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University woes: don’t let them stress you out

We all have a boring uncle who relentlessly asks what we’re going to do with our degrees, and talks about how few contact hours students receive. But despite popular perception being that student life consists of drinking Jagerbombs and watching Jeremy Kyle in your pyjamas, or alternatively distributing Socialist Worker newspapers and growing a beard, research shows that students are more likely than the general population to experience mental health problems and visit counsellors.

Coming to university can be a difficult time for young people who have often never left home before and are thrust into a setting that simultaneously demands they have insane amounts of fun, while also juggling serious academic commitment, finding their future spouse and engaging in CV-improving extra-curricular activities. This is a pretty impossible task and there are a lot of negative side-effects of the high expectations placed upon us, most obviously stress; the Association for University and College Counselling estimates that up to 10% of students will have contact with a counsellor in a single year, and this isn’t even to count people who look for emotional help in a more informal setting.

Many students, myself included, leave most of their assignments to the last minute. While this is great for keeping you up to date with Game of Thrones, it certainly adds pressure in the final week before the essay/literary report/presentation is due. Sleepless nights and panic quickly become the new normal, and this takes its toll on your mind and body. University related stress is not all to be blamed on disorganized students, however. Most courses require you to do a dissertation or final year project, worth up to a third of your final year mark, and you would have to have an inexhaustible supply of coffee, a personal assistant and an IQ of 200 not to worry about that. Studying for a degree at University is a big commitment, and (unfortunately) not the doss it’s often made out to be, particularly in the final year. You need to manage your time efficiently, as well as doing rigorous research and sticking to arcane academic conventions, such as always remembering to use the passive voice. Unfortunately, this is made all the more difficult if you suffer from mental health issues, as one in four people do.

Stress itself can seriously contribute to mental health issues, especially anxiety. Though anxiety is the subject of a number of high-minded Danish existentialist philosophy texts, it is also something very real for a large number of students. Anxiety, on a physiological level, is what happens when the body responds to a dangerous situation with a release of adrenalin, commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This was great when we had to worry about escaping predators or fighting fellow cave-dwellers, but causes a lot of problems for modern students, where the biggest conflict we’re likely to encounter is whether to footnote before or after we’ve completed our essays.

Whether our stress comes from escaping rampaging dinosaurs, or completing that 6,000 word monster on Kierkegaard, the body issues the same response: adrenalin. Anxiety comes about when your body is ready to fight or run away, but there are no velociraptors in sight; the adrenalin causes weird responses like panic attacks, and your essay on Fear and Trembling can result in fear and trembling in JRUL.

If you are suffering from uni-related stress or mental health problems, you don’t have to suffer alone. The University has counselling services where you can go to talk about your problems, and, if necessary, get a note for mitigating circumstances. In my experience, the University is very understanding about the stress that life can bring. While working on my MA, I had some pretty bad stress-related anxiety, and being able to get my coursework deadlines extended really helped my peace of mind. If I had one suggestion on how the University could improve the system, I would say that they should tell you if your mitigating circumstances is likely to be accepted. Being told that the committee meeting happens after your hand in date is pretty nerve-wracking and doesn’t leave you with a lot of options.

Tags: Anxiety, mental health problems, postgrad, stress, student, university

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