Panic, help, no focus, I’ll get it done tomorrow, procrastinate, lying awake over procrastinating, exhaustion, chaos, distraction, heart rate racing, worries and more stress, stress, stress? Recognizable? If not, you should probably stop reading now...
I can experience stress even writing about the stress I experienced as a student. I can remember the cramped exam periods. Hurrying to find a good spot in the University Library, realising I started studying too late, worrying about study delays, my future and my chronical lack of focus. At the time I tried to battle this with buying summaries, coffee, redbull and sleep thea. However, as a psychologist I want to offer some advice to approach this differently. So here we go, a blog about stress.
We’re living in a performance driven society where success is monitored and we can feel pushed to move as fast as we can towards our goals. This desire to perform and getting things done in time can lead to a chronical stress levels. In addition to that, we’re now having to deal with the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I could write extensively about how hard it is for students with financial difficulties, binding study advice and the ever present social media, but the truth is that you will have to deal with those external realities. What we will do is take a look at what you yourself can control!
Let’s start with changing our view of stress as the devil on our shoulder, to the angel on the other one. You see, there is negative stress (distress) and positive stress (eustress). Stress is an important survival mechanism. When experiencing stress hormones like cortisol and noradrenaline are released providing energy to get up, get things done and perform. Stress will only become negative if it remains for too long.
To make sure that stress remains on the good side we’ll have to learn how to deal with it. For example, worrying about performing on an exam the day after is completely normal. In that case, stress is warning us about an important upcoming event that requires your focus. When the worrying remains over a prolonged period it makes sense to figure out what the source is and to take action. Once you get going on an assignment it’s important to realise that you can only peak when you get enough rest. Just look at professional athletes; they know all about the importance of resting between matches to boost performance levels. When you notice you’re feeling stressed, act upon that by taking regular breaks of relaxation. When you notice you can’t get back to a relaxed state, it’s a wake up call.
What is stress exactly?
Stress is a physical and psychological response to a stressor. An example is that hearing a gunshot (stressor) will cause a higher heart rate and alertness (stress-response) which makes it easier to run and hide (behavior). You don’t have to think about this stress response, it follow automatically.
Stress can be a wake-up call. Do you know that feeling of restlessness in your head, that you have so much to do but just can’t seem to focus? Or that because of the pressure to get things done you enter a state of hyperfocus? Your body is signaling that something needs to happen and activates you for a fight/flight/freeze mode.
Every time period has its own stressors. In the times of hunter gatherers humans had to make sure they find enough food to survive while keeping save from large predators. These days it’s exams, deadlines, being connected on social media and dealing with corona regulations.
A lot of stress can cause us to fall into bad habbits. You skip your hour of exercise in the gym because you want to keep studying and to save time you grab a quick unhealthy snack. Denying yourself a nutritious meal and physical activity that you actually need to recharge your batteries. It turns out that stressed people are more likely to eat more and less healthy (Park & Levenson, 2001). In addition, a study on stress and students shows that during exam periods students sacrifice activities that require effort such as sports (Weinder, Kohlmann, Dotzauer & Burns, 1996). This is a true waste, because physical activity produces the hormone dopamine which makes you feel more relaxed.
When you find yourself in a stressful period it is helpful to pay attention to your eating habits. Certain food substances counter the unhealthy effects of stress. You can find these in berries, fat fish, nuts, vegetables and green tea. However in times of stress, you’ve probably found yourself reaching out to comfortfood (sweet, salty, fat, high in calories). They produce a short term boost, but makes our brain and body slow down. In this video I’m interviewing professor Jaap Seidell to learn more about the influence of our diet on stress and studying: Voeding en studeren.
I’d like to finish with a couple of concrete tips to keep your stress levels under control.
What works against stress?
- Let’s start with an obvious but essential one: rhythm, regularity and self care. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, use your alarm clock to wake up on a regular time, prioritise physical activity, commit yourself to doing something relaxing and cancel meetings if they are too much right now.
- Don’t blow stress out of proportion. It’s quite common that when we have a lot on our mind we tend to overestimate how much work it all costs. Write down all the things you want to get done in the upcoming days and prioritize them in importance.
- Are you getting stress attacks that hinder your focus? Try mindfulness exercises such as the 4-7-8 technique. Breath in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, breath out for 8 seconds. Repeat this sequence ten times in a row. By breathing slowly and consciously, your body will relax, lowering your stress levels.
- Another mindfulness exercise is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Name 5 things you can see in your surroundings, 5 things you can feel and 5 things you can hear. Next name 4 things you can see, feel and hear. Next three things… until you name one thing you see, one thing you feel and one thing you hear. After this attention will be with your senses and what they are noticing here and now, not in your worried mind.
- Start the morning by writing down what you can control during the day and check that list during the day. It’s important that you feel in control of your actions in the day rather than feeling as if you are being controlled by deadlines and social obligations.
- Check your to do list and change all the ‘i have to’s’ in ‘I want to’s’. Language has a big impact on how we perceive tasks. Changing your mindset in this simple way can be very helpful.
If you want to see and learn more about stress in students, have a look at my documentary Druk!
Park, C. L., & Levenson, M. R. (2002). Drinking to cope among college students: prevalence, problems and coping processes. Journal of studies on alcohol, 63(4), 486-497.
Weidner, G., Kohlmann, C. W., Dotzauer, E., & Burns, L. R. (1996). The effects of academic stress on health behaviors in young adults. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 9(2), 123-133.