Updated: Aug 24
Common Sources of Stress and Anxiety for Students and How to Deal with Them
Did you know that 41% of students experience high levels of stress and anxiety before starting university or college? If you’re one of them, you’re not alone. You may experience one or all of the following:
Excited, but also terrified.
Wondering if you will fit in?
Will you be able to handle the workload?
What if you get homesick?
Scared, nervous or overwhelmed by the thought of leaving home, or of making new friends, getting good grades, meeting deadlines or living on a budget?
If this sounds like you, don't panic. It's normal and natural to have some doubts and fears about such a big change. But that doesn't mean you have to suffer in silence. In fact, university support services are trained in managing stress and anxiety for new students to help them cope with starting university or college. So, there are many avenues available to deal with these situations to help you make the most of your university or college experience.
Here are some tips on how to cope and thrive in your new environment. So grab a cup of tea, sit back and read on. You've got this!
What are the symptoms of stress and anxiety?
The symptoms you may feel are your body's way of telling you that something is challenging or frightening. They can affect the way you feel, think, act and behave. The most common factors that cause stress and anxiety are:
Leaving your comfort zone and support system (home!)
Adapting to a new place, culture, lifestyle or academic system
Facing high expectations from yourself or others
Juggling your studies, social life and personal responsibilities
Dealing with money issues
Missing your family, friends, pets or even your bed.
These kinds of things can make you feel worried, nervous, sad, lonely or insecure. You may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, insomnia, tiredness or loss of appetite.
How to cope when you're feeling anxious
The good news is that these symptoms are not permanent and may well disappear as you settle into your new routine and environment. In the meantime, if you are feeling anxious, you can cope by using some of the following techniques to help you through a particular episode of anxiety:
When you feel anxious or stressed, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down. Breathing helps you get more oxygen to your brain, control your emotions, and relax your muscles.
Talk to someone
Sharing your concerns with someone you trust can make you feel less alone and more supported. You can talk to your family, friends, mentors, teachers, counsellors or other students who are going through the same thing. They may be able to offer advice, comfort or perspective.
If your stress and anxiety are affecting your daily life or wellbeing, seek professional help - that's what your university's mental health support services, student support or medical centre are there for.
Take care of yourself
Your physical health affects your mental health, so make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, exercise regularly and avoid alcohol and drugs. These habits can improve your mood, energy, immunity and resilience.
University should be one of the most exciting times of your life. Explore your new surroundings, join clubs or societies, take part in events or activities, make new friends or pursue your hobbies and interests. Having fun and engaging in sports or sociable activities will relieve stress and create positive memories.
Write it down
Writing down what’s on your mind can help you figure out what’s bothering you and how to solve it. You can also make a list of the things you have to do and prioritize them according to how urgent and important they are. This can help you plan your time and avoid procrastination. See below for examples.
Essay deadline due next week. Have not started it yet.
Had an argument with my mate John.
Been here a week and still have not made any friends. I feel lonely.
I want my Mum.
I miss my dog.
I am running out of money this month and daren’t ask my parents for more cash.
Do any of the above sound familiar? Even if you cannot identify with any of the above right now, you may feel similar thoughts but on a different topic. There are different ways to work through these and other issues.
If you are feeling overwhelmed with the number of tasks or things you have to do, WRITE A LIST of all the topics. Then go through them and prioritize them according to importance. Is it a task with a deadline? Identify if it is Urgent, Important, or can be done later. Here is an example of how to capture them:
To Do - Priority
Essay on “European Currency – Pros and Cons”
Deadline - Friday this week
Call her tonight
Argument with John
Whenever, but the sooner the better
Talk it out and patch things up
No money left in bank account
Call Mum, explain the situation, ask for a loan/advance and show how you will budget better next month
For some things, once you actually see the topic in writing, it may not be such a big deal after all, and you can eliminate this from your "stress list".
How to sleep like a baby when you're stressed
We've all been there. You're lying in bed, tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep. However, your mind is racing, thinking about exams, assignments, deadlines and all the other things that make you want to scream. Or maybe you're feeling restless and jittery, like your legs have a mind of their own. Alternatively, perhaps you are waking up in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling, and wondering why you can't just sleep like a 'normal' person?
What's going on? Well, it turns out that stress and anxiety can really mess up your ability to sleep. The stress hormone 'cortisol', which is produce in greater amounts while you're stressed, can seriously interfere with your sleep cycle. This is when your brain and body move through different stages of sleep, from light sleep to deep sleep to REM (dreaming) sleep. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes, and you need several cycles to feel refreshed and energised.
When you're stressed, your cortisol levels can spike and wake you up at random times. This can leave you feeling groggy, irritable and even more stressed. It's a vicious cycle that can affect your health, mood and performance.
