Student Stress: Can You Manage It?

Gabriel, a second-year business student, couldn't take it any longer. He couldn't concentrate. Although he had his textbook open before him, his thoughts would wander all over. He was behind in his readings and assignments. Looming ahead was a report on the marketing strategies of a firm that he had yet to visit. In two weeks there would be an examination, and he still had classes to attend, a part-time job, and his social life.

In addition, there were other signals. Gabriel couldn't sleep properly. He felt overwhelmed and inadequate. Suicidal thoughts even occasionally crossed his mind.

Gabriel was certainly in need of help. Without it, he could well be on the way to a major problem. With some persuasion, he saw an experienced counselor. After a few weeks of counseling, Gabriel was in control of his life again.

What was wrong with Gabriel? Not depression. At least not yet. His problem was stress, one of the common maladies of college and university life. But how did counseling help him? How was he kept from becoming depressed? What would you do under similar circumstances?

How does stress work?

Stress is a physiological reaction our bodies display when we face demands. It results in physical and psychological tension.

When our senses or memory or a combination of both warn us of a stressful situation, the entire organism prepares to face the danger. The stimulus may be real (for example, a car racing through a red light in front of you) or symbolic (worry about what will happen in a job interview tomorrow). But the physiological reactions are the same: the fight or flight response.

What triggers these responses? The key is the hypothalamus, a small gland at the base of the brain that controls various vital functions of the body. The hypothalamus receives the neural impulses carrying an alarm message. In order to make sure that the message reaches its destinations, it uses two independent ways of communication. First, the hypothalamus works through the nerve paths, using the sympathetic nervous system, and second, it works through the blood stream to reach the adrenal-cortical system.

The sympathetic nervous system, having received the order from the hypothalamus, carries the alarm message via nervous paths to various muscles and to the inner core (medulla) of the adrenal gland. The medulla releases epinephrine and norepinephrine into the blood stream. These hormones augment the state of arousal.

The hypothalamus also stimulates the pituitary gland, which produces the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), also called "stress hormone." ACTH travels via blood stream to the adrenal cortex (the shell of the adrenal gland) and to other endocrine glands. The effects are immediate. A release of about 30 hormones produce the following effects:

When stressful situations are frequent, certain functions (especially the gastrointestinal and the cardiovascular systems) suffer, and the probability of contracting an illness increases. In addition to causing health hazards, stress also produces behavioral and mental effects.

Are stressful situations always bad?

Despite the risks, stress is not wholly undesirable. Most experts on stress agree that a moderate amount of stress facilitates achievement. Hans Selye, one of the pioneers on stress research, affirmed that the total absence of stress could mean death.1

Early experiments with animals proved that a very low degree of stress limits the quality of performance. When the tension is moderate, performance increases to reach the highest levels. Finally, if stress is intense and prolonged, performance decreases. This is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law (see Figure 1).2

This principle can be observed in human beings as well. Let's imagine two college students with about equal ability and similar initial motivation. The first one receives unconditional financial support from her family. The second one is sponsored on the condition that she maintains high academic standards. It is likely that the moderate amount of stress caused by the conditional sponsorship will enable the second student to obtain better results than her peer.

Is it any wonder that the highest accomplishments are achieved in contexts of competition or when high goals are set? Stress gives people that additional burst of energy to excel.

The effect of stress

But what happens when someone experiences an extremely intense level of stress? Or if the stress is not excessively intense, but continues for months or even years? The effects under such conditions can be devastating, as many psychological studies report. There have been cases of soldiers dying in the battle front not of firearms injuries but of intolerable stress produced by fear. P. G. Zimbardo records the case of a young woman admitted into a hospital because she was frightened of dying.3 Various clinical tests and observations showed no evidence of malfunction. The woman died the next day. Later, it became known that someone had solemnly predicted her death before she reached the age of 23, and two days before her 23rd birthday she passed away. Her own fear had killed her.

Cases like these, while illustrating the effect of intensely stressful situations, are uncommon. It is more frequent, though, to find individuals who perform better because of stress in their job, family situation, or studies. In these instances, what are the effects of stress?

Of special relevance to students are the effects of stress on their cognitive abilities. Table 1 includes the specific areas of cognition that are impaired under stressful conditions. In addition, feelings and emotions are also affected. The person under stress experiences restlessness, becomes hypochondriacal, loses patience and tolerance, and gets flooded with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Finally, attitudes and behaviors also are modified. Relationships suffer, sleeping patterns vary unpredictably, the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs is uncontrolled, and the person withdraws from work or studies.

How to deal with stress

1. Know yourself. A basic source of stress is oneself. There are individuals who, because of their own personality, are more vulnerable to stress than others under the same amount of pressure. Table 2 outlines a number of characteristics for the A and B personality types. Cardiologists Lazarus and Folkman introduced this terminology, widely used today.4 A type subjects have a high risk of heart disease, whereas the B types have a low risk.

But can we change our personality type? Personality has a strong genetic component, and much of the shaping takes place during our early years. However, changes can be achieved through goal setting and sustained effort. This means that an individual with type A personality may set goals (such as controlling his hostile thoughts, being tolerant, practicing relaxation, etc.) and accomplish them through persistence and self-control.

