9 Tips from Psychologists on How to Handle University Stress
University stress is no joke. From endless deadlines to dissertation preparation, it really is enough to make you self-implode. We daren’t mention any societies you join and the school-night partying (no shame). Suffice to say, you might be struggling to keep your head above water. So here are 9 tips from certified psychologists to help you get a handle on stress and anxiety at university.
In this blog, we speak with 4 psychologists and counsellors who work with university students to alleviate stress and anxiety. From recognising warning signs to learning how to handle them, these are the life-long tips to improve wellbeing.
What is university stress?
Everyone feels stressed out at times, it’s a very normal part of life and not always harmful. Dennis Relojo-Howell, the founder of Psychreg and a PhD researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Edinburgh, explains:
“Stress is our body’s natural reaction to any change that requires an adjustment. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. Some degree of stress is often beneficial to motivate us to achieve our goals. This form of stress is known as "eustress", which literally means positive stress.”
But university stress can quickly develop into something more detrimental. There are many aspects of student life that seem uncontrollable, like grades, relationships, future careers.
Dennis further describes that: “when a situation feels beyond our control, the resulting "distress" can be detrimental to both our mental and physical health. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, it seems that university students are experiencing more distress than eustress.”
Understand the root cause
The first tip on how to get a handle on university stress is to get right down to basics. If you’re someone who is prone to stress, you need to figure out why you’re feeling this way.
“When you’re constantly stressed or your levels of stress are very high, there may be an underlying reason, like personal issues, family and friends, housing, and financial concerns.” Dennis says.
Understanding why you’re reacting poorly to situations and identifying your triggers will help you better handle university stress. In essence, your feelings could be masking something deeper; you might need to take a step back to tap into those anxieties and learn to control them.
Learn to relax mentally and physically
Although it might seem difficult, learning how to relax is paramount in order to handle university stress. Sylvia Tillmann, who has a counselling background, tells us “I have seen many stressed learners – quite a few literally tense up – and it goes without saying that the more relaxed you are, the more successful you'll be.”
Sylvia is also a trained TRE® provider (Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises). These are a set of somatic exercises designed to ease deep-rooted stress and tension in the body, thereby calming the nervous system. These exercises not only help to induce relaxation, but also train the mind to be more resilient and calm – even improving sleep patterns!
“I feel that society puts far too much emphasis on the mind and on talking therapies, while neglecting the body” Sylvia says, “but body and mind are inextricably linked. I now believe much more in giving the mind and the constant thought processes a rest, hence engaging the body and trusting the wisdom of one's body.”
The good thing is that TRE® is a self-help tool, meaning you learn life-long techniques to take your health and wellbeing into your own hands. “As stressed learners' minds are already busy and overwhelmed, wouldn't it make more sense to work with the body to get rid of tension and stress?” Sylvia muses. “It's relaxing, calming and brings the body – and mind – back to a state of balance.”
Talk to someone
Hypnotherapist, Lizzie Smith, works with students experiencing anxiety, confidence issues, social anxiety, bullying and exam stress. “I have been seeing a number of students during the pandemic struggling with anxiety after spending so much time in their rooms in front of a screen.” Lizzie shares.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do – but that with the biggest impact – is to talk about your feelings to someone. It can feel daunting and almost impossible to open up about what’s bothering you; but in the end it feels like a weight off your shoulders.
“Talking can be a great help,” Lizzie says, “so reaching out to friends, family or a professional therapist can be really useful.” It’s worth remembering that you are not a burden. Even if your problems feel small and insignificant, it’s all relative.
Fuel your body
Clinical psychologist, Elina Telford, explains that it’s really important to keep nourishing yourself, even in times of distress. She works predominantly with adolescents and university students, including those with eating disorders.
“It can sound really basic, but making sure you are getting enough food, fluid and sleep is really important. These are the foundations for good wellbeing, including mental health.”
Elina further explains that it’s harder to cope with stress and anxiety if we are not fully rested. She suggests having at least three meals and two snacks a day can be really important in combating and coping with stress and anxiety.
In terms of food, it can be helpful to consider well-balanced meals and snacks that help with your energy levels across the day. “Foods and fluids that are higher in sugar and caffeine might feel as if they help in the short term, but will likely make you feel pretty rubbish if used regularly to boost mood or energy!”
She suggests meal prepping if you’re someone who struggles with food and eating while dealing with university stress; or eating with friends and family to promote connection.
