Dealing with stress at university

Hi. 🙂 This is me (finally) following up on mentioning that I was stressed and depressed in second term this year. I am not anymore!

A period when you feel like you can’t quite cope with things (or perhaps a rather more extreme version of that feeling) seems to be common at university, so I thought I would share with you what helped me when I was in a similar situation and might help you prevent some sadness.

Firstly though, two things:

1)      You might be thinking: ‘lol stressed?! Why would I be stressed at uni? No parents, lots of friends and activities and university is all about having fun.’

 I agree with you— but I think you should still read this. Before university, and indeed before last year, it never crossed my mind that I would be having any difficulties. If I had been in some sense prepared that I might have these feelings I don’t think they would have worried me half as much. Even if you are that wonder-person who sails through everything (and good for you!) periods of not-so-great mental health are so common among students and indeed people in general that it is always helpful to consider how people around you may be feeling.

2)      You might also think eee ‘mental health’ sounds kind of serious—I might get a bit stressed around exams but I’m not mentally ill and certainly labelling myself as such won’t make me feel any better.

I agree with you too, but as my tutor said, if things you are thinking or feeling are stopping you doing the things you want to do (e.g. you feel like you can’t go out with your friends because you are feeling too low, or you feel like you can’t cope with work or a deadline) then you should do something about it.

I am going to split the rest of this blog into two parts (it is a very numbered-list-style type blog for hopeful ease of reading), the first for if you already feel stress and anxiety and the second for pre-empting these scary feelings.

Section one

If you are already stressed/depressed/anxious:

1)      Remember these are incredibly common feelings.  Some surveys suggest that as many as one in four people have some level of mental health problem over just one year.

 Another survey indicates that up to one in ten students report suicidal feelings (I’m sure you can all think for yourselves why these numbers might be higher or lower due to survey bias or people not being honest).

The point to take away from this is that even if your situation feels like it will never improve, a quarter of students don’t drop out of university every year and ten percent certainly don’t commit suicide.

Just because you have unpleasant or unwell thoughts doesn’t mean that they are an intrinsic part of you. People get happier, and things get better in the vast majority of cases—it’s just statistics.

2)      Buy ‘The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook’ by Edmund J. Bourne. This was recommended to me and it is brilliant! I haven’t really investigated the field of other self-help type books, but this covers all bases from what symptoms of anxiety disorders are to why you might have them and what you can do about it.

Again, you might think ‘But I don’t want to label myself as having anxiety problems or phobias!’ but just stick a label over the title and read it anyway. It does talk as if diagnosing you a little, but only so that you can be directed to the chapters that best help you. Like you might assume from this type of book, it sometimes states the obvious but is generally very helpful and comprehensive. (It is also quite interesting, just from a ‘oh so that’s how I think/ why I think these things’ point of view.)

I recently read it again for a friend which was also great as it meant I could offer some actual constructive help rather than just sympathy.

3)      Take half an hour out of each day to do something to actively de-stress you. This could be writing or reading or walking or killing as many virtual people as you feel the need for. It sounds obvious, but certainly wasn’t something I was doing at the time!

This is what my tutor recommended and it worked really well for me. It can be difficult in a time of high pressure to do this, but really you work so much better and more efficiently when you are not stressed it is completely worth it. Letting feelings of stress and anxiety—even from small things—build up in you can lead to you wasting far, far more than just half an hour a day.

4)      Talk to people! It can be hard to feel like you are a burden on your friends or family and frankly a bit embarrassing to be ‘needy’, but you will be much more of a real problem to those close to you if you let things get worse and worse. Everyone needs help sometimes!

If you feel like you can’t talk to your family or friends student counselling might be another option—from what I understand it is literally just a space to talk about your worries.

Your university tutor is also a perfect place to go—mine was so helpful once I finally got up the courage to mention it to him, but I understand many people’s may not be so approachable.

If the thought of all that completely unnerves you, I find that writing down what you are thinking can sometimes almost have the same effect.

5)      Exercise! It has been shown to possibly prevent depression, improve mood and may have better and longer lasting effects than antidepressants.

6)      Don’t believe everything you think! If you are periodically putting yourself down in your head then you may start to believe that you are not really worth much. This is obviously very counterproductive to being happy.

The one thing I found most useful for controlling periods of sadness was to start to notice when I was being mean to myself by thinking these negative thoughts and stopping to write them down.