2. Employ efficient study techniques. One significant source of stress among college and university students is the lack of specific and efficient study techniques. Frustration results when one tries to face multiple tasks (such as readings, class notes, reports, exams, etc.) at the same time. This frustration becomes especially intense when individuals do not possess effective study skills. Students can prevent stress if they are equipped with skills that include fast reading, underlining, outlining, note-taking techniques, memorization, preparation for examinations, and exam writing skills. One simple example that has helped thousands of undergraduate students is the PQRST method5 for studying textbook chapters. See Table 3.

3. Learn to manage time. One helpful tool in reducing stress is time management skills. Students often do not practice these skills, and as a result may experience intolerable stress. Here are a few time management principles applicable to study situations:

a. List all the tasks that need to be completed within the next week or so.

b. Distribute them over specific days and available hours. Do not hesitate to eliminate what is least necessary. It is better to study three-fourths of the material intensively for an exam than to become frustrated by trying to cover all the material superficially.

c. Allow for unexpected activities. If they don't materialize, you will have some extra time for further study.

d. Avoid distractions. Once you have allotted a certain amount of time to a particular activity, reserve it as sacred to complete the task. Ignoring distraction may cause it to disappear.

e. Take time for relaxation. Physical exercise, time spent with friends or family, and personal devotions are necessary even during the busy times of student life.

4. Build strong interpersonal relations. Interpersonal relationships are an important source of stress at all levels and ages. University students are no exception. Friends, peers, spouses, siblings, teachers, parents, children, and neighbors can be the origin of great satisfaction but can also produce many headaches, depending on the quality of the relationship. It is virtually impossible to assimilate academic content or even to concentrate if one is at odds with someone.

At the same time, personal relationships (such as spouse or close friend) and supportive social networks (such as church or workplace) can provide support for those suffering from stress. Personal attitude can make a difference here. Christian goals, such as being at peace with all (Romans 12:18) and settling disputes even before approaching the Lord (Matthew 5:23, 24), are invaluable for mental balance.

5. Plan well your finances. For many students, finances constitute a stressful area. A student who does not know how bills will be paid is not ready to learn well. The best way to face this problem is to prevent it through appropriate planning and budgeting. If funds are insufficient, it is better to postpone the studies and find additional sources of financial support.

6. Prepare well for your examinations. Examinations, particularly the finals, are a formidable source of stress and emotional turmoil. Shirley Fisher, professor of psychology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, administered a number of psychoneurotic measures to Scottish students before and after final examinations.6 Anxiety and obsessionality scores rose during the weeks leading up to examinations. After the examinations, she found an increase in depression scores, possibly motivated by reflection on mistakes and discussions with peers. Much of the stress caused by examinations is preventable. See Table 4.

The spiritual component

A colleague who works as a full-time psychotherapist in a renowned clinic told me of the homemade coping techniques used by many of his clients. He told me that some of the highly educated people employ incredibly superstitious procedures. For example, many, who are terrified of flying but must do so, hold mascots or good-luck charms as they enter the cabin. At the taking-off moment, they hold on to these objects very tightly. My immediate personal interpretation of the behavior was: "When circumstances escape from their control, people need to find support in the supernatural. Many do not believe in God, so in their need they turn to the amulets."

What a contrast with the Christian believer who, when feeling fearful about the flight, offers a silent prayer to the Creator, trusting in His love, care, power, and wisdom!

Human beings need divine support in times of conflict. Relying on God the Creator, the source of all life, is the safest way to meet this basic need. A spiritual relationship with God is the best remedy for stress. This is a subjective experience but very real for those who live through it.

There are two types of spiritual support. Both are necessary: the personal as well as the corporate spiritual experience. The first is realized through intimacy with the Creator--talking to God as to a friend. Prayer and studying God's Word bring relief from emotional turmoil. The second is collective worship and fellowship. This strengthens our faith and brings us practical support as we develop a sense of belonging to a spiritual family.

If God is sensitive enough to acknowledge the life or death of a sparrow (Luke 12:6), there is no doubt that He will care for a student under academic stress.

Julian Melgosa (Ph.D., Andrews University) directs the M.A. in Education program at Newbold College and also teaches at the Open University in England. He is the author of the book ¡Sin estrés! (Madrid, Spain: Editorial Safeliz, 1994). His address: Newbold College; Binfield, Bracknell, Berks. RG12 5AN; England.

Notes and references

  1. See H. Selye, The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956).
  2. R. M. Yerkes and J. D. Dodson, "The Relation of Strength of Stimulus to Rapidity of Habit Formation," Journal of Comparative Neurological Psychology, 18 (1988), pp. 459-482.
  3. See P. G. Zimbardo, Psychology and Life, 10th edition (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1979).
  4. See R. S. Lazarus and S. Folkman, Stress, Appraisal and Coping (New York: Springer, 1984).
  5. See R. L. Atkinson, R. C. Atkinson, E. E. Smith, and D. J. Bem, Introduction to Psychology, 11th edition (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993).
  6. See S. Fisher, Stress in Academic Life. The Mental Assembly Line. (Milton Keynes: SRHE and Open University, 1994).