Stressed young women is sitting at her desk

Less stress - more success: How can I avoid stress?

Everyone feels sometimes stressed during their studies. But what can you do against it? Constanza has a few tips.

On a breezy September day, as I stepped off the bus in Campus, I was suddenly teleported back in my country. Except I wasn’t. I was in Germany, Stuttgart, Vaihingen. Then suddenly I wasn’t. I was swept off my feet as I saw the bus leave along with my perception of my surroundings. How could it be? I knew I had gotten on the bus in just a bit earlier in Vaihingen, to go to an exam. Even more oddly, my eyes still saw my surroundings, the campus, the various departments where I had had exams before, but for some funny reason my brain refused to compute the information, and kept repeating to me: “You are in your hometown.” My hometown, which in my memories couldn’t have looked more different than what I was seeing now. Nothing made sense.

This is not the start of a Hollywood blockbuster, so I can spoil that I did not actually teleport anywhere. It wasn’t exciting either, and instead of rare superpowers it was due to something that way too many students experience way too frequently: stress.

The biology and psychology of this is complicated, as Dr. Fenrich explains it: the autonomous nervous system is activated when we are in a situation of perceived danger, and it’s a healthy and normal response. The body controls its functions to better respond to it: it will for example increase the heart rate and bring more blood in our muscles and less to hands and feet, making us feel hot and cold at the same time. This is an evolutionary response, developed by our sapiens ancestors to be prepared to run when crossing the path of a mammoth. It’s still active in us when we don’t mind the red light and cross the path of a car; or, when we have to write an exam. It may sound hyperbolic but in our brains we do perceive the “simple task” of writing an exam as a danger.

Dr. Fenrich goes on to clarify that such a stress response is perfectly normal; while it’s not a sabretooth tiger, it’s natural to be afraid of a deadline or an assignment, when it’s at out doorstep. However, when it becomes a series of deadlines, maybe coupled with work and other engagements, stress may become less punctual and more distributed, over days, weeks, months, until maybe a semester is over and we can have a well-deserved vacation. But when life is pressing we can’t just wait six months to feel a bit better. We’ll burnout long before then.

Do you feel stressed and everything is too much? Learn more about stress management on the webpage of the International Office. And the Studierendenwerk's Psychotherapeutic Counselling is a first point of contact to talk about your questions and personal and social issues in a professional setting. This will help you find appropriate solutions and plan your next steps.

Ever since the “teleportation” incident I’ve personally learnt a lot on how to manage my stress levels. Here is some of what I believe helps, from my own experience and of peers and friends:

  • “Go outside and touch grass”. Some may know the meme already, in case you don’t, it means exactly that: go outside, go for a walk, breathe fresh air – touching grass is optional. Yes, it is simple and yes it absolutely helps.
  • “Stay hydrated”. When we have a deadline, we even forget to even eat! It’s easy to forget to drink. For this I recommend having your water bottle always next to you.
  • Take many small breaks. As one of my professors put it in the first semester, your brain can hardly concentrate after an hour. I was one used to hours of intensive study followed by endless procrastination – it’s absolutely not efficient and I had to learn the hard way. I thought that if I didn’t dedicate myself completely to whatever I was doing I would never keep up, but I only ended up burn out. Your code is not running? You’re totally allowed to make yourself a coffee and try again in 10 minutes. You will find the bug eventually.
  • Engage with other people - which is also something Dr. Feinrich recommends; because you need to take the load off your brain for a moment. It may sometimes be perceived as a waste of time, but it’s really not if your subsequent productivity is improved. Try and see what your flatmates are up to, text a friend, call your parents.
  • If you really feel at the end of your rope, do something completely different. I find cooking extremely relaxing, and as a plus you also have something to eat which is not mensa food. Do you feel like crying because of an assignment? Why not cut onions! At least you will be well fed, and your brain will use the energy.
  • Self-care practices. This is very personal and may again feel like a waste of time, but it does actually help. Take a warm shower, pick up your hobby, go shopping, bake cookies, try a new hair colour? When we really are down with a task we may feel we don’t deserve anything nice; we do.

Remember not every strategy works for everyone. Some may be good, some may be absolutely useless. It’s worth to spend some time to try and see what works for you. Our ancestors evolved to survive packs of wolves, not stacks of formula. Accept that at times your body will not keep up with all that you have to do and give it a break more often – it will thank you. 


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