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Stress is our body’s natural reaction to any change that requires an adjustment. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses. It is a normal part of life and not all stress is actually harmful; in fact a degree of stress is often beneficial to motivate us to achieve our goals. This form of stress is known as ‘eustress’, which literally means positive stress. However, when a situation feels beyond our control, the resulting ‘distress’ can be detrimental to both our mental and physical health. Unfortunately, it seems that university students are experiencing more distress than eustress.
Ruth Caleb, chair of Universities UK’s mental well-being working group, observes that counselling services are facing an annual rise in demand, of about 10%. It is estimated that the use of counselling usually ranges between 5 and 10% of students – depending on the university. Nonetheless, this implies that at least 115,000 students are seeking help. Indeed, university students can face numerous stressors which can contribute to the development of psychological distress, which in turn can impact their completion rates.
It is suggested that some already experience stress as soon as they start university. One study has revealed that greater strain is placed on well‐being once students start university compared to pre‐university levels. Levels of strain are usually at its peak during the first term, with significant reduction in levels of distress from first term to next term being observed in both year 1 and year 3.
The good news is that there are effective ways of coping with stress while at university. Researchers found that either participating in regular physical activity or in a psychological stress management intervention can help decrease levels of perceived stress, test anxiety, and end-of-term burnout among university students.
There are also remarkable programmes which are available to address student distress. Among others, these can include cognitive behavioural interventions for incoming students. For those who started with their courses, there are programmes offered by counselling services, which are aimed at enhancing students’ self-management. Programmes may also include curriculum and teaching practices that prepare students for challenging periods or those that can help students with self-care. However, when these programmes do not occur in conjunction with other systems within the university, it is a challenge to witness widespread impact or reach levels of sustainability.
Needless to say, before these interventions are delivered across universities, the crucial step to reducing distress in universities is acknowledging that there is a problem. The issue of student distress requires universities’ attention. The high prevalence and severity are not likely to melt away without intervention, and will likely to have ongoing ramifications not only for the distressed students, but for the wider community. In order to successfully engage with this issue, it will require further scrutiny regarding the link between distress and well-being, as well as commitment from universities to deliver institution-wide approaches that can address issues of student distress.
Whether you are a student or not, we all get stressed from time to time, but if you’re constantly stressed or your levels of stress are very high, there may be an underlying reason such as personal, family and friends, housing, and financial. It can be helpful to seek the help of a counsellor or a doctor about your experience of stress.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.
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