Stress is the physical and mental response of the body to demands made upon it. It is the result of our reaction to outside events, not necessarily the events themselves.
Not all stress is bad. We each function best and feel best at our own optimal level of physiological arousal. We need some stress to get everyday things done. Too little can lead to boredom and ‘rust out’ – but too much can produce ‘burn out.’
Adaptive stress helps us rise to life's challenges. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and glucose flow into our blood: we get a buzz of energy and feel alert, focused, and creative. Negative stress occurs when our ability to cope with life's demands crumbles. If we don't break down the stress chemicals (e.g. through physical activity) they stay in the blood, preventing us from relaxing. Eventually this results in a permanent state of stress. That initial buzz turns to worry, irritability or panic. Challenges become threats; we doubt our ability to do even simple things and problems appear insurmountable.
What causes stress?
Different things cause stress in different people. Some of the things students commonly cite as causes of stress include:
- returning to study
- pressure of combining paid work and study
- difficulty in organising work
- poor time management
- leaving assignments to the last minute
- out of control debts
- poor housing
- adjusting to life in a new environment or country
- difficulties with personal relationships (e.g. splitting up)
- balancing the demands of a family with studying
- parents or problems at home
Very often stress results from an accumulation of many different pressures which build up gradually without us noticing.
Can too much stress affect me?
Stress affects you physically, it affects your thinking and your emotions, and it affects how you behave:
The heart pumps faster, making the heart pound and blood pressure rise; some people experience palpitations. Muscle tension increases, leading to headaches, dizziness, jaw ache and even insomnia. The mouth goes dry, digestion slows causing ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Breathing is faster and less efficient which can lead to over breathing (hyperventilation) and breathlessness. Changes in the flow of blood to the skin can cause sweating, blushing or clammy hands and feet.
A certain amount of stress can be mentally stimulating but too much can affect our thinking ability. Thoughts may become jumbled and confused. Thinking becomes focused on worrying. We may become preoccupied with problems. It becomes much harder to make decisions or find solutions to problems. Thinking negatively and fearing the worst increases worry and stress.
People respond to stress in many different ways. Common emotional effects are irritability, impatience, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, self-doubt, panic, despondency, feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, hopelessness, unhappiness, emotional withdrawal and depression.
Stress can change people's behaviour towards one another. We may become less sociable, less caring, more hostile and insensitive towards others. When stress is accompanied by anger we may become less tolerant, fly off the handle easily, and provoke rows. Many people respond to stress by eating, drinking or smoking much more than is usual: some engage in risk taking behaviour. Students often complain that when they feel stressed they find it hard to concentrate, feel tired all the time, perhaps start to miss lectures and deadlines, and feel they can't cope.
How can I manage my stress?
The key to success is to think positively; take control of your stress and anxiety by learning effective techniques to combat it. Relaxing bodily tension in order to reduce the physical sensations of stress is a good place to start. If your body is free of tension your mind tends to be relaxed. This helps you concentrate and study, take decisions and solve problems. When you are relaxed, you can view each task as a positive challenge, and use stress as a stimulus to help you to carry it out giving you a relaxing glow of achievement afterwards.
Try to focus on each of the following aspects:
- Looking after yourself. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself ‘me time’ in which you can choose what you want to do: Rest; do nothing; try a relaxation technique, massage or yoga; have a long hot bath; spend time with friends; treat yourself to something special. Taking proper breaks and eating well do help to combat stress. You can find some relaxation exercises on our website.
- Confronting the problem. Try to stand back and look at the problem carefully. Break it down into manageable parts. Talk it through with someone else, brainstorm solutions, or get help if you need it. Try to manage your time effectively and learn to say ‘no.’ Avoidance won't make the problem go away and can often make it worse. Leaving everything to the last minute is a major source of stress for students. Think about why you are finding it hard to get started: uncertainty about how to do the assignment, fear of being judged or failing? Starting a piece of work effectively reduces stress levels as it frees your mind, putting the thoughts of failure back into perspective. If you've had a row or a misunderstanding with someone, it rarely helps to avoid the issue. Talking it through with the other person or with someone outside the situation, often helps you express your feelings, regain a sense of proportion, and identify a way of resolving the differences.
