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 🙂

The Big Taboo: Thoughts on Dropping Out

In my introductory post about the sort of content this blog would feature, I may have promised ‘light-hearted’ but I also promised ‘honest’. Hence the nature of this post.

‘Dropping out’ is traditionally a pretty scary idea, and in many ways has become something of a taboo topic. When applying to university, I was often told to look at the drop out rates when gaging the best institutions. The theory was, the higher the drop out rates, the worse the general student experience, the ‘lesser’ the university. At the time that made perfect sense to me, but now the idea of  ‘drop outs’ defining a university is far from clear-cut.

If I’m being honest, dropping out crossed my mind more than a couple of times during first term. This wasn’t necessary Exeter’s fault, rather how I imagine most students feel at some point or another. There were days when I felt isolated, homesick and unsure about my course; days when the deadlines and reading lists seemed never-ending; days when I took a step back in a mini-existential-crisis sort of fashion and thought to myself “is 4 more years of education really what I want?” University is built up to be this huge, life-affirming, amazing experience, but in the cold light of day, sometimes it just doesn’t work out like that.

People’s reasons for dropping out can vary hugely, and I for one have had two close friends make the decision that Exeter, at this particular time, just isn’t for them. In many ways, their courage and decisiveness was in part what inspired this post – I respect them both hugely for their decisions, and wanted to make sure their stories were heard in the hope of dispelling any myths surrounding why people drop out. They were kind enough to share their thoughts on the process with me:

1.  What were your reasons for dropping out?

J: “My reason for dropping out was simply that I really didn’t feel the course was right for me and I wanted to choose something that would suit me more. I tried to switch courses at Exeter, but I was too late as all the places in other courses had filled up at this point (after the October reading week). In the end I had to take the other option and drop out with the intention to reapply on a different course for next year.”

B: “I was really struggling with stress and anxiety from the workload and frankly it was making me very depressed a lot of the time…at first I tried to just push through it but gradually it got worse, to the point where I had no real motivation and was just stumbling through each day. All this just had me asking myself the question, “What am I trying to achieve with this?” and suddenly it seemed obvious that University was not something I had to do – I had always asserted that I did not want an office job and had often pictured myself in a more vocational career, plus I knew I wanted to start travelling again soon. When I properly started to research other options, such as vocational apprenticeships, I started to feel hopeful about the future once more and as soon as I made the decision to leave, I felt like my old, happy and confident self again, which is something I had not felt in months.”

2. How did you find the ‘dropping out’ process?

J: “I felt the process logistically through the University went smoothly and there were lots of people to advise me on what to do and they were supportive of the fact I was certain that the course wasn’t for me and I would be happier on a different course. Emotionally I felt fine about the process, my parents were supportive too and I just knew it was the right decision. However reapplying for university on UCAS was very daunting.”

B: “The process was not too bad logistically – there was a fair bit of going to see various people, such as senior tutors and people in the administration offices, but they were all quite friendly and the Guild advice unit were really helpful on the nuts and bolts of student finance and the like.  Emotionally it was a bit of whirlwind…I think about 75% of the time I was confident that I was doing the ‘right thing’ but there were definitely times where I thought, “Holy crap, what am I doing?”. Talking to people definitely helped though – I also think being open about the whole thing prevented any irrational feelings of embarrassment or shame over dropping out.”

3. Looking back, do you still feel your decision was the right one?

J: “I definitely still feel my decision was the right one. Even though I do miss University, I knew I wouldn’t have been happy continuing on with the course I was on for the next three years of my life.”

B: “Yes. Whenever I feel uncertain I look back at diary entries from the last few months or think about how much time I spent crying down the phone to my Mum and then look at how much happier I am now. That’s not to say I don’t have uncertain moments or even moments when I miss my course, but when it comes to rationally weighing up how much happier I am it seems like it was clearly for the best. I also do not think though that coming to University in the first place was the wrong decision either as I have had a really valuable experience – I’ve met new people, tried new things and apart from anything else I have found out what it’s like. But I don’t think it would have been worth me pushing through the next three years in the state I was in when there is so much else I would like to do with my life.”

4. How do you feel about the future now?

J: “Even though taking a gap year isn’t what I thought I was going to do, I’m still going to get a degree so I don’t feel too differently about the future.”

B: “Nervous but optimistic. I have just found my first full-time job and I have big plans for the next few years, although I am still figuring out the details. So yes, I am looking forward to the future and more importantly, I’m enjoying right now.”

With these two testimonies in mind and from talking to others, I’d like to offer up three key things I think affect people’s decision when it comes to dropping out.

1)   Course – is it the right thing for you?

In a lot of cases, course is a big influencing factor in people’s decisions to drop out. You can have loved your subject through GCSE and A level, but at degree it’s a whole new ball game. If you realise you chose wrong early on, there is some flexibility to change, but usually before reading week. If not, there’s absolutely no shame in admitting it isn’t right, and taking the decision to drop out. Better that than face around £30,000 worth of debt for 3 years of misery.

2)   Support – if you’re struggling with adjusting to university do you have the support, emotionally and practically, that you need?

I imagine some people sail through university without ever dropping their Personal Tutor an email or visiting the Student Health Centre. I also imagine that they’re probably the minority. Support is there, just not always immediately obvious. When I first asked about support, I was genuinely amazed at how much there was – everything from deadline extensions to taking extended leave and returning in the new year.

3)   The Bigger Picture – is university just not for you?

It can be hard sometimes to think against the grain, but the reality is that the university environment is not for everyone. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. If the course isn’t the issue and you’ve sought out support but it still just isn’t working, university just might not be your thing.

Whatever the motivating factor, I’m a firm believer that dropping out of university isn’t nearly so shameful or embarrassing as it seems to have gained the reputation of being. I think the experiences of my friends are both important examples to bear in mind; although some might hype up the idea of dropping out of university to be ‘the be all and end all’, sometimes it’s just the right decision.