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Negative Thoughts vs Positive Mindset: The Science of Student Stress

When you consider the difficulties of managing your own finances, moving to a strange city, and – gulp – exams, you don’t exactly need a scientist to tell you that you’ll likely to encounter stress during your time at uni. But having a scientist use their, erm, science skills to dig a little deeper into the phenomenon of student stress is a good way to understand how it can affect you, and more importantly, how you can develop ways of coping more effectively.

Imagine the situation: you receive your exam results, and the grade is lower than you expected. How would you feel? Upset and disappointed maybe? So what does your body do? It dumps a load of the so-called stress hormone ‘cortisol’ into your system and leaves you to it.

Cortisol means well, because it gives you a blood sugar boost, sharpens your memory and tweaks your metabolism to get you motivated, able to think on your feet, and work towards your goals. Whilst these minor superhero skills sound great on paper, and probably helped our ancestors escape predators, they don’t necessarily help the modern student. In fact, they have a tendency to throw a few wild cards into the mix. You might get stomach pains, feel bloated, and veer between nausea, diarrhoea and constipation. Meanwhile, in moments of acute stress, you may find your heart rate increases and your breathing rate steps up, which can leave you feeling breathless. Great, eh?

And as an added bonus, stress can lead to hyperarousal, which mean you struggle to get to sleep, and when you finally do, you end up tossing and turning all night.

Nice one, cortisol.


Coping with stress

For some people, a bad grade or other setback is a matter of licking your wounds, adjusting your plans, and then getting back to work. Yet for others, the stress becomes chronic. The stress hormones continue to course around their bloodstream, and generally cause them misery.

So, what’s the difference between these two types of people?


Learning to grow

It all comes down to mindset, according to a recent study of students in Texas. Those who reported feeling less long-term stress after receiving disappointing grades tended to identify as having a ‘growth mindset.’ They believed that their levels of intelligence could be developed and improved.

On the other hand, those who stated they were depressed about poor results for longer, and suffered from longer bouts of stress related issues, had a tendency to believe their intelligence levels were fixed and couldn’t be changed.

So remember, you might not ace every exam, or even pass every course module, but if you can keep a positive mindset and remember that you’re capable of doing better next time, you’ll be much better at fighting off the stress.

And whilst we’re at it, there are several positive lifestyle choices that will help push your mindset in the right direction.


Exercise. As basic as it sounds, exercise is proven to reduce anxiety, depression and stress. The natural endorphins that even a brief ten minutes of cardio produces will go a long way towards counteracting stress, and put you in a ‘feel good’ state of mind. Whether you want to see if there’s a student discount at the local gym, or are happy throwing your sweats on and jogging a circuit of the park, the important thing is that you get out there and do it.


Watch what you drink. As tempting as it is to self-medicate with alcohol, as anyone who has ever woken up with no shoes on a strange sofa will tell you, you’ll feel much worse once the hangover kicks in. And caffeine can be sneaky too. As useful as it is in helping you stay awake first thing in the morning and during late night study sessions, it affects your sleep patterns and leaves you out of sync with your body. Try herbal teas such as mint and chamomile before bed as a substitute, your sleeping pattern will thank you.


Food for thought. Sugar, carbohydrates, basically all that stuff you love, is actually working against you. The brief boost you feel after a sugary snack soon leads to a crash. Instead, try and find a balance of protein, carbs and vegetables, and if you’re still peckish, forage on fruit and nuts, they’ll give you a slow release of energy throughout the day.


Further support for your wellbeing

If you want more tips and advice on coping with student life stress, then check out our blogs on the subject. And be sure to download our student wellbeing matters report, it’s full of useful information and studies that we’ve gathered over the years to help you understand the issues and pressures of being a student.


Having a stable base

Having a place to live where you feel looked after, secure and comfortable is one of the best ways to avoid stress, and that’s what we offer students all over the country. Check out our locations and see if there’s one near your first choice.