The Universal University Issue: Dealing with Stress

Stress is a popular topic at the moment. Everyone seems to be constantly stressed; jobs are stressful, deadlines are stressful, thinking about the future is stressful. We crave weekends and the holidays for a brief respite from it all, and dread the workload starting again.

Stress and anxiety seem to be a ruling norm in student life especially, and certainly at the moment with Term 2 coming to an end, and essay deadlines and exams looming. Either you’re stressing too much at the detriment of your health, as evidenced by the long waiting lists at the Wellbeing Centre, or you’re not stressing enough at the detriment of your grades. At the moment though, I’d have to say I see far more of the former. With increasing competition for university places driving up the offers and expectations, I’m sometimes acutely aware sitting in the back of lecture halls how hard everyone in the room has worked to get here. And how hard most of them are working to stay on top of everything.

Personally, I’m no exception to this. I’ve had high standards for myself since I was 13, and feel pretty crushed if I don’t meet them – so I angst, redraft and stress over every piece of written work up until the deadline so I feel like I can say “I’ve done my best”. And when the essay comes back and it’s a 2:2 instead of a 2:1, I spend my time pouring over the critiques and red biro question marks in the margin, berating myself at where I so obviously went wrong.

I’m not so naïve as to realise that this sort of perfectionism isn’t a healthy attitude, but in some ways, ‘stress’ has been useful. For a start, the excessive revision and work I put into my A levels were what got me into Exeter in the first place, and I’m certainly grateful now for those unpleasant weeks in June I put myself through. Stress is also what kicks me into gear to get reading done before seminars, or essays submitted the night before deadlines. In moderate quantities, it can be pretty helpful. But then again, there’s a dark-side to stress.

Stress can build up to a level where you feel crippled by it, where the to-do list is so long it’s impossible to know where to even start, and can leave you curled up in a ball dreaming of your days at kindergarten. At the far end of the scale, stress can cause panic and anxiety attacks, and is often strongly linked to depression.

So stress can go both ways – the good, and the very, very bad – but if I’m honest, I’m a bit sick of fixating on it. Stress takes up so much of my time and thought processes, and if talking to older students and adult relatives is anything to go by, it’s set to take up a lot of my future too- and that’s a bit of a depressing thought.

It can sometimes feel like we’re constantly seeking the perfect equilibrium of a work-life balance, and once we reach that seemingly unattainable goal, we’ll finally be happy. In reality though, everyone knows that the ‘grass is always greener’ idea is just a dream. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and what we need to learn is to not just survive our lives, but to live them. But I don’t want to live a life that’s dictated by meeting my own ridiculous standards, that’s focused around just making it through to the weekend or to the next holiday. I want to be able to accept that there’s work to do, and sometimes quite a lot of it, without building this whole huge mental block around it and spending more time complaining and worrying over it than actually getting down to it.

So, what options are there available to combat stress?

I’d consider there to be two approaches:

1. Change the situation

This can mean a lot of things, whether it is taking time out of your job for health purposes or asking for deadline extensions. The stigma around mental health is slowly being combatted, but society still isn’t quite there. Despite what judgements you might be worried colleagues or friends might make, you wouldn’t go to work with a broken wrist or without your glasses, and dealing with stress or acute anxiety can be just as disabling. We shouldn’t feel ashamed to take a little extra time for the sake of our health to take a break and to regain a sense of perspective.

This approach however isn’t always the best for the long-term, and when coming back to the ‘stressful situation’ or dealing with stress in general, it might be worth looking at another approach:

2. Change your attitude to stress

Now, this of course is easier said than done, but it really doesn’t have to be as difficult a mental task as it sounds.

Dr Mike Evans is a Canadian doctor renowned for his media-based approach to communicating public health information and advice. His Youtube video entitled ’23 and ½ hours’ on exercise has almost 5 million views, but I’d consider his 10-minute lecture on The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do For Your Stress to be pretty inspirational advice.

Dr Evans considers that just changing the way you think about stress, from something that happens unavoidably to you to something that you actually create is a key step in reducing anxiety over stressful situations.

Most people think stress is something that happens to us…(but in reality) stress passes through a 2 pound piece of tissue on the top of your face called your brain…

We say things like, my job is stressful, or my friend Sylvia is stressing me out, but in fact, we create the stress in our brains… it’s your thinking that brings the stress.”

Dr. Mike Evans

It seems like a simple idea, but personally it was the simplicity of it that affected me so much. I don’t think changing your thinking style and attitude to stress so drastically is going to happen overnight, just as a life-long pessimist can’t suddenly see the glass as half full, but Dr. Evans puts forward a strong argument that such an approach can be learnt.

I’d like to think that in trying to approach things in the past few weeks that would normally stress me out (such as intimidating essay titles, page long to-do lists and long put-off phonecalls) with a different attitude, I’ve already noticed a difference. Similarly to how I talked in a previous post about tackling exercise at university, although it’s hard-work at first, it’s got to the stage now where I actually enjoy taking a positive approach to previously stressful situations. I try and remind myself that the stress I’m experiencing is in reality all self-generated, and try and change my approach to whatever the situation is that’s making me anxious.

For instance, whereas before I might think “Oh God, I’ve got so much work to do I can’t possibly manage it without pulling multiple all-nighters/having no weekend”, I now try and change that thought to “I’ve got a lot of work but I’m capable of doing the best I can in the time I’ve got.’”

Different things work for different people, and I can appreciate that many are not in the position to be able to work on changing their mind-set, but it’s certainly something I think is worth thinking about. And I’d recommend giving Dr. Mike Evans’ video a watch too 🙂