(By Paul Luke, The Province April 21, 2014)
University of B.C. student Saniya Jamal never dreamed that stress could be such a powerful ally and such a punishing opponent.
Jamal, who graduated last year from Western University in Ontario with a BA in French and linguistics, has set her sights on winning admission to a masters of audiology program.
With only 30 spots available each year across Canada, and hundreds of applicants vying for them, audiology is a wickedly difficult program to penetrate.
The 23-year-old Richmond resident is pushing herself hard.
She takes four prerequisite courses for audiology, works 20 hours a week at a coffee shop and volunteers with the World Partnership Walk charity.
Mentally and academically, she’s thriving. Physically, the pressure can take a toll.
She sometimes has too much work to do to sleep properly. Her stressed immune system is vulnerable to colds and flus.
“I don’t really have time to think about how stressed I am,” she says.
As is the case for tens of thousands of university students across Canada, Jamal’s stress will peak this month as she writes final exams.
But stress isn’t a guest that just drops in during exam season.
Experts say stress introduces itself as a constant companion to university students from the minute they first set foot on campus and are forced to adjust to a world radically different from high school.
COLLEGE PRESSURES ADD TO STRESS OF YOUNG ADULTHOOD
Stress, experts say, rises throughout university as students juggle their course loads with financial pressures, part-time jobs, competition for marks and jobs, and high parental expectations.
Experts point to evidence that stress levels have been growing on Canadian campuses.
Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says universities across Canada have seen growing demand for stress counselling from students.
Counsellors are seeing more students and dealing with a growing intensity of stress-related troubles, she says.
“There’s a higher level of distress and suicidality, unfortunately, that we see coming to our counselling services across the country,” Teo says.
Almost 39 per cent of Canada’s post-secondary students say stress is affecting their performance at school, according to a nationwide survey released a year ago.
And 54 per cent “felt things were hopeless” at some point within the previous 12 months.
“Student stress levels are troubling,” says Jonny Morris, a director with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. division.
“I find it worrying when over a third of students say stress significantly impacts their ability to perform academically.”
Young people, even without the added pressures of school, are already in one of the toughest times of their lives in terms of mental health challenges. Statistics Canada says youth aged 15 to 24 are more likely to suffer from depression, mood disorders, anxiety, panic disorders, mania, agoraphobia and substance abuse.
Ninety per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 say they are excessively stressed, according to a Sun Life Financial Canada survey.
Dr. Joti Samra, an adjunct psychology professor at Simon Fraser University, identifies two factors associated with post-secondary schooling that aggravate the stress of young adulthood: rising debt loads and a difficult job market for grads.
“University is a time of transition to adulthood, and the stresses associated with this transition are compounded by financial pressures and the unpredictability of the job market,” Samra says.
The jobless rate for Canadians aged 15 to 24 stands at 13.6 per cent, almost double the unemployment rate of 6.9 per cent for all ages, says Statistics Canada.
B.C. students expect to graduate with a debt of $34,886, the highest in Canada, according to a BMO survey released last year.
“Students in B.C. say they are the most stressed about their financial situation,” the bank said.
Social media can relieve students’ stress levels but can also make them worse, Samra says.
In the short term, plugging into social media can ease stress as students connect with their support network, Samra says. In the long haul, repeatedly using social media to avoid stress can be harmful, she says.
“Over the long term it amplifies a lot of the stresses that we’re trying to avoid in the first place. Those stressors build,” she says.
LACK OF COPING SKILLS AND KEEN COMPETITION
Over-protective parents may be undermining students’ ability to handle stress.
Allyson Harrison, clinical director of the assessment and resource centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says society shields adolescents from stresses and failures.
Young people who have never experienced even minor failures often have no idea how to cope with major failures when they’re on their own, Harrison says.
“They are rightfully terrified and anxious about whether they can cope,” Harrison says.
“They never learned how to swim in the kiddie pool and now you have thrown them into the middle of the ocean and expect them to tread water and not panic.”
Keen competition for grades at university is another source of stress.
Many university students got high marks in high school but are now competing against everyone else who got high marks, Harrison says.
