This week is Mental Health Week in Ireland and today is World Mental Health Day. The theme this year is “Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World”. In order to help raise awareness of this important topic, the Centre’s lead therapist Sharron Grainger has written an important piece aimed at third level students and the stress they may be experiencing. Please take the time to read this and to pass it on to those who might benefit from it today.
Student Stress: Real, imagined or feigned?
All too often students are presenting in my clinical practice with stress symptoms ranging from mild to severe. When I ask them why they are presenting at this moment for therapy (and not sooner) I have heard them say, ‘well everybody suffers from stress, what makes me so special?’ or ‘Everybody in my year says they are stressed out,’ and ‘It’s like it’s trendy to be stressed, I was afraid nobody would take me seriously.’ Some have said, ‘It’s like if I say I’m stressed people will define me as a stress head.’
Everybody does indeed suffer from stress at some point or another in their lives. But when stress levels have an impact on our day to day living, that’s when it’s time to sit up and take notice, as left untreated your stress levels may get worse. When we are in this stressful state we are only surviving and not thriving. Furthermore, I don’t believe that feeling or saying you are feeling stressed is a fad – ‘Sure isn’t everyone saying they feel stressed, it’s like a trend!’ There may be a tiny minority that bandy the word stress around in order to obtain attention and sympathy from family and friends – which quite frankly is totally unfair and disingenuous to those who are actually suffering the effects of stress – but that doesn’t mean everyone is feigning it.
We need to generate a social shift in the way we think and talk about mental health. This shift will help encourage students to be more understanding and tolerant of one another.
Life and the world have changed, and so have students stress levels. Research suggests that some of the changes taking place include the fact that we have become more mobile and so students come into contact with people from many diversities with differences in cultural and social norms, religion and core values, and they have to learn how to get along with each-other. They have to be mindful not to upset others or to take a stand and say that’s not ok. Such diversity can take a toll on our brains, and this toll leads to feelings of stress.
In addition, our interactions with others and the ability for connection with others is everywhere. On the one hand this ability is great, but conversely, having to compete against the vast competition to ‘stand out from the crowd’ also brings its own challenges. Wasn’t it so much easier when we didn’t know what other people had or did? When our only competition was from within our own community? Now it seems that students feel like they need to be doing everything like excelling at school, home life, being able to travel the world, and hold down a part-time job all at the same time.
Students also feel stress because they may have left all that they know behind to attend a school in a different county, city or country. This includes leaving behind their support system which may include family and friends that previously they may have been used to rely on. Having to adjust to a new pace of life, or even a new language, or having to form a new social support network can all be stress-provoking.
What is stress and how do I know I have it?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.
When you sense some form of peril, your body’s inbuilt defence mechanism kicks in. The onset of this system is a rapid, automatic process also known as the ‘fight-flight-or freeze’ response or the ‘stress response’. The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you and is part of the Autonomic Nervous System which has two branches. These are known as the Sympathetic Nervous System, which is our stress response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, the part of our nervous system that when activated helps us to relax and recuperate. Both branches of the autonomic nervous system should work in harmony with each other and when they are out of sync problems can arise.
When we feel stressed it is because we feel distressed by what is expected of us. We may feel uncertain that we can accomplish what it is we are expected to do. It may be because what we have to do is not something we have had to deal with before. It may also be that when we did try something in the past that it didn’t go according to plan, and so we are afraid that we may ‘fail’ again.
Stress in its mild presentation can help us to achieve our goals and show us what we are capable of. But when stress starts to negatively affect our daily life and becomes overwhelming we actually stop feeling like ourselves. You may feel like you are constantly playing catch up. Student stress can develop because going away to university is such a huge change. Being away from home and living on your own or sharing a house with strangers for the first time may be a difficult adjustment. Other student pressures may include being preoccupied about finances and budgeting for the costs of daily living, food and entertainment along with feeling peer pressure to do things you are not sure of such as dressing a certain way, dating, being sexually active, or using drugs.
The symptoms of stress are wide ranging and include mental, emotional, behavioural, and physical symptoms such as:
irritability, mood swings, sadness, loneliness, feeling pessimistic, lack of interest in usual activities, withdrawing from family and friends, using drugs or alcohol to self sooth, changes in sleeping patterns, sweating, changes to eating patterns, stomach aches, headaches, loss of sex drive, dizziness and rapid heart rate, to name a few.
If you feel like you are experiencing a range of these symptoms, and if they are affecting your daily life or you feel that you are becoming overwhelmed with stress, you should talk to a professional who can determine whether your stress levels are due to the normal ups and downs of life, or if they are something that you may need to work on.
So, if you are feeling stressed – ignore what some people might say, feel or think about others feeling stressed and ask for help. There are people out there who can help you. If you have a concern about how you are feeling, those concerns will be taken seriously and listened to.
The Connolly Counselling Centre has a range of therapists who are experienced in working with Students suffering the effects of stress. We also offer student counselling services through major university counselling departments and you can read more about this service here.
You can reach us on counsellor.ie or by phoning 01-2100600 to book your appointment today.
Lead Psychologist & Psychotherapist