UBC professors on student stress

Being a university student isn’t easy – juggling course loads, financial stresses, part-time jobs, competition for marks, social pressures and high expectations from parents and professors. Experts note that stress plays a large factor in students' lives as soon as they enter campus and are required to adjust to a whole new reality incredibly different from high school. 

Statistics show that stress levels have been growing on Canadian campuses. Ninety per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 say they are excessively stressed, according to a Sun Life Financial Canada Survey

Stress on campus plays a huge factor in day to day life for UBC — Students and professors admit it is just as prevalent of an issue for them. 

"Every semester, I get a handful of students who come to me to talk about stress and pressure. Especially around midterms and finals," said David Moscrop, political science expert and professor at UBC. "We need to spend time talking to students about how to manage stress and pressure. We need to help them build day-to-day and week-to-week tactics and strategies for navigating what is a tricky, stressful and challenging environment." 

Moscrop said that the most important thing we can do as a community here at UBC is making this issue a priority and donating time and attention to the matter. 

"Further money, time, attention and human resources need to be devoted to this. University isn’t just about teaching subject matter — it’s also about helping students develop their capacities and learn to flourish," he said.

Shimi Kang, award-winning psychiatrist and author of critically acclaimed novel The Dolphin's Way, noted how an increase in pressure is due to a lack of many simple biological needs that students have. The rapid technology age has prevented students from unwinding.

"Trends show that university students are sleeping less than they used to. They also have less downtime because of technology," she said. "The brain is getting very little time to relax and unwind, which can increase the experience of stress." 

Students need to be proactive in dealing with stress and preventing what is known as the "Freeze, Flight or Fight response." Kang describes the meaning of these stress responses and unhealthy coping behaviours.

'Freeze is anxiety, procrastination and feeling overwhelmed. With that, we see a lot of self-medication with drugs and alcohol. The fight response is a lot of anger, rage or tension as coping behaviours. The flight is escape and checking out – drugs and alcohol would fit into this as well as just quitting and being unable to cope."

The increasing unrealistic and overwhelming demands of students are leading to them being more stressed and affecting their psychological well-being. 

Peter Crocker, exercise and sport psychology professor, discusses the effects of these demands on student’s stress levels. 

"Over the last 15-20 years, I have seen a tremendous increase in mark expectation," he said. "Marks of less than 80 [per cent] are viewed as failure by many students because of pressure to get into professional and graduate programs." 

So what can we do to cope with these unrealistic expectations and help reduce our high stress levels? Kang offered some tips that can aid in promoting a healthy psychological well-being and in turn minimize stress and pressure among students.

  • Sleep – "One of the best coping skills is making sure you are not chronically sleep deprived. If you have a very busy week for example, that would be a good time to sleep more and break up two nights of bad sleep with one night of good sleep."
  • Hydration – "So many students are drinking red bulls, coffees or alcohol. All of that caffeine is a diuretic and can chronically dehydrate you. Balanced regular diet is also important."
  • Movement – "You want to make sure you have routine regular movement. Stress releases adrenaline and cortisol — movement helps prevent that. Even just walking in between classes and taking the stairs instead of the elevator will help." 
  • Stay Connected – "Talk about your problems. [It] will help you feel like you are not alone and gives us a sense of support and community. Share a good laugh or cry and stay connected with others."
  • Breathing – "I can’t overemphasize this. When we take deep controlled breaths, we reduce the release of the stress hormones in our body and regulate the nervous systems."