The idea is then to come back to them and logically question them like a good little Socrates. Are they always true? Are you being too hard on yourself? What evidence is there to support this negative belief about myself I am holding? And so on.

There is a lot more on this technique in the book I recommended above by the way, but I’m sure it is all online too (if you search ‘countering negative self-talk’ or something like that)—here is the first link I found and scanned that seemed to be pretty good.

7)      Consider visiting a doctor.

I did not find it useful, but I think it depends what kind of treatments you are thinking about. I was just asked to fill in a very depressing survey about how I was feeling and acting and then recommended student counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which apparently has a very long waiting list in London).  However, if you think some sort of medication may be beneficial for you, this is obviously the right way to go about it (and if you are prepared to wait for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or are somewhere without a waiting list, I bet it is really interesting!)

Again, ‘therapy’ can sound a bit OTT but from what I’ve read it’s all pretty simple stuff really, the kind of thing you could be taught in school or take an evening class on.

8)      Try not to worry if you aren’t sleeping well (or at all). This is a hard one, which I definitely didn’t listen to myself. After a few weeks of Mondays with no sleep the night before however, I realised that it was almost entirely my worry about lack of sleep making me feel bad and not actually the lack of sleep. My body didn’t seem to mind too much at all.

The Doctor I saw advised me against sleeping pills, saying that they did not produce the best quality of sleep, but that obviously depends on your circumstances. Trying relaxation techniques before bed can also help you sleep.

9)      Imagine what you would say to a friend having the same problems as you.

Chances are, with a bit of outside perspective you would tell them that everything will turn out OK—that this is just a bit of a blip and that your problems are not insurmountable. Why should you tell yourself any different?

10)   If you are at Imperial, consider signing up to the exam performance workshop. This is not for people who have actual exam stress i.e. they blank out in exams, but is mean to be an introduction to how to cope with feelings of depression and anxiety.

I went last term and didn’t find it particularly useful, but most of the material it covered was in the book I have already mentioned. It could be a way to ask questions to someone friendly or get a bit more information about methods to keep calm. It was also nice just to sign up, to feel like I was doing something active towards feeling better.

Section Two

Preventing stress:

1)      Take care of yourself! By the time you get to university you’ve probably already been doing exams for four years. If you have been stressed about some of those, then university exams are also going to be stressful at times. Between all the partying, societies, work and dubious student cooking you can leave little time to do whatever else you need to do, be it keeping in contact with friends from home, sleeping, or playing The Sims.

2)      Take a note of how you speak inwardly to yourself. If you are often putting yourself down, comparing yourself to others negatively etc etc, this could build up to an unpleasant level in your head. See point six above about negative self-talk. It can become an instinctive reaction. Don’t let it!

3)      Learn to relax properly. Even when you sleep, if you haven’t given yourself permission to properly let go, you won’t. Some examples of relaxation techniques are deep breathing exercises, mediation, learning to relax your whole body and mindfulness. It might sound a bit hippyish and you might feel like an idiot doing it, but it can work!

4)      Talk to people early on about any sources of stress you have when they are still small worries.

5)      Try not to worry about being behind on work! Everyone is! Also if anyone gets anything constructive out of doing problem sheets the first time round then they are a better student than me. I always seem to get my first inkling of a subject what feels like half an hour before the exam, and it’s worked out well for me so far (insert superstitious action here).

University is about having fun, and it is fun! My first year at university was the best year ever (ever ever), and the second was still pretty good, despite my stress. Some of these tips above might seem overly simplistic or a make you feel a bit stupid (no-one can look cool and be timing ten minutes of deep breaths) but being happy is really a simple thing.

The one thing I always try to remember when I am caught-up in the confusion of my own scattered mind is how easy it is to simply forget that it is you that gets to decide how you react to a situation.

When I was little (well not that little) I used to dread binomial expansions (you know like (5x + 4)^6 or whatever) because I knew that I would always get panicked about how long it took to get all the numbers you had to write out and I would always always always always get a bit of it wrong in the end, no matter how simple the question.

Then one day my Aunty Lizzy (who is a maths teacher) was helping me with a question that involved one. I was sat there thinking ‘oh god here it comes, this will take ages’ but she just wrote out Pascal’s triangle neatly and then proceeded to do the expansion, working out and filling in each number calmly. I realise this is very stupid of me, but this was an actual revelation. It genuinely blew my tiny little mind.