“Many still expect that they have to get As or they feel their life is over but, unfortunately, when you are competing with all of the other high achievers you may not rank in the top 10 or 15 per cent,” she says.
The key to dealing with stress is not to try to eliminate it but to manage it, psychologists say.
Students troubled by financial pressures can do little about rising tuition fees but can improve their personal finance skills, Samra says.
“Put your energy into the things you can control and accept the things that you can’t,” she says.
LEARNING HOW TO BOUNCE BACK
Universities and colleges are taking steps to become more student-friendly.
Last September, UBC opened a “collegium” — a living-room-like space for commuting first-year students to gather and develop a sense of community, says UBC student development officer Patty Hambler.
The university also has a network of “peer academic coaches” to help other students learn effective study habits.
“We’re helping students to develop more of what has been called a ‘growth mindset,’” Hambler says. “Inevitably, there will be times when you stumble or fail. The idea is to learn to get back up again and do things differently the next time.”
The CMHA’s Morris says many university students have learned to live with stress.
“It’s a mixed story. Some students are stressed and having a really hard time. Others are stressed but have found ways to cope,” he says.
Jeffrey So, 22, a fourth-year Bachelor of Commerce student at UBC, has been learning time management as he studies. He does co-op placements and serves as president of UBC’s human resources management club.
So makes a point of bouncing back from mistakes that might get other people lost in the valley of stress.
“If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t really learn,” says So.
Nicholas Walser, 23, is in the midst of final exams for his sustainable-agriculture and food-systems program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Richmond.
The first-year student’s arsenal of stress-busters includes a strong support network and playing the bagpipes with the Delta Police Pipe Band.
But his biggest weapon against stress is the delight he takes in his studies.
“It can be more stressful if you’re just here to get a piece of paper,” Walser says. “You need to have outlets for stress relief and a passion for what you’re doing.”
STUDY STRESS: HOW TO COPE
Sleep, nutrition and exercise are the top trio of stress-busters, experts say.
“We always start off with these three things,” says Patty Hambler, student development officer in wellness at the University of B.C.
“They are the foundation for being able to stay healthy mentally and physically.”
Dr. Su-Ting Teo, director of student health and wellness at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says students often undervalue the power of sleep.
“Sleep impacts everything — concentration, energy, mood, the ability to manage stress,” Teo says.
Allyson Harrison, clinical director of the regional assessment and resource centre at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., suggests students make a schedule that includes at least an hour a day to do something for themselves, such as exercising or having a coffee with a friend.
If you’re a worrier, set a fixed amount of daily time to allow yourself to worry — and stick to it, Harrison says.
“Seek professional help if you find you can’t control the amount of stress you are experiencing,” Harrison says. “All universities have student counselling centres and have same-day appointments for people who are truly in crisis.”
Universities must redesign themselves to become healthier learning environments, says Jonny Morris, a director with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. division.
That may take the form of designing student-friendly timetables, arranging group work in class to build connections between students and not giving assignments over holidays, Morris says.
STUDY STRESS: THE SYMPTOMS
Stress is a constant part of life that can motivate students to excel and accomplish their goals.
Stress becomes problematic when it interferes with a person’s ability to function, says Dr. Joti Samra, an adjunct psychology professor at Simon Fraser University.
Anxiety and depression are two signs of stress that lie at opposing ends of the emotional spectrum, Samra says.
Symptoms of anxiety include being tense, worried, fearful of places and people, having trouble focusing and finding it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
“Some of these behaviours are normal signs of being a student. If you’re studying, you may be staying up late,” she says. “What you want to keep an eye on is if this is a change from the baseline that becomes the norm, rather than the exception.”
Signs of depression may include low energy and fatigue, avoiding tasks, and withdrawing from family, friends and activities such as classes and studying.
Increased use of alcohol or drugs may also be a reaction to acute stress, Samra says. Thoughts of suicide may be another sign.
“Verbalization of internal self-harm thoughts is a positive thing,” Samra says. “It often is a relief for individuals to be able to express how they feel to a supportive person, and it can facilitate the steps of a student receiving help.”
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