How much is too much? Stress and student life

Students participating in the discussion on stress and student life.

Key learnings from a discussion organized by the McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee and led by Randi McCabe (Ph.D., C.Psych) and Debbie Nifakis(Ed. D., C. Pysch). 

As we navigate our way through the slew of assignments, exams, presentations and extra-curricular commitments during our time in university, it becomes evident that the pressure to succeed continues to build. For some of us, this pressure may be harming our mental and physical well-being. On November 6 2012, Randi McCabe and Debbie Nifakis led an in-depth discussion on the health impacts of stress, the first event in the Café Scientifique series funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and hosted by the McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee.

The fundamental message that resonated throughout the discussion was that stress is a normal phenomenon resulting from a person’s response to stressors, namely life changes. Stress-inducing factors include social interactions and relationships, academic pressure, financial worries, and the daunting decisions students must make about their paths in life. Although individuals respond differently to varying environments, a certain amount of stress can be beneficial in motivating us to reach our full potential.

The National Survey of College Counseling showed that 10.4% of university students have sought counseling on campus, with the three most common reasons being anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. In the long run such high levels of stress can affect our immune system, increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, cause permanent hormone imbalances, and have an aging effect on our bodies.

In the world of academia, students who put too much emphasis on one poor performance negatively impact their opportunity to enjoy learning. The pressure to succeed in the face of high parental expectations is another daunting task, especially when students are faced with trying to identify their own individual goals that are separate from their families’ vision. The evolved dynamic of coddling by parents also inhibits young students from developing their own problem-solving mechanisms. Thus, when students are placed in new situations without parental guidance, such as the transition to university, the effect can be overwhelming and induce high levels of stress.

The stigma associated with mental health is yet another obstacle students must overcome when seeking help. While awareness initiatives have been launched in many institutions around Canada, this issue is far from resolved. Moreover, individuals in different cultural contexts may not recognize the manifestation of psychological distress in their day-to-day lives. Such forms of stigma lead to students feeling embarrassed when they are unable to meet expectations due to mental health issues, which is seen by many as the biggest barrier to seeking outside help.

Although we have heard time and time again that we learn more from our failures than our successes, this ideal has not been fostered by our education system. The rewards of our academic career come not from how we’ve learned from our mistakes, but from our highest measured performances. Society also tends to value the specialist over the generalist, thus causing students to feel pressured to narrow their area of focus in accordance with this expectation.

In order to better manage stress, students should look into leading a more balanced lifestyle, to combat negative impacts of stress with activities yielding positive re-enforcement. Self-awareness is also key, since a thorough understanding of our responses to stressors can help us better prepare for future situations. Setting realistic goals and proper time management can reduce stress through the elimination of unreachable expectations and pressures induced by a demanding schedule. Lastly, by tapping into external resources and seeking help from family, friends, or counselors, students will be able to combat stress equipped with the proper tools and support from their peers.

By Asha Behdinan, Finance Coordinator and Co-chair 2013-2014, McMaster Health Forum Student Subcommittee

Facilitators Debbie Nifakis (right) and Randi McCabe (left)
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