Monday 6 November 2017

Am I stressed or is this just part of my personality now?

Elise writes about managing the stress that university life brings for stress-awareness week

- Elise Jackson

University is majorly stressful, I doubt anyone’s disputing that. Exams, deadlines, social pressures: one is enough to make your stomach turn, let alone all at once. But yay, that’s what uni is! You gotta take it in your stride, right? 

Well, yes, actually. Kind of. 

Hear me out here because I know it’s not the most comforting thing. Suck it up and get on with it? Seems a pretty regressive way of managing your problems. However, stress is different to the problems that probably led you here. Acute stress and chronic stress are completely different, biologically and functionally. Acute stress is the kind you feel when your boss yells at you or when you talk to a crush. This stress is triggered by one of two neurological pathways, leading to the ‘fight or flight’ response. The sympathomedullary pathway (I know right) triggers those familiar bodily responses by releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline: your heart rate increases to get blood pumping to your muscles (so you can run away); you sweat (so you’re slippery to predators); and you need to throw-up/pee (to expel water-weight so you can run quicker). However, these are short-lived. Once the stressor disappears – or more accurately, you’ve reached safety – so do the symptoms. Your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and renormalises everything. This is, in a weird roundabout way, the ‘nice’ kind of stress. 

Kiecolt-Glazer’s (1984) studies with medical students show that, whilst the symptoms seem unending, their stress often proved to be a kind of prolonged acute stress that disappeared after exams. So, what does this mean? Well, with university, deadlines are always around the corner. Depending on your subject, you might feel like you’re being constantly assessed. And, to an extent, this is true (and unavoidable). University is intentionally challenging. Whilst stress sucks, adrenaline can be useful: it keeps you alert and buzzing so you can get more done – like an internal coffee machine. It’s a physiological reaction, so, it’s best utilised to your advantage. Top tip for when stress does disappear: cortisol, the hormone that levels you back out after a stressful experience, is an immunosuppressant, so you may get ill. Like my advice with most things mental health – remember to look after your body! 

But, what if stress doesn’t go away? Chronic stress is slightly more troublesome. Whilst acute stress can last for a long time, it disappears once the situation stabilises. Chronic stress can last months, even years, detrimentally affecting health. Studies show heightened coronary heart disease, chronic headaches, and mental illness in chronically-stressed individuals. A good way to identify potential chronic stress: think about your last submission of a big assignment. Did you feel relieved? Were you calmer or did that dread feeling not budge? Don’t worry if it didn’t, as there are ways to manage this. There’s the usual, exercise (swimming has been proven particularly effective as it helps to regulate breathing without being too intense) and eating well. Peppermint tea is great for an uneasy stomach; chamomile tells your brain to calm down; and I don’t know what’s in Pukka’s Night Time tea but it legitimately knocks me out every time! Mindfulness is essential – start with yoga or guided meditation sessions.

However, if you think you’re chronically stressed, please seek help. It may seem like some people are never stressed, but I promise, no student is a stranger to it. Personality differences often manifest in stress-management skills; but, talking to friends can help you to feel less alone and overwhelmed and may even give you new perspectives. You can explore professional avenues: hardiness training and stress-inoculation treatments - forms of cognitive behavioural therapy - prove effective with chronic sufferers. Most universities, alongside Student Minds, run workshops on managing stress-induced symptoms. Importantly, remember: this isn’t forever. I know I’m guilty of falling into the ‘Am I stressed or is this just part of my personality now?’ trap. You aren’t your stress; it isn’t inherent to you. Combining healthy living, mindfulness, and a good community will help you feel better eventually, if not right now. 

Oh, and chocolate releases dopamine, the happy drug. So, eat chocolate!

Hello! I'm Elise. I'm currently in my final year studying English Language and Literature at the University of Nottingham. My writings for Student Minds will range from pieces about depression and DPD to coping with loss, bereavement and change during your studies - all the while remaining mindful and getting the most out of university life. Thanks for reading!

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