MANAGING STRESS AND MENTAL HEALTH
We know that school transitions—when we shift to a new school such as moving from elementary to secondary school or from secondary school to university—is associated with a drop in self-esteem. This is often accompanied by loneliness, depression, and sometimes anxiety. So, if you are feeling a little fragile now as you enter university you are not alone!
Let’s break that down a little: You are in a new environment, probably away from your closest friends and family; you don’t really know what to expect or what is expected of you; you probably have a lot more school work than you may be accustomed to and probably fewer supports and constraints to make you do your work. You aren’t eating as well, you may not be exercising as much, the quality of your sleep has deteriorated and you’re probably exposed to more ideas, people, sights, sounds, and germs than you ever have before. It’s not surprising then that many people find that their stress levels go through the roof in their first year of university.
This section is about acknowledging that fact—you’re stressed out—and giving you a few tips to cope and manage your physical and mental health.
One of the consequences of stress is that when we are feeling it, we tend to put off the things we know we should be doing: like studying for a mid-term or research for an essay. Unfortunately, this procrastination usually just adds to the level of stress that we feel. One of the best ways I know of overcoming procrastination in your school work is by using a technique called Personal Projects Analysis first put forth by Dr. Brian Little, formerly of Carleton University, Harvard, and Cambridge University. Dr. Little basically suggests that we use the same project management techniques that are used in business and big projects like building skyscrapers or sending people to Mars. He suggests the following:
1. Write it down. Don’t just make a note of it in your mind, write it down.
2. Write down what will help and what will hinder your progress towards completing your project.
3. Identify the sub-goals, the things you need to do in order to complete your project. For example, if we are talking about writing a term paper, one sub-goal is probably looking up references for your topic.
4. Track your progress at least every week. If you’re honest with yourself, some weeks you will make of a note of no progress
whatsoever, some weeks you’ll manage to achieve one or more of the sub-goals in your project.
These steps might seem overkill but if you want to overcome procrastination for your school work then give it a try. They rely on a concept that we sometimes call extended cognition or the idea that we sometimes need tools to extend our thinking capability in the same way that a sticky note sometimes helps us remember things or a calculator might help us add a set of numbers. Brian Little’s technique essentially uses concepts from the gig economy to help us accomplish things. Just like Uber helps us get places without having to buy a car, these steps lend a helping hand to assist us in doing things related to school or other parts of our life.
Give Little’s Personal Projects a try or watch the Ted talk about it you can find listed in “Want to know more?” below.
You have probably heard of “mindfulness meditation”. If you embraced it great, ignore this section. However, if you didn’t and you’re feeling stressed right now, then please pay attention. You can reduce your stress and reduce your feelings of being overwhelmed by spending about 15 minutes of your day stifling the chatter in your mind. By “chatter” I’m referring to the play-by-play running commentary that most of us have going on most of our waking lives. Estimates vary but we generally seem to have between 1,000 and 3,000 thoughts per hour. We are not talking about deep or profound thoughts here, just the nearly random things that pass through our consciousness in what some people call our monkey brain. It’s like restless leg syndrome but in our brains!
The point is that we benefit from slowing this flow from time to time. That’s what mindfulness meditation attempts to do. And while you can find many different ways to practice mindfulness, one of the simplest and most straightforward is called the Relaxation Response, a technique put forward by Herbert Benson in the late 1980’s. You can duplicate his technique by following these steps:
1. Find a quiet place & sit comfortably.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Relax all muscles deeply:
• Begin with feet, move slowly upward.
• Relax legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, shoulders, neck, face.
4. Concentrate on your breathing.
• In and out through nose.
• When you breathe out, silently say “One” to yourself.
5. Repeat for 15 minutes.
• When finished remain seated.
• Come “back” slowly, over 2 minutes.
The evidence is clear that if you adopt this practice once a day you will find your levels of stress and feelings of anxiety diminish. Please give it a try.
Eating, Exercise, & Nature
Some of you may know I provide a simple, inexpensive recipe at the end of each of my lectures. This is done is part because the vast majority of people do not eat well, in part because we find it easier to order in or eat out in restaurants or to eat prepared foods. Although I’m not a nutrition expert I know that there is plentiful evidence to make the point that we would be physically and psychologically healthier if we ate better.
In 2017 approximately 64% of Canadians 18 and over were either overweight or obese while 30% of those 5-17 years were so clearly many of us are not eating well. And in case you weren’t aware of it what has become known as the Freshman 15—the tendency of students in their first year of university to gain about 15 pounds—is a very common phenomenon that occurs because people eat when they are stressed and/or they make poorer eating choices when they are. This chapter is not particularly about diet but in general if you can eat less fat, less carbohydrates, fewer prepared or take-out foods, and more vegetables you will be doing yourself a favour. If you know that you are doing good for yourself that will have the effect of making you feel a little better about yourself and should take your stress levels down a notch. Of course you know that the other half of the equation is exercise, right?
