Tuesday 27 April 2021

Coping when your stress sabotages your grades

Miranda shares her experience with stress and how she coped when it started affecting her grades during her honours’ years.

- Miranda Hartley

Before the pandemic started, I was an incredibly arrogant person. My grades had been on an upwards trajectory- even though the marks didn’t count towards my final degree grade. I even found the time to volunteer and work a part-time job and hang out with my friends. In my mind, I was a force to be reckoned with. 

When the pandemic started, it was a universally sobering experience. With the cancellation of university and the all-consuming fear of the unknown, students were at a loss. I took a care job and moved home, where I lived alone for two months, working full-time. 

Working alongside people who were at the end of their lives was an incredibly troubling experience: my boyfriend and my mother moved back into my family house, which provided a degree of emotional support. However, I found it difficult to reconcile my boyfriend and my mother’s presence – they had different lifestyles and weren’t always comfortable sharing a space. That, alongside a minimum of three twelve-hour shifts a week was tiring me out physically and emotionally in ways that I didn’t recognise. 

When I moved back to university, I wasn’t the same person as I had been in March. I was bitter; sad; I didn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with deadlines and word counts and seminars. Then, when I travelled home for the weekend, I experienced the first profound rejection from my mother, who was disappointed in me taking public transport and seeing friends. 

I had two realisations: firstly, that stress was affecting me to the extent where I could no longer trust my own judgement, and secondly, that I needed some form of external support. 

Counselling gradually began to help. My counsellor was empathetic and gentle and helped me learn to be kind to myself. In the meantime, I had to experience something I didn’t have the maturity to deal with: the downfall of my grades. 

Being a former ‘gifted child’ is something that can be exceptionally damaging. It installs expectations in your mind: the expectation that you will excel in every environment and situation. Of course, as the years go by, you learn to streamline your expectations and accept rejection, but I had never expected my mental health to interfere with my intelligence. 

It felt like I was trying to start an engine, but I kept stalling. I kept reaching into my mind for ideas and facts, but there was just a void; a void that would cause a spike in my heartbeat, sweat to bubble to the surface of my skin and a migraine to emerge. And a cycle was born. I couldn’t think, so I became stressed: then stress prevented me from thinking. 

Meanwhile, I was submitting careless, poorly formatted essays, which kept coming back with disappointing feedback. During this period, I was experiencing an itching, clawing feeling that I hadn’t felt since my GCSEs. My sleep patterns wobbled, partly owed to drinking more alcohol than usual. Normally when I feel mildly stressed, I binge-eat: however, my brain seemed to be telling me that time to eat was a luxury that I couldn’t afford. I lost weight. I cried all the time, largely in secret. 

My boyfriend and my flatmates were smashing their grades out the park and I felt like a jealous shell of the person I had been. 

I’d love to say that what eased my stress after the first semester was more counselling, or devising effective coping strategies, but what it actually helped was distance. 

When I went home, I watched films and ate homecooked food and stopped thinking about university. Lockdown had ensured that I couldn’t work either of the jobs in my hometown or my university city. 

This time, when I returned to university, I was someone who wasn’t a key worker or an A* student; I was just me. A person who existed and had carried on existing during these troubling times. There was neither joy nor sadness to create expectations or drag me down emotionally; just a pleasant acceptance of my personhood. 

I do all I can now to avoid a resurgence of stress. I start projects early so that if I don’t want to work sometimes, I don’t have to. Whenever I feel the symptoms of stress, I breathe. I walk. I eat. 

Around me, several friends are experiencing poor mental health; I do my best to support them, but it is undeniable that if you are a student, especially during these times, you experience a gargantuan amount of pressure. 

For what it’s worth, my grades have begun to improve. But that doesn’t really matter; what matters is that I am a person – flawed, but still valuable – and I’m here. 

To find more information and support for your mental health, visit Student Space

I am a Literature student at the University of Edinburgh and I'd like to reach out to students going through similar experiences during this difficult period. 

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