwhelmed will help you to get to the bottom of what’s making you feel this way. Talking to others can also help you to put things in perspective.

Speak to a professional

If you are dealing with long-term stress and anxiety, the best solution is to get in touch with a professional, especially if stress is affecting your personal life as well as your academic performance. Many unis have a counselling service that they offer to students which can usually found on the uni website. There are also many student lead services and you can always visit your GP for more serious or longer-lasting mental health symptoms. You can get more info here.

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