What is stress?

Stress is your body’s reaction to events that make you feel threatened or upset your balance in some way. When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response. Facing the prospect of completing a thesis, with only little structured support, can be extremely stressful, even to the most confident student.

Not all stress is bad. You need some stress to get everyday things done. Stress can be positive and motivating in the short term, helping to achieve success. Too little stress can lead to boredom – but too much stress can produce a “burn out”.

What causes stress?

Different things cause stress in different people. The thought of deadlines to beat and piled up paperwork can give you an excessive amount of stress. Some of the other things students commonly cite as causes of stress include examinations, the pressure of combining paid work and study, difficulty in organising work, poor housing, adjusting to life in a new environment or country, balancing the demands of a family with studying, parents or problems at home. These are all examples of external causes. Important internal causes are perfectionism, lack of assertiveness and unrealistic expectations.

Very often, stress results from an accumulation of many different pressures, which build up gradually without us noticing. Because of the widespread damage stress can cause, it is important to know your own limit. However, just how much stress is “too much” differs from person to person.

How to manage stress?

The key to success is to think positively; take control of your stress and anxiety by learning effective techniques to combat it. Navigate the toggles below to find some more information.

Understand how you stress

Everyone experiences stress differently. How do you know when you are stressed? How are your thoughts or behaviours different from times when you do not feel stressed?

Try to identify your sources of stress. What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to family, health, financial decisions, work, relationships or something else?

Learn to recognise your own stress signals. People experience stress in different ways. You may have a hard time concentrating or making decisions, feel angry, irritable or out of control, or experience headaches, muscle tension or a lack of energy.

Recognise how you deal with stress

Determine if you are using unhealthy behaviours (such as smoking, drinking alcohol and over/under eating) to cope. Is this a routine behaviour, or is it specific to certain events or situations? Do you make unhealthy choices as a result of feeling rushed and overwhelmed?

Find healthy ways to manage stress. Consider healthy, stress-reducing activities, such as meditation, exercising or talking things out with friends or family. Keep in mind that unhealthy behaviours develop over time and can be difficult to change.

Don’t take on too much at once. Focus on changing only one behaviour at a time

Relax your body

Relaxing bodily tension in order to reduce the physical sensations of stress is a good place to start. If your body is free of tension, your mind tends to be relaxed. This helps you concentrate and study, take decisions and solve problems. When you are relaxed, you can view each task as a positive challenge. Learning how to quickly relieve stress won’t happen overnight. Like any skill, it takes time, self-exploration and above all, practice. However, it will pay off!

Take care of yourself

Ensure you have a healthy mind and body through activities like yoga, taking a short walk, going to the gym or playing sports that will enhance both your physical and mental health.

No matter how hectic life gets, make time for yourself — even if it’s just simple things like reading a good book or listening to your favourite music.

Reach out for support

Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to manage stress. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, you may want to talk to a student psychologist, who can help you better manage stress and change unhealthy behaviours.

General tips & tools for students

  • Learn the art of time management. Find more information here.
  • Work with sub-tasks.
  • Write the things down you have to remember, so you can clear your head.
  • Work step by step instead of doing things all at once.
  • Use relaxation techniques; Engage in deep breathing for 2-5 minutes. Close your eyes and concentrate on the air going in and out of your lungs. Take long, deep breaths, fill your lungs and abdomen, hold your breath, and then exhale slowly. The belly goes up and down, it goes up when inhaling and goes down when exhaling.
  • Tense and relax different muscle groups (progressive muscle relaxation). For example, if your shoulders are tense pull them back and hold them for a few seconds, then relax. This will help you to be aware of the relaxation of muscles and help you to relax more.
  • Engage in guided imagery for a few minutes. Pick a scene that you find peaceful, beautiful, and natural. Think about what you see, what you hear, what you feel and what you smell while in this scene.

Get support

Long-term stress and associated anxiety is difficult to resolve by yourself and it is often best for you to seek help. Do not struggle alone. Anxiety can seriously impair your academic performance and that is not only distressing for you, but means a lot of wasted effort. Student advisors and student psychologists are specialised in stress management linked to student issues.

Available workshops at Maastricht University

The Student Services Centre has a wide range of training, workshops and lectures available that can help you with your studies. Take a look at their website for more information, for example for these topics: workshop mindfulnes; workshop stress management.