Stress Awareness: Is stress at university always bad?

Anne Balls

We all know how stressful university life can be. Looming deadlines, assignments, presentations and regular exams are all significant stress triggers. Not to mention the transition to university itself – making friends, moving away from home for the first time and managing money.

How stressed are today’s students?

An NUS survey found that 87% of students experienced stress, 77% of students experienced anxiety and 48% of students experienced panic. In our own survey last year, 8 out of 10 students claimed to suffer from stress and anxiety.

A study carried out on UK undergraduates found that by mid-course, 20% of previously symptom-free students became anxious at a clinically significant level (Andrews and Wilding, 2004).

The University of York’s Student Mental Ill-health Task Group (2016) revealed that at their university, anxiety was the most common problem presented amongst students brought to Open Door in 2014/15, during all three semesters.

Why are students stressed?

The above NUS survey defined the top mental distress triggers among students as follows:

  • 65% – Course workload deadlines
  • 54% – Exams, including revision
  • 52% – Balancing study and other commitments
  • 52% – Grades and academic performance
  • 49% – Personal, family or relationship problems
  • 47% – Financial difficulties
  • 28% – Looking for a job during their studies
  • 28% – Accommodation / housing
  • 27% – Social pressures / fitting in
  • 26% – Graduate employment
  • 22% – Feeling of homesickness
  • 12% – Not knowing where to seek support
  • 5% – Substance misuse
  • 5% – Bullying or harassment

According to Mind charity, being a student increases the risk of developing a mental health problem due to stress from study, age and lack of support.

Toxic vs healthy stress

Let’s not forget that stress is our natural response to feeling under pressure and it can sometimes be helpful.

“Healthy stress” in small doses can motivate us, give us an energy boost and help us achieve our goals. It is short term and we may experience it before a deadline or when playing sport. When it passes, we feel relieved (Bupa, 2017).

According to

Most stress that we experience daily is actually good for us and avoiding it could be harmful. The only stress that can really cause us harm is toxic stress – like abuse, neglect, violence, poverty; especially if we are experiencing it for a prolonged period of time.

‘Stress’ is actually short for ‘stress response’ – a natural response to situations presenting a challenge or problem we need to address.

Without it, we wouldn’t have the motivation to take action when we need to. Stress is a driver to be productive, so it plays an important role too.

The key is being able to establish when feelings of stress and anxiety are constructive, and when they are unhealthy.

NHS Choices, 2016 states that when stress becomes overwhelming, lasts for a long time or affects our daily life, it can become a mental health problem.

Supporting students with stress at university

Given the number of possible causes of stress at university, students are especially vulnerable. Unless they have confidence in distinguishing between healthy and toxic stress, there is a risk that the stress can become a more engrained problem.

You could say helping to reduce stress at university could be tackled in three ways:

#1 Helping students to identify stress triggers. 

Which triggers are avoidable and which are not? Helping students to analyse their own thoughts and behaviours might help them to develop perspective when it comes to stress triggers. It can also increase their resilience.

#2 Helping to distinguish between good and bad stress.

When is stress necessary to boost performance and when is it a risk to health? If students are clear of the difference, they can gain confidence when it comes to ‘good’ stress and act accordingly if it is ‘toxic’.

#3 Equipping students with tools to deal with stress.

There are many techniques and strategies to deal with stress. It’s important students have access to support which helps them to know what these are. That way, students can make the best decisions about their own health.

If you would like to talk to us about how the Unihealth programme provides students with support on recognising and dealing with stress, why not drop us an email: [email protected].