Before starting at University I would never have considered myself to be a stressful or anxious person. As GCSE’s and A-Levels came and went, without breaking out into so much as either a literal or figurative sweat, I watched as others tried to cope with the effects of stress that exams inevitably bring with them. That’s not because I didn’t find the work challenging or difficult, but for whatever reason it didn’t affect me in the same way as it would do later in higher education. Plus, my attitude towards academic work at school perhaps wasn’t as mature as either it should have been or is nowadays.
My real experience with stress began towards the end of my third year, when my determination to undertake four 20-credit modules in one semester turned those last weeks into a brain-zapping marathon, culminating in a veritable explosion of deadlines, exams and portfolio submissions. This logistical error resulted in long term (very long) exposure to high levels of stress, often getting to Western Bank Library when it opened and being one of the last to leave. I became some kind of “book zombie”, which is not nearly as cool as it sounds. Eventually, one sunny evening in my house in Sheffield, the stress and anxiety manifested themselves into one huge panic attack – my first one, a proud moment yet truly frightening. My body had been under so much pressure from the stress that it felt it needed to burn up some stored adrenaline – the stress had tricked my body into initiating a “fight or flight” response. But, as I look back now on everything I was going through, perhaps it was inevitable.
Stress is a funny thing. It affects different people in different ways and, like I mentioned earlier, I never thought it’d affect me in the way it did. In my own experience, the stress began like background music at a party, it’s there but you don’t really listen to it because it’s not a good tune and you’re too busy mingling. Then, later on at the same metaphorical party, you realise that song has been playing on a constant loop, it becomes louder because you try to ignore it more and more, and eventually it’s all you can hear. You can’t leave because you have to stay and dance (study/work), but it begins to affect your experience and, more often than not, you end up having a pretty cruddy time all together. My experience inspired me to look into the effects of stress and anxiety and it is truly incredible how many symptoms can stem from it. These can include being unable to sleep, chest pains, headaches, heart palpitations, hypersensitivity to light and sounds, nausea, muscle tension, trichotillomania (hair pulling), anxiety and even depression. Looking back, I would certainly rethink my decision to take on as much work as I did in my final semester, but ultimately I think it comes down to handling the rising levels of stress at the time, rather than trying to avoid whatever causes it altogether.
As time went on I found exercise was key to feeling better, burning up adrenaline that your body can’t then put toward stress and instead releases endorphins which, I’m told, as a hormone ‘activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect’. Basically makes you feel a whole load better and helps you relax afterwards! I also became stricter with allocating “down-time”, even if I had a ton of work to get through, come 6pm I was doing stuff I wanted to do. Now, I understand everyone has a different work methodology, but having time for yourself, whether you binge watch YouTube videos or read a book, is crucial to help your mind differentiate between stressful periods and non-stressful periods. I certainly found that I didn’t stay as stressed for as long or as much as I used to. I was also persuaded to give a relaxation technique called ‘mindfulness’ a try (I say persuaded as I was a bit sceptical at first when I heard it involves informal meditation techniques) but I’m happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong. Mindfulness proposes that an individual take a period out of their day (any amount of time really) to sit and concentrate on how they are feeling in themselves, to reprioritise what the mind pays attention to rather than being carried away by whatever stress they may be experiencing at the time. Honestly, couldn’t recommend it more! (Coincidentally, the University provides a mindfulness service – give it a go!)
With more and more students visiting the University Support Services due to stress symptoms each year, and others applying for extensions via their Department under mitigating circumstances due to stress and anxiety (a very useful process put in place by each Department and well worth exploring if you’re really struggling), knowing how to combat stress is becoming increasingly important. As tuition fees rise, more pressure is placed on the individual student who works hard to make the most of their opportunities. The University therefore has an extensive network of support services to help anybody who finds themselves in this kind of situation, which can be found here. This is a fantastic resource, mainly because it allows you to talk to individuals whose job it is to help you – rather than talking to other students who are perhaps wrapped up in their own stresses. You can feel so much better after just talking to someone that knows. As I said before, stress is a funny thing.