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Dealing with stress Ways to cope

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Stress is a major problem in modern life. The pressure of studying at university, a long way from home, means that university students are particularly prone to suffering from stress. This page explains what stress is, lists some common signs of stress and gives 10 ways to deal with stress. There is a separate section on dealing with exam stress, and a checklist at the end for you to check how well you are dealing with stress.

What is stress?

Stress is a term which was originally used only in physics, referring to the effect of an external force on a material body, resulting in strain. It was only in the 1920s that the term was used in a biological and psychological sense, to refer to mental strain. In modern usage, stress refers to the range physical responses that occur when a stressor (a stressful event or situation) upsets the biological equilibrium of the body. These physical responses stimulate the nervous, endocrine and immune systems of the body, causing a variety of physical changes that result in both short-term effects, such as dry mouth, increased heart rate and flushed skin, and long-term effects, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and susceptibility to illness.

It should be noted that stress can be both positve and negative. Situations such as a new job or a holiday can be seen as stressful but positive experiences. Under some circumstances, stress can improve mental and physical reflexes and enable the body to perform better, especially in terms of escaping from a dangerous situation. This 'flight or fight' response is the origin of the body's reaction to stress, and the major problem with modern life is that most situations which result in stress are not short-lived, such as the danger from a prowling predator, but long-term, such as the stress caused by university coursework, exam preparation, relationship troubles and so on. The human body is not designed to cope with such long-term stress

Symptoms of stress

People living with stress can become accustomed to it and therefore be unaware of signs of stress. The symptoms of stress can be divided into four different areas, as follows.

  • Cognitive symptoms, such as trouble concentrating, difficulty remembering, constant worrying or negativity.
  • Emotional symptoms, such as depression, unhappiness, irritability, loneliness or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Physical symptoms, such as aches and pains, dizziness, chest pain or rapid heart rate.
  • Behavioral symptoms, such as over- or under-eating, procrastinating, drinking, smoking, drug use or nervous habits such as biting nails.

  • How to deal with stress

    There are many ways to deal with stress. Below are 10 useful ideas.

    1. Eat well

    One way to combat stress is to improve your diet. Fast food and comfort food, although easy and convenient, lack proper nutrition and can actually decrease energy levels in the body, which lowers the body's ability to cope with stress. It is therefore important to eat a varied and healthy diet, with lots of fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains. If possible, you should try to cook for yourself. Although you may feel too busy to do so, cooking for yourself will not only improve the quality of your diet, but can also be therapeutic.

    2. Get enough exercise

    Exercise is another way to tackle stress. Exercise helps your body produce endorphins, which will release tension and make you feel better, clearing your thoughts and allowing you to deal with problems more calmly. The best kind of physical exercise is intensive exercise such as sport or a heavy work out, and if possible you should try to do sport at least once a week, more if possible. Joining a sports club will also give you regular contact with other people, which might improve your mood. However, even as little as 20 minutes of physical activity a day, such as walking, is enough to reduce stress levels.

    3. Get enough sleep

    Sleep is important for a healthy body and mind. The average adult needs between seven and nine hours sleep a night. Research shows that insufficient sleep impairs memory and reasoning skills, which therefore affects academic performance. This in turn increases stress levels. Lack of sleep is also linked to illnesses such as obesity and depression. The best sleep is aligned to normal daylight hours, as opposed to sleeping after midnight and waking up at midday, a typical student habit. While it can be tempting to spend the night checking Facebook and other social media, in the long term this behaviour can have serious negative consequences on your health. Remember that sleep is not just for nighttime. Short 'power naps' in the day have been shown to increase productivity.

    4. Avoid unhealthy habits

    It is common for people to turn to unhealthy habits such as smoking or drinking as a way to cope with stress. This is a form of avoidance behaviour, and is more common in men than women. While it might provide relief in the short term, it will not tackle the cause of the stress. Although cigarettes make seem to help you relax, research suggests that the nicotine in cigarettes suppresses serotonin, a hormone which reduces stress. Artificial stimulants such as caffeine may help you wake up, but could also disrupt sleep patterns, leading to increased stress.

    5. Take a break

    Not all avoidance is bad. Short breaks give you a chance to switch off and come back refreshed. Longer breaks are also important. Spending at least two nights a week on quality time for yourself, for example going out with friends or taking part in sport, can significantly reduce stress levels.

