Overwhelmed: A Deeper Look Into University Student Stress

Though it may be hard to believe, autumn is rapidly approaching, bringing with it hot cocoa, pumpkins and deadlines. Yes, that time of the year where you feel bogged down with assignments is headed our way, and with that comes the dread of feeling overwhelmed.


I myself am easily stressed, as I let due dates, my social life and extracurriculars take over so much space in my head that the juggling game manifests in a physical way; I can't sleep and I can't focus. I’ve always wondered if the amount of stress I feel is normal, but as I get older, I realise that the most important thing is learning how to manage all the stress I allow myself to come under. Only then can I actually complete all the tasks I have ahead of me.


According to Melissa Cohen on www.learnpsychology.org, an online resource aimed toward psychology students, around 80% of university students in the United States say they “sometimes or often feel stressed.” Worse, around 20% say they “feel stressed most of the time.” Looking at these numbers, it’s no wonder that every time I ask my friends how they are, most say how overwhelmed they feel, “even though it’s only week two.”


Our inability to properly address the stressors in our lives contributes to this palpable sense of exhaustion, despite how early we may still be in the semester. By understanding what stress truly is, knowing how to identify it in yourself and in those around you, and getting comfortable with a variety of coping mechanisms, stress management can be an achievable reality when a slight mental breakdown might have been more likely.


The Science of Stress

As universal a feeling as it is, the term stress has been thrown around so much it’s now difficult to pin down its true meaning. The Mental Health Foundation defines stress as “the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure.” In this context, stress is simply our bodies’ reaction to any kind of pressure that forces our minds to overload.


Despite this seemingly simple definition, as you may be aware from personal experience, stress can manifest itself in many complex forms that can, at its worst, be debilitating. According to the American Psychological Association, there are three main classifications of stress: acute, episodic acute and chronic.


Acute stress is the most common and mildest form of stress, which can result from recent or temporary causes. Acute stress can be both negative and positive but should resolve itself once the situation has passed.

Episodic acute stress is defined as a version of acute stress which is present at continuous or predictable intervals. This recurring stress can be caused by activities or tasks that are more scheduled, causing you a type of stress that you are likely to expect.


The last and most severe classification of stress is chronic stress; chronic stress is a type of endless stress that persists for so long that you may feel physically exhausted or worn down. The extent of chronic stress can be severe, sometimes leading to physical ailments such as heart problems or strokes.


Morbid as this all sounds, it’s vital to remember that stress is a natural and instinctual response. As our bodies’ way of alerting us to a threat, stress allows us to be aware of the things surrounding us, or in the context of university, to the work we may have to complete and our desire to do well.

As Youki Terada explains in his article “The Science Behind Student Stress,” stress can be beneficial in that cortisol, the primary hormone released in stress reactions, “increases blood sugar, metabolism, and memory function, providing a temporary boost to physical and cognitive ability, and positive stress — called eustress — can boost motivation and decision-making, helping students achieve goals.”


By labelling and channeling that feeling, instead of allowing it to shut you down, stress can be used to motivate thoroughly done tasks. But this is only possible if we can name and tackle our stress.


How To Know If You're Spreading Yourself Too Thin

The first step to tackling any issue is to identify the why and what; why am I feeling stressed? What are the issues I am facing because of this stress?

In their 2012 study, “Assessing Stress Among University Students,” Dr Ahmad M Thawabieh and Dr Lama M Qaisy conclude that “the highest group of stressors experienced by students was self imposed stressors followed by pressure.” According to the results found in this study, despite the different types of stress that may be imposed upon us, the most prominent is that which is placed upon ourselves by ourselves. In an effort to maintain expectations or standards set by those before or around us, we strive for unattainable or difficult realities, perhaps in a pursuit of perfection, validation, or even simple recognition.


More severely, these stressors often lead to a plethora of physical, cognitive and emotional and behavioural symptoms. These symptoms, which often keep us from addressing the very tasks or issues which have led us to being stressed, can be overwhelming, manifesting themselves in ways that may not be easily recognisable. In severe cases, these symptoms can lead to other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, so it is important to be able to recognise and name these.


Physical symptoms of stress can include:

- Headaches

- Insomnia

- Irregular or missed menstrual cycles

- General or persistent illness/cold symptoms

- Fatigue


Cognitive symptoms of stress can include:

- Inability to focus

- Trouble remembering information

- Anxiety or a constant sense of dread

- Stunted ability to comprehend concepts


Emotional and Behavioral symptoms of stress can include:

- Irritability

- Change in eating or sleeping habits

- Reliance on or heightened use of alcohol or drugs

- Feeling of isolation

- Reduced desire to participate in activities that were once enjoyed


The severity of these symptoms depend on an individual’s ability to manage the levels of stress they face. As debilitating as they may be, the capacity to recognise these symptoms in yourself and in friends can get you on the road to management, even recovery. By addressing these issues, you can also answer the more important question: “Can I use coping mechanisms to overcome this on my own, or should I go and get help?”


Making Time For Yourself

Once identified, stress causers in our lives can be addressed by a plethora of coping mechanisms. Below are five stress management methods that are suggested by most experts, which have also been helpful to me in moments when I am feeling stressed.


1) Take care of your body

Though it may sound like yet another task to add to the to-do list, making sure to take care of yourself and your body is vital for keeping stress at bay. Taking the time to exercise, prioritising getting the recommended 6–8 hours of sleep, eating properly, and making sure to remember to maintain basic hygiene are all important in keeping up some semblance of a routine to keep you grounded.


2) Do something you enjoy

By joining a club, society or sport, you force yourself to set aside a certain amount of time each week to do something that brings you joy, explicitly for you. When stressed, it’s important to take this time in order to provide what essentially are mandated breaks that allow you to unwind, whether that's an hour and a half training twice a week or a 30-minute sketch session every other day.


3) Learn to say no

If you anticipate your workload will be too much, know you are prone to stress, or are already experiencing symptoms of stress, it is important to learn how to say no to the activities or tasks that do not serve you. By accepting that lessening your load does not equal failure, you can relieve yourself of that one commitment that may be tipping you over the edge.


4) Don't isolate yourself

Although significantly easier said than done, it is vital to remember that you are not alone. If you isolate yourself, you shut yourself off from the network of support available to you by your friends, family, and even university counsellors. Express yourself, whether that be to your friends or to a journal, and force yourself to go out just once; you might even find yourself having enough fun to relieve you of some of your stress.


5) Breathe

Almost deceptively simple, merely taking the time to breathe is important in managing your stress. Take one day completely to yourself to stay in bed all day and watch Netflix, or if that feels like too much, take a couple of hours to watch a film or 30 minutes to do some yoga, however long it takes you to unwind. Forcing ourselves to take the time to stop, breathe, and unwind reminds us that it is OK to not be going, going, going, 24/7.


Remember that stress is a natural and universal feeling; when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and it seems as if no one around you feels the same, there is most likely someone in your life that can relate to your stress. They may even be able to offer some words of wisdom. By recognising the causes of our stress and attacking them, hopefully we can manage our stress in a way that allows us to fulfill all the things we hope to fulfill.

If you have concerns for your own wellbeing, please book an appointment with Student Services. They will support you or refer you to people who can. An alternative is Nightline, which is an anonymous service run by trained student volunteers listening to your worries.


Student Services: studentservices@st-andrews.ac.uk

Nightline: nightline@st-andrews.ac.uk / +44 01334 46 2266



Illustration: Olivia Jones


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I first met Alan in third-year Russian class, where we bonded over our joint struggle to get to grips with the nightmarish agglomeration of case endings and grammar rules that the language threw our w