So how can you break the insomnia cycle and get a restful night's sleep? Here are some do's and don'ts to help you.
The Do's and Don'ts for a good night's sleep
Unwind gently before going to sleep. Have a warm/hot shower, do some stretching or yoga, watch a movie, read a book or listen to calm music - no rap or fast lyrics!
Drink coffee or caffeinated drinks after 4pm. The caffeine keeps your body on alert mode and prevents you from getting restful sleep. Same with drugs – AVOID them!
Go to bed and get up at around the same time consistently every day, to program your body clock to the same rhythm. The consistency helps overcome disrupted sleep due its natural rhythm.
Look at screens, laptop, phone – any blue light prevents melatonin production and your brain and eyes from switching off at night. If you do need to check your phone or you want to watch a movie on your laptop, give yourself 30 mins to calm your brain before settling down to sleep.
Get up quietly, without putting harsh lights on, and make yourself a drink (hot chocolate is perfect) or read a book (fiction, not cramming academic books for your exam!)
Do high cardio exercise just before bedtime. Instead try stretching, yoga, low impact to wind the body down. Keep the cardio for the morning or daytime.
Try to make your bed your quiet place and only for sleep. If you use your bed as your couch to watch movies, your brain won’t associate bed with sleep. Keep it calm, dark and quiet, and as comfy as you like it.
Late night drinking. Yes I know – annoying advice! However, at 3am, your digestive system is ready to shut down to allow you to fully rest, but the sugar content in the alcohol you’ve consumed reaches an all time high, which spikes and wakes you up.
Listen to calming music or consult an app that guides your breathing and mind back to sleep.
Lie there tossing and turning or watching the clock, calculating how many hours you'll have to sleep before having to get up. The anxiety associated with that will prevent you getting back to sleep!
Improve your wellbeing and reduce stress levels
Stress can come from many sources, such as academic pressure, social expectations, personal problems, or financial difficulties. It can affect your physical and mental health, as well as your performance and happiness. That’s why it’s important to find healthy ways to cope with stress and prevent it from taking over your life.
5 tips to lower your stress levels effectively
Get regular exercise. Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and improve your mood. It helps you release endorphins (the feel-good hormones) and lower cortisol (the stress hormone). It also keeps you fit and healthy. You don’t have to join a gym or do anything fancy. Just find something that you enjoy and gets your heart pumping, like jogging, jumping jacks, squats, push-ups, or dancing.
Try yoga. Yoga is a great way to relax your body and mind. It helps you stretch your muscles, improve your posture, and breathe deeply. It also teaches you mindfulness, enabling you to focus on the present moment and let go of any negative thoughts. You can do yoga anytime and anywhere, especially before bed or in the morning. Try the simple poses like sun salutations, downward dogs, or child’s pose and focus on your breathing to calm you down. There are plenty of free apps or YouTube videos to guide you.
Use deep breathing techniques and meditation. Deep breathing and meditation are proven methods to calm your nervous system and lower your blood pressure and you can do this when you feel stressed or overwhelmed to help you clear your mind, reduce anxiety, and enhance your concentration. You can also use an app or a podcast to help you, such as Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer.
Eat a healthy diet. What you eat affects how you feel. Eating junk food can make you feel sluggish, bloated, have bad skin and just feel irritable. Eating healthy food can make you feel energized, satisfied, and happy. Try to eat more fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats. Avoid processed foods, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. And remember to drink plenty of water each day to stay hydrated and flush out toxins.
See a medical professional. If you’ve tried all of the above tips but you still feel hopeless, exhausted, or out of control, it may be time to seek professional help. A medical professional can diagnose the root cause of your stress and anxiety and prescribe the best course of action or medication for you. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for help - it’s a sign of strength and courage. I can recommend online counseling by coaches who specialize in stress management, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, particularly for teenagers and adults. Just contact me if you need a referral to a specialist.
Celebrate Your Wins and Boost Your Confidence
Don't let your anxiety ruin your experience at university. Acknowledge and congratulate yourself on your achievements - no matter how big or small they are. Feeling good about yourself and your progress can help you cope with stress and anxiety better. By following the tips in this blog post, you can manage your feelings and prepare for the best years of your life. Remember to take care of yourself, get support and enjoy your new adventure.
Did you get out of bed today feeling more positive and enthusiastic about life? AWESOME!
Did you jot down notes in your essay planner so you can work more on the content during the week and meet that deadline? AMAZING!
Did you call your Mum, and she told you she’s proud of you, the dog misses you, and she’ll transfer some emergency funds tomorrow? NAILED IT! ;-)
If you found this blog post helpful, please share it with your friends and family who are also starting university or college. And don't forget to sign up to our newsletter for more tips and advice on how to succeed at university.
For more information on dealing with anxiety, you may also like to read US-based association Drugwatch's article.
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