    6. Talk to someone

    Talking to someone about your problems can help to reduce your stress. Most people have close friends or family members in whom they can confide, someone who will listen and not overwhelm them with advice. You may be able to laugh with them, a great stress reliever, and they may have a different perspective to help you solve the problem. If do not have someone close to you who you can turn to, your school or university may have a professional counsellor you can meet. Although there may be some stigma attached to seeing a counsellor, seeking to improve your mental health in this way is no different from seeing a trainer or nutritionist to improve your physical health.

    7. Use relaxation techniques

    There are many relaxation techniques which are effective in reducing stress. One is controlled breathing: breathing in slowly through your nose and holding the air before releasing it. This increases the level of oxygen in the bloodstream, helping you to calm down and avoid the short, rapid breaths that accompany feelings of tension. Meditation can also be helpful in reducing stress. This can be as simple as sitting quietly for 10 minutes. Other relaxation techniques are stress balls, yoga and massage therapy.

    8. Stay positive

    When stress levels are high it is easy to focus on the negatives. However, research shows that positive thinking lowers depression and stress. At the end of a difficult task (or day) try writing down three things that went well.

    9. Manage your time

    One reason students have high stress levels is poor planning, resulting in too much work to do in too short a time, especially when a deadline is approaching. The solution to this is to manage your time more effectively. This means identifying priorities, breaking down tasks, and making a timetable to help you plan your time. In other words, working smarter, not harder.

    10. Take control

    There are always steps you can take to resolve your problems. Remaining passive and not taking action will only increase your levels of stress. Start by understanding what it is that is causing your stress. Sometimes this will be something you can change, while at other times it will not. Learning to accept things which are beyond your control is helpful in reducing anxiety. For example, if you have an assignment due and cannot negotiate an extension of the deadline with your tutor, then worrying about it will not help you. You need to accept it and find ways to deal with the situation. If you are behind with your study, finding a tutor might be a way to catch up. Taking action to solve your problems is one of the most empowering and stress-reducing things you can do.

    Dealing with exam stress

    Exams are particularly stressful times. Many of the above ideas will also help you before and during the exam period, in particular making sure you get enough sleep . There are, however, a few other ways you can reduce stress in the run-up to exams. These include the following.

    • Make sure you study enough beforehand. One of the main reasons students suffer stress when exams take place is they have not worked hard enough in the weeks before the exams. Avoidance behaviour such as playing computer games or checking social media are particular problems to avoid. In the weeks before your exams, time management is especially important, as you may have many subjects to review at the same time.
    • Know what is expected of you. The best way to do this is to study past papers and see the kinds of questions you might have to answer. You should know the format of the exam, how long it is, the type of questions (essay or multiple choice) before you take the exam. Talk to your tutor if necessary.
    • Try to practise under similar conditions. This means, for example, writing essays under timed conditions that match those of the exam. If you have a chance to practise in the exam room itself, do so.


    Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2018) Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress. Available from (access date 28 September, 2018).

    Cohen, M. (2018) Student Guide to Surviving Stress and Anxiety in College & Beyond . Available from (access date 28 September, 2018).

    Everyday Health (2018) College Life: 10 Ways to Reduce Stress. Available from (access date 28 September, 2018).

    NHS (2016a) 10 stress busters. Available from (access date 28 September, 2018).

    NHS (2016b) Student stress: self-help tips. Available from (access date 28 September, 2018).

    Segal, J., Smith, M., Segal, R., and Robinson, L. (2018) Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes. Available from (access date 28 September, 2018).


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Below is a checklist for this page. Use it to check how well you are coping with stress.

Item OK? Comment
I understand what stress is.
I know some of the common signs of stress, including cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioural signs.
I eat a healthy diet (fresh vegetables, fruit etc.).
I get enough exercise.
I get enough sleep (at least 7 hours a night).
I avoid unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking.
I take regular breaks, both short breaks and long breaks (e.g. evenings off).
I have someone I can talk to about my problems.
I use a relaxation technique such as controlled breathing or meditation.
I know the importance of staying positive.
I manage my time well, e.g. by prioritising and making a timetable.
I understand the importance of taking control to resolve the problems causing stress.
I know ways of dealing with exam stress.

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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 11 September 2019.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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