Seek professional support
You might benefit from speaking to a GP or counsellor, who will be totally unbiased and help to unpick your brain. After all, this is what they’re paid for! So you’re entitled to open up and spill the beans. Most universities have trained counsellors on site to help students maintain their mental wellbeing, so it might be worth capitalising on this if you feel safe to do so.
Lizzie further recommends speaking to a professional to get to the root cause of stress and anxiety, as previously mentioned. “These causes may not just be work-related,” she explains, “I have worked with young people struggling with bereavement and family illness, for example.” This could be contributing to a negative state of wellbeing.
When asked about the type of methods that she uses, Lizzie enlightened us about Hypnotherapy. “It is a restorative way to shift negative thought patterns and create new empowering beliefs.” One approach is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is “a useful tool for managing stress.”
Elina also suggests that you speak to your GP to rule out any physical causes that might be contributing to stress or anxiety, like vitamin deficiencies. “I would urge you not to wait until you reach rock bottom to ask for help.” Remember that a huge part of handling university stress is also preventing it.
Do some exercise – seriously...
We’re all aware of the benefits of exercise physically. Elina says: “it can be helpful as a way of breaking down stress hormones within the body and boosting naturally occurring mood enhancing ones.” In turn, this gives you a motivational boost to complete all those assignments.
However, there’s also another reason to regularly exercise, especially if you’re someone who avoids it like the plague.
Dennis tells us “researchers found that participating in regular physical activity can help decrease levels of perceived stress, test anxiety, and end-of-term burnout among university students.”
If that’s not a reason to get your sweat on, I don’t know what is! This is one of the best ways to cope with stress while at university. You can try low-impact exercise like walking or yoga, or group activities like tennis, dancing and netball.
Establish a good sleep pattern
We know better than anyone that university isn’t exactly, well, strict. The partying, early lectures and 4am deadlines are pretty standard. This sometimes means that you end up sleep deprived – which also stimulates more anxiety.
“It can be helpful to establish routines and patterns to help the body relax, and the brain to switch off as you approach bedtime.” Elina explains. There are a few easy ways to do this, without it feeling like you’re a child again.
“For example, stop drinking caffeine early in the evening, not eating too late at night, and having a break from your phone before bed. Even calming activities such as bathing/showering, journaling, reading, will help.” This regular and consistent routine will help your body learn to prepare for sleep too.
Maintaining routine and continuing to do what we enjoy when we are feeling well can feel really counterintuitive when feeling stressed or anxious; however, it is these things that can encourage motivation and help us to feel better over time.
Participate in activities that make you feel good
Despite everything going on, it’s super important to try and continue doing things that make you feel your best.
“Engaging in activities which bring fulfilment can also help with stress and anxiety,” Elina says, “this includes volunteering or doing a hobby. It may be worth looking at university clubs or societies for ideas if you’re feeling stuck.”
Both Sylvia and Elina strongly recommend prioritising your self-care. This includes getting a massage or practising meditation regularly, both in times of stress and even when you’re feeling calm. This helps you to prevent nervous tension and encourages you to feel more confident!
“Some people value a self-care box, which contains meaningful items for the 5 senses, such as: favourite smells (perfumes, scented candles); pleasing tastes such as hot chocolate sachets, chewing gums; playlists of favourite songs for the ears; and photos of people, places or pets that you love and cheer you up.” Elina suggests.
Inform your tutors
Our experts encourage you to speak to your academic tutors and professors about how you’re feeling. This might help with workload management and they could suggest extending the deadline for assignments.
Many students are conscientious and worried about how stress and anxiety will impact their studies. The worst thing you can do is bottle it up. There’s a lot of pressure, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
“In both my personal and professional experience, university can be stressful and anxiety provoking for lots of different reasons, and sometimes these reasons are not always clear.” Elina explains. “It’s important to know that you are not alone and that things can get better.”
To sum it all up...
It’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed and experience university stress. These are some of the most exhilarating years of your life, with more ups and downs than a rollercoaster! So just follow these certified tips to ensure you handle your stress like a pro.
If you’d like to try hypnotherapy, Lizzie offers online appointments to students across the UK. For those of you who want to learn TRE®, Sylvia runs regular online classes and offers Tutor House students a 20% discount.
Remember to also speak to your GP or call 111 if you are concerned about your mood, are experiencing suicidal thoughts or participating in risky behaviour like gambling, drug or alcohol abuse.
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