SOAS University of London

Student Advice and Wellbeing

Stressed Out?

Assessing your stress level

If several of the following statements ring true, you may be under stress

  • I feel guilty when I relax…..I should be studying
  • I study for longer periods but seem to achieve less
  • I have problems getting to sleep or I wake early and can’t get back to sleep
  • I get irritable and impatient in everyday situations
  • I find it hard to concentrate, there is too much on my mind
  • I have frequent arguments with people close to me
  • I find it hard to make decisions about everyday things
  • I keep having minor accidents
  • I feel fidgety and can’t keep still
  • I am smoking/drinking more
  • I am eating more/less than usual
  • My energy level is always low
  • I feel stiff and tense
  • Friends tell me to relax more
  • I have difficulty meeting deadlines
  • I keep losing things
  • I get frequent headaches/stomach upsets/minor illnesses

The difference between pressure and stress

Pressure can be helpful up to a point. It gives us the motivation to get things done. It can be external (course deadlines, exams) or internal (the desire to succeed, ambition, commitment). 

Absence of any pressure can lead to apathy, boredom or low self esteem.

Stress occurs when the various demands appear so great that our body goes into ‘emergency mode’ to cope. It releases adrenalin, the heart rate goes up, breathing quickens and muscles tense. This helps in a physical emergency eg escaping a threatening situation. It is less helpful for meeting study demands or social situations where there may be no ‘fight or flight’ solution. 

If this happens repeatedly or the state is prolonged, the adrenalin and tension builds up and leads to chronic stress or, ultimately, ‘burn out’ where exhaustion results in no longer being able to function fully.

Stress and study

Study itself is potentially very stressful with many different and sometimes conflicting pressures – reading complex technical or theoretical material, writing assignments for deadlines, working part time, having a ‘successful’ social life, family demands………perhaps peaking near the exams…...which themselves explicitly test your performance under pressure by setting strict time conditions and removing potential resources such as books, colleagues, notes etc.

Study can also challenge your ideas of who you are, who you think you are or who you want to be, lead you to compare yourself with others, who maybe look like they have everything under control (not always the case by any means).

Any change or transition, even a welcome one is stressful and study involves lots of transitions in addition to other life events: for example, moving to another country, or another part of the country, meeting new people, different expectations from teachers – and each academic year brings changes – different topics, lecturers, perhaps new housemates – changes which should not be underestimated.

Ways of managing stress

You probably already have a number of ways of managing stressful situations so some of what follows will be familiar. Or you may know some of the ways in theory, but haven’t ever put them into practice. For the purpose of this leaflet we have created some headings:

Escape…

Sometimes it is helpful to remove yourself physically or mentally from the situation. This is likely to be a temporary rather than a long term solution. Its success depends on genuinely switching off and as a result feeling refreshed eg

  • A warm scented bath
  • Guided visualisations eg close your eyes and imagine yourself on a remote tropical island, away from it all
  • Going for a walk
  • Going out with friends
  • Cinema, TV, listening to music
  • Meditation
    A regular ‘escape’ activity can restore some balance into your pressured life
Physical relaxation through activity

This can work by releasing pent up energy, boosting confidence, increasing levels of ‘feel good’ hormones in your system eg

  • Running, jogging or walking
  • Yoga
  • Martial arts eg tai kwondo, tai chi, judo
  • Dancing
  • Team sports
  • Swimming
  • Progressive muscle relaxation techniques

Importantly, find something you enjoy doing and perhaps persuade someone to join you so you can encourage each other

Self care

Helps energy levels as well as self esteem e.g.

  • Adequate sleep
  • Balanced diet
  • Drinking sufficient water
Time management skills

Much pressure is caused by feeling you have too many demands and too little time – a classic stress equation. How to reduce the demands or increase the time? e.g.

  • Prioritise ruthlessly. Cut out anything that is not important but do not cut out all escape and physical activities and do not cut out sleep. These are important! At very pressured times like exams or deadlines it may include cutting down on some social contacts, housework, shopping, cooking for a specific period.
  • Make lists of essential tasks but keep the list SHORT and PRACTICAL so you can tick things off easily. No task on your list should take more than 40 minutes to complete – if it does, break it down into smaller sections that will take less time.
  • Don’t expect to concentrate for more than 30 or 40 minutes. For some, and especially if reading a dense text concentration span may be 15-20 minutes. Then take a 5 minute break and move around some.
Tackle negative expectations and perfectionism

These can add to the existing pressure and contribute a sense of hopelessness. Keep practising as old habits die hard

Avoid generalisations eg I always…., I never….

Make a list of your strengths/successes and positive feedback you have had. Keep it safe and add to it whenever you can – read it occasionally especially when you feel down

If you have had a bad result, identify all contributing factors and what you might do differently another time. Ask for feedback e.g. from tutors, Learning and Teaching staff, counsellors if you’re not sure

Practice doing something less than perfectly – and see what happens

Don’t try to get your first draft of a piece of work anywhere close to perfect – let it be a really rough draft reflecting initial ideas/thoughts to be revised and added to. Revising and editing can be a rewarding process and help clarify thinking. Many professional writers go through dozens of drafts before completing a piece of work

Build a support network

In isolation pressures are likely to seem bigger. You are unlikely to be the only one feeling as you do. Find people you can talk to in person, by phone or email. Use additional resources eg

  • your tutors
  • the Learning and Teaching Unit
  • the Counsellors
  • the Student Union
  • the Student Disability Officer

All are available to enable you to find ways to manage the pressures of life at SOAS.

Useful resources

  • Relaxation tapes (available from many bookshops/health food shops)
  • Books on managing stress eg the Relaxation and Stress Reduction Handbook and the Anxiety and Phobia Handbook (New Harbinger Publications Inc.). Most bookshops have a good range
  • Floodlight (lists Adult Education classes eg yoga, sport, dance)
  • Counselling service weekly relaxation group
  • Student Union clubs and societies eg dance, yoga and meditation