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Study Reveals University Students’ Limited Understanding of Lifetime Stress Effects

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A recent study by Amy Sparrow and Jennie Dayes at Manchester Metropolitan University revealed a worrying lack of knowledge among university students regarding the idea and health effects of lifetime stress. The research, published in the Psychreg Journal of Psychology, explores how students perceive the health effects of accumulated stress over their lifespan and its potential to cause serious physical and mental health issues.

Lifetime stress refers to the cumulative stress experienced throughout an individual’s life. Research indicates that high levels of lifetime stress are linked to poorer health outcomes, including chronic diseases, anxiety, depression, and reduced cognitive function. Despite its significance, this concept remains under-researched, particularly in terms of how it is understood by different populations.

Amy Sparrow, a doctoral researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “My motivation for the study was rooted in an interest in positive psychology. Stress over the lifespan can have a significant effect on health and quality of life, so learning how to manage it effectively can be a good way to help people flourish. As lifetime stress is a relatively new concept, I wanted to find out how well known it is outside academia. This would then help to give direction to future interventions and education about it.”

The study involved 10 psychology students from a UK North West University, who participated through online questionnaires and text-based interviews. The unique methodology accommodated the needs of a partially deaf researcher, ensuring accessibility and inclusivity. The data were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis, resulting in three primary themes: unfamiliarity, stress is damaging, and individuals are agents.

One of the most striking findings was the general unfamiliarity with the term “lifetime stress”. Except for one participant, none had a clear understanding of the concept. This was surprising given that the students were studying psychology, a field that often covers stress and its effects. Participants attempted to relate lifetime stress to their existing knowledge of stress, often associating it with constant exposure to stressful events or significant life changes. This gap in understanding highlights a potential deficiency in the educational curriculum and the need for more targeted teaching on the subject.

Amy highlighted this issue: “A key finding was that despite studying stress as part of their degree, all but one of the university students interviewed were unfamiliar with the concept of lifetime stress. However, they all knew that stress can damage health, and believed that it can be managed. This understanding of health effects and confidence in managing stress is encouraging, as it seems likely that an intervention would be received well.”

Despite the lack of familiarity with lifetime stress, all participants acknowledged that stress could be detrimental to health. They cited various temporary physical effects, such as headaches, muscle tension, and stomach aches, alongside psychological impacts like anxiety and fear. Several participants linked stress to severe health conditions, including depression, PTSD, heart attacks, and even cancer. This aligns with existing research indicating that negative perceptions of stress can exacerbate its physical and mental health effects​.

Three participants shared personal experiences of stress adversely affecting their health, further reinforcing their belief in its damaging potential. These accounts underscored the importance of understanding and managing stress effectively to mitigate its impact.

Encouragingly, the study found that students felt a strong sense of agency in managing their stress. All participants believed they could mitigate stress through various coping strategies. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and yoga, were among the most popular methods mentioned. Others emphasised the importance of controlling stressful situations by either reducing demands or removing themselves from stressful environments​.

Amy elaborated on the coping mechanisms identified: “We were also able to create a useful model showing that the stress management techniques used were either pro-active or re-active. This could be used to help plan how to cope with stressors.”

This proactive approach aligns with the Health Belief Model (HBM), which suggests that individuals who perceive themselves as susceptible to a health threat and believe in their ability to manage it are more likely to adopt preventive behaviours. The participants’ sense of self-efficacy and their belief in the severity of stress’s health impacts suggest they would respond well to interventions aimed at improving stress management skills.

The study’s findings indicate a need for enhanced education on lifetime stress within university curricula. By improving students’ understanding of this concept, it is possible to foster better stress management practices and potentially mitigate the long-term health effects of stress. The research also suggests that targeted interventions, such as reappraisal techniques that promote a positive stress mindset, could be beneficial. These techniques have been shown to improve coping mechanisms, academic performance, and overall well-being among students.

Looking ahead, Amy shared her future plans: “I am currently doing a PhD, looking at the psychological effects of growing up with the balance disorder Ménière’s Disease. I am focusing on psychological wellbeing, and will consider the impact of stress. The unfamiliarity found in the study and our simple coping model will inform the resources I create to support children with the condition.”

Future research should focus on exploring how individuals develop their understanding of lifetime stress and its personal implications. Additionally, investigating the effectiveness of educational interventions in altering perceptions and behaviours related to stress could provide valuable insights for public health strategies.

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