Until that point I simply hasn’t realised that it was even possible to do a binomial expansion without panicking and getting it wrong. It had never occurred to me that there was another way to react to them!

Of course, this is rather more difficult to apply to more actually scary things then a maths problem, but it feels to me like the exact same mental stumbling point.

So, if I could loan out my Aunty Liz to everyone so they could witness her doing her supremely calm binomial expansion I would. Since I can’t, I hope some of these points can help! 😛

If you need to speak urgently to someone, or want more information about mental health check out the links below:

And lastly, all I have left over now from a period where I didn’t think things would ever get any better are some cheerful cards from my family, a little smiley-faced squeezy ball that my brother got me, and hopefully a list of things that may help some other people. Positives can come out of even the worst experiences.

Also look what came through the post today!

It’s only my british science festival programme!!!

And (as if I even need to mention) we are in orbit around a comet for the first time in history! Best few days ever!

11 comments for “Dealing with stress at university

  1. I love reading your post. I am at my last year and the work load is a lot, and I keep getting stressed and overthinking about every exam, report. Your post made my day and motivated me thank you for posting this inspiration, good luck in your studies and life.

  2. Hi Emma,
    Thanks for your thoughtfully written post. I am the Welfare Officer at Central School of Speech and Drama, a college of the University of London. I am organising a ‘wellbeing week’ involving various activities designed to improve our students wellbeing in many different ways. I am looking for somebody to come into Central and deliver a short speech or workshop about uni stress and how to combat it. This would be nothing too stressful (!), just a great opportunity to have a stimulating discussion with our lovely students.
    Having found your excellent blog and noting you are a London student, I wonder if you would be interested in helping me out?
    My email is attached above, if you would be interested I would love to hear from you. I am proposing the 27th between 1 and 2 but could be very flexible to suit you.
    Please do get in touch if you would like to discuss this further!
    Jemima Frankel

  3. Thanks for the tips I got really stressed out in first year but I’m hoping second year will be much better now that I know how to prevent it

  4. Hi emma so refreshing and comforting to read your blog my daughter has just joined imperial and suffering with severe anxiety this is all new to us and her . I wonder if you could perharps maybe write her a message to point her in the right direction . I have read your blog and it just reassured me as her mum . Any help would ve usefull

  5. Hi, im nearly 2 months in to the first term of my first year, the first couple of weeks were all full of fun and joy, then things started to go down. I was getting extremely stressed etc. Reading this has honestly lifted some of the weight off my shoulders, especially because I have now realised that I was the person that put the stress there in the first place!

    I will keep many of these things in mind and hopefully things will be brighter from here on out!

    Thank you so much!! 🙂

  6. Hi Emma, I am going through the same stress that you were gone. I am very much happy that you are out of it. I also want to come out of it but I feel uncomfortable talking to a consular. My mother is a Parkinson’s patient and she also suffering from stress. I wonder if stress is a genetic problem. I hope it’s not.

  7. This is a very important article. Students are being put under a lot of pressure to ‘succeed’ not only from within themselves but by families and increasingly, universities themselves (due to league tables).

    Students who are struggling need to know that they are not alone and seek support if they need it from counsellors and other support groups.

    This article will really help students with depression not to feel it’s only them – it isn’t.

  8. Thank you so much!
    It’s been a long time since the article was posted, but what is described in the article is still relevant and will always be!
    “No parents, lots of friends, fun” is not everything you have at university. Responsibility, challenging tasks, the influence of the surroundings can all provoke stress and anxiety. And these feelings are difficult to overcome, and sometimes there is confusion and a lack of willingness to continue this academic path (and sometimes even more serious consequences).
    I fully agree with you and with all the stress management and prevention measures described.
    For me, the stress of the first year of study was caused by a too sharp change of usual routine – it was so hard to get used to the new routine, new friends, new responsibilities. And it literally devastated me. What helped me to overcome stress is to get a grip on myself – understanding that difficulties are not the end of the world, and by overcoming them, I will eventually gain new experiences and the desired education. And there may be more reasons for stress than that. In addition to this article, I would like to share an infographic, which briefly and concisely describes the causes of stress and ways to overcome it: In my opinion, it will be useful for every student.
    These are not empty words, and it is very important to take care of your well-being. Thank you for these essential tips!

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