Of course you know that diet and exercise are essential to your physical health. It turns out that they are also important to you from a psychological perspective. For many people regular physical exercise helps to reduce stress, helps to relieve feelings of anxiety and worry, and also improves your immune system to make you more resistant to the flu, colds, and other infectious diseases.
While you’re probably aware of the way that diet and exercise can help you, the importance of nature might be news. Our psychological well-being is improved by sessions in nature. This might include a simple walk in the park, sitting on a riverbank, or watching the stars on a cold winter’s night. Maybe it’s because the typical student is a largely urban creature or maybe it’s because of our focus on technology but we seem to derive benefit from regular exposure to nature. If you can incorporate a dose of nature in your daily routine you will feel better. Try it!
University students are notoriously bad sleepers. Unfortunately, inadequate sleep is very common amongst university students and your overall health, your level of stress, and your grades will all improve if you got better sleep! Do you believe me? Google “sleep hygiene” and then take one of the tests you will find. The ones provided by SleepFoundation.org, WebMD and Psychology Today are all good but there are many out there. You may be surprised at how poor your sleep rates and if so, you will be doing yourself a huge favour if you take steps to get 8 hours sleep per day and improve the overall quality of your sleep. Believe me.
Routines & doing
If you are really really good at something, (think nationally or internationally ranked athlete or musician or dancer or artist or video-gamer or anything), then you probably have some appreciation for the hours of practice and devotion it takes to be that way. You had to set up a strict schedule to make sure that your practice happened on a regular basis and enabled you to spend the time required to get you to where you wanted to be. You also might appreciate that the majority of your practice time was spent doing your thing incorrectly and then only after substantial practice did you get it right.
Being a top performer student at university is the same. You need to get a routine and follow it. If your goal is to be a mediocre student then you will still benefit from a schedule but you may fall off it a little more than the person at the top of your class.
It’s difficult to give a recommendation that will work for everyone but you will have to use a schedule of some kind and to make sure it reflects
• all of your class meeting times
• all of the assignments and tests for each course
• important social or leisure events
• regular study times
• textbook readings
It is essential that your schedule shows all your course assignments, otherwise you won’t be able to see when different courses make demands that fall on the same day (which university courses seem to want to do). Your schedule might be a paper day timer or an app on your phone or your computer or the calendar function in Outlook or Google or your smart watch. Do some homework to find the solution that works best for you and then use it! No scheduler will help unless you use it daily and update it as new assignments come and go and include your vacation and leisure time too otherwise you might be surprised by the assignment that is graded zero while you are away or the big essay that is due the day after a long awaited get-together with friends.
Many if not most of your courses will have weekly readings. Others will ask you to read along in the appropriate textbook chapters week by week. Check the course syllabus for each course. You will not complete those readings unless you schedule them! And, even if it feels really “nerdy” to start study sessions early in the semester, the point is if you start a regular routine early you’re more likely to continue following it. As thinking human beings we are absolutely capable of changing our habits. However, we often take quite a bit of time to do so. Learning how to put yourself on a schedule and make your school work routine is not something that will happen overnight. However, with practice it will start to come naturally and the benefits to your grades will also become apparent.
The last topic I would like to mention here is about thinking, feeling, and doing. One of the common sources of stress amongst university students is the idea that failing a particular course will totally screw up their lives. Objectively, that is not true. If you can change your beliefs a little you can dramatically change the stress that you feel. For example, if you can change your belief to something like “I’ll try my best but if I fail I can always re-take the course” then the consequence on your stress levels may be a dramatic reduction. (This idea of changing your beliefs is at the heart of something called Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy.) A second related problem is that many university students think too much about the study and work that they must complete. This is often at the heart of the procrastination that many fall victim too. Instead of thinking about it, if we just started doing it, often the work gets done. Try it the next time you find yourself moaning over the chapter you need to read for your next class. Just start reading it. Stop thinking about reading it! In many cases you will find you have completed the work and when you complete the work, you’ll feel less stress about it!
Want to know more?
Attarian H. (2010) Sleep Hygiene. In: Attarian H., Schuman C. (eds) Clinical Handbook of Insomnia. Current Clinical Neurology. Humana Press, Totowa, NJ USA.
Ellis, A. (2005). The myth of self-esteem: How Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy can change your life forever. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY USA.
Everly, G.S. Jr., & Lating, J.M. (2013). A clinical guide to the treatment of the human stress response 3rd ed. New York, NY: Springer New York, 2013. A really definitive set of chapters about stress and what can be done about it.
Little, B. (2017). How are projects shape our personalities—and how we can use them to remake who we are. Retreived from
Mitchell, M. (2013). Dr. Herbert Benson’s relaxation response. Psychology Today, Retrieved from
Pleas, K. (2014). 17 minute guided meditation: Relaxation response. Retreived from