- Find some distractions. Sport and physical activity helps you to relax physically and also releases endorphins in the body which produce a real feeling of well-being. Walk, cycle, swim, join a gym or a sports team. Joining a club or society, maintaining an existing hobby or learning something new, talking to other people... can all help you to take a mental and physical break.
- Express yourself. Talk about it, write about it, shout or moan about it. Expressing your feelings can help to relieve stress. Acknowledging a problem to yourself and to others can be the first step in dealing with it. Sometimes having a good cry or bashing a pillow can release emotional pressure and calm your feelings of anxiety.
What is anxiety and how can I manage it?
Anxiety is a normal response to danger or stress: it prepares us for coping with stress.
Anxiety is only a problem when it is out of proportion to a situation or goes on for too long. Then our thoughts may become muddled and we may experience physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, racing heart, sweaty palms, tense muscles. Anxiety can lead to panic attacks.
Learn how to breathe efficiently and practise it in order to prevent over breathing (too much oxygen in the blood). This causes a series of unpleasant physical symptoms, i.e. tingling hands and face, muscle cramps and tremors, dizziness, breathing difficulties and feelings of fatigue. These sensations can be controlled by breathing slowly and smoothly through the nose, filling the lungs completely. Follow the breathing exercises below to help you manage your anxiety.
What is a panic attack and how can I manage it?
A panic attack is the body's natural ‘fight or flight’ reaction to a sudden threat. If there is no real external threat, the adrenaline pumping around the body is experienced as a panic attack: the heart beats fast and hard, we may sweat, feel faint or nauseous. All these symptoms can be very frightening. If you experience a panic attack, it is important to remind yourself that none of these feelings can harm you – you are not going to have a heart attack, faint, or be sick. Although you may feel very strange, no one else is likely to notice anything wrong.
Try to deepen your breathing and relax. Distract yourself by thinking about something else or focusing on an item in the room. Block any panicky or worrying thoughts. As you manage the panic in this way, your brain and body begins to recognise that there is no real danger, the supply of adrenaline to the blood is cut off, and the symptoms will subside. Follow the breathing exercise below to help you manage your panic attack.
How can I relax?
Try this breathing exercise:
- Place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. As you breathe in through your nose allow your stomach to swell. This means that you are using the diaphragm to breathe in and allowing air right down into your lungs. Try to keep the movement in your upper chest to a minimum and keep the movement gentle. Slowly and evenly breathe out through your nose. Repeat and get a rhythm going. You are aiming to take 8-12 breaths a minute: breathing in and breathing out again counts as one breath. Practise until it becomes a habit and switch to regular breathing when you next become anxious.
Learn how to really relax and develop a skill which will enable you to reduce unnecessary physical tension whenever you need to. You can find some relaxation exercises online.
Learn how to combat worrying thoughts, because worrying thoughts keep the anxiety going then the symptoms of anxiety maintain the worrying thoughts. Try simple distraction techniques such as physical exercise or refocusing your mind by concentrating hard on one thing to absorb all your attention.
Where can I go for help?
- Manage your Mind Butler G & Hope T (1996) Oxford University Press.
- Overcoming Anxiety Kennerley H (1997) Robinson.
- Conquer your Stress Cooper C & Palmer S (2000) Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
A wide range of books and internet resources is available to help with stress management and relaxation. Different approaches suit different people, so it’s worth browsing in a bookshop or on the web to find something that works for you.
Brookes students can see a doctor at the Medical Centre on the Headington Campus.
If you are not registered with the Medical Centre, you should make an appointment with your own doctor.
Whatever you are experiencing, we are here to help and support you. If you feel, after examining these resources and putting some strategies in place, that you would like to talk to us, please fill in the registration form and we aim to offer you an assessment within seven days.