As exam season begins to take hold, contributor Paige Collier looks at the reality of stress and anxiety for students, and how you can manage it.

As I walk to my first lecture of the day, I feel on edge, like there’s a knot in my stomach. At first I don’t know where it’s come from or why it’s there, then I think about all the work I have to do this week for my course and how everyone else seems to be managing but I just don’t have the time. My chest gets tight and my breathing becomes quicker. I feel like everyone is looking at me. I feel dizzy, faint and embarrassed.

It was a panic attack. Although I have been given lots of advice for dealing with them, they can still blindside me on an idle Tuesday walking into University.

Anxiety and stress are things we have all felt in our lives. For the lucky few, this may only be mild and infrequent, maybe only surfacing around an essay deadline, whereas for others they suffer much more and find stress a daily struggle. And it now appears that, for students, the latter group makes up the majority. According to YouGov, 63% of students say that stress interferes with their day-to-day lives.

Mental health issues such as stress and anxiety can affect people in different ways and present in mental, physical, behavioural and emotional symptoms. These can range from feeling overwhelmed, headaches, issues with sleep and even avoiding people and places. These can be triggered by a variety of things, such as work and social situations or sometimes by no particular event at all.

Statistics show the number of students dropping out of University due to mental ill health was up 210% in 2015.

But despite the progress of mental health awareness, there is still an overwhelming amount of misconception around it, making it harder for people to feel they should go and seek help when suffering.

A friend told me that when she tried to tell people about feeling stressed, she was often met with responses such as “you don’t have a mortgage to worry about” and “wait until you are in full time work, then you’ll know what stress is”. Although she now recognises that this attitude is often down to a lack of awareness about stress and anxiety, feeling as though her emotions were being downplayed stopped her from talking about how she felt and seeking help.

And without help, things can go from bad to worse. The cause of stress and anxiety can be attributed to a variety of different factors, which can be different for each person. In 2016, mental health charity Mind blamed the rise in tuition fees for causing the correlation with students deteriorating mental health. Statistics from the Higher Education Agency show the number of students dropping out of University due to mental ill health was up 210% in 2015 compared to just before the rise in tuition fees in 2012. This led to a total of 1,180 students dropping out due to mental health. With tuition fees now rising again to £9,250, this is a worrying statistic.

But tuition fees alone are not the cause of stress and anxiety for students. Reena Staves, University of Sheffield’s Welfare Officer explained how a variety of factors can lead to stress: “Students are faced with pressure stemming from so many different sources at University; from the increased marketisation of higher education, to the pressure to be a well-rounded student both academically and in the extra-curricular activities they choose to pursue.”

So what can we do to prevent this feeling, or when it all feels a bit much? I asked friends who have suffered from mental health problems for their tips as well as my own experiences on how to deal with stress and anxiety.

1. Know you are not alone
It’s so easy to think that you are the only one in the world feeling the way you do and that nobody will understand. You are not. There is always someone you can talk to. If you do not feel like you can confide in family or friends, there are places you can go to seek help, such as Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS) or your GP. You can always talk to your personal tutor, this may feel embarrassing, but that’s what they are there for.

2. Make time for yourself
Time for you is so important, and it is very easy to forget to check in with yourself. With all the stresses of daily life as well as university, you can sometimes feel guilty for taking time out. However, doing so can be so beneficial to your mental health and consequently beneficial to other aspects of life. This can be in any way you want: meet up with your friends for a cup of tea; grabbing yourself a hot chocolate for five minutes of calm; settling down to watch your favourite film; video calling an old friend. Making time for yourself helps to ease stress and should be an essential part of your routine.

3. Get active
As well with the stress of university, we can forget that we have spent all day sat behind a desk. Get yourself moving and get the endorphins going! It may be the last thing you feel like doing, but you’ll feel so much better after it. Eating healthy and drinking water can contribute to physical and mental wellness as well but try not to berate yourself if you indulge. Life is all about balance!

4. Set realistic goals
Writing goals can help you to see exactly what you have to do. When setting goals for yourself, make sure they are realistic and achievable. If the goals set are unattainable, this can lead to a negative reaction. If the goals you set are realistic and achievable, this can have a positive effect on your mood.

5. Be kind to yourself
Because thoughts are the first point leading to how we feel and subsequently affect our behaviours. If you find yourself thinking negatively about yourself, imagine a big red stop sign. Would you say this to a friend? If not, why would you say it to yourself? Although it can be hard to break the habit, this can help to alert you to the negative thoughts before they develop.


These are some places where you can get more information:

Student Access to Mental Health Support (SAMHS)

The University Health Service can be a port of call if you are unsure how to get help and how to overcome stress and anxiety. They offer weekly mindfulness and stress reduction workshops.

The Sheffield Mental Health Guide has lots of information about services in the city.

Sheffield IAPT – an NHS service helping people who struggle with anxiety, stress or depression.

Samaritans are a 24 hour anonymous helpline, with volunteers you can talk to about how you feel. They are available on 116 123.

Nightline – an anonymous listening and information service operating 8pm-8am during term time. The number can be found on the back of your student ID card, so you don’t have to worry about where you wrote it down.

Image credit: Nick Youngson, Creative Commons

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