Words by Muriel Smith, Claudia Gentile, Louise Barrett, Shauna Ecock, and Conor Matthews
Exam time is one of the most stressful experiences that students will come across during their studies. The effort of attempting to remember and regurgitate a semester’s worth of knowledge can be daunting and this is not helped by UCD’s high fees for repeating modules.
Sometimes, a mild amount of stress can be beneficial to a student’s performance, however, this is often not the case around exam period. In recent years, students’ unions have become more vocal in giving advice on exam stress using channels such as social media to communicate and help students. UCD has published an online guide on how to manage stress, and also offers face to face counselling. However, there is no denying that students often do not reach out for help soon enough or do not go looking for help when it is not directly offered. Stress can harm a student’s emotional and physical health and hinder their ability to function properly in university and everyday life.
Nowadays almost everything in our daily lives contributes to our stress levels. Students with poor sleeping habits often feel more stressed than students who get the recommended hours of sleep. This lack of sleep leads to poor concentration and a lack of energy, both of which are required to properly function and perform well academically. A constantly full schedule and pressure to balance a job to pay for different aspects of college can add extra stress for students also. There is a constant expectation from both the university and parents to perform well academically. This, combined with uncertainty about their future, can put an enormous amount of pressure on a student. It is obvious that these factors are having a negative effect on the mental health of university students.
Stress is an inevitable aspect of life and we all know that feeling, whether it’s trembling hands or a pounding heart, as you sit in an exam hall waiting for the paper. When we find ourselves in situations where we perceive a threat, our bodies’ natural reaction is the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Immediately the brain sets off an alarm system in the body. Through a combination of neural and hormonal signals, the adrenal glands secrete a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. The release of adrenaline increases the heart rate and elevates blood pressure. Cortisol raises the sugar levels in the bloodstream mobilizing energy reserves, while at the same time it inhibits other systems, such as the digestive system, which are nonessential to the fight-or-flight situation.
Cortisol is a slow release hormone that is associated with chronic stress and long-term cortisol exposure can lead to a resetting of the base-line levels. The release of these hormones provides the means to cope in the face of a challenge. Once the perceived threat has passed, hormone levels drop to normal rates as do the heart rate and blood pressure. However, constant exposure to stressors and the resulting increased levels of stress hormones have long-term implications for general health, with the potential to lead to depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Psychologist Jean Twenge from San Diego State University has provided shocking evidence that we have become a more anxious society. She reviewed studies carried out between 1952-1993 covering over 52,000 individuals and what they showed was a continuous upward trend. The study showed that by the late 1980s the average American child was more anxious than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s.
Another study by Wilkinson and Pickett shows the link between the notion of status anxiety and mental health trends. How we see ourselves and what others think of us plays a large part in increased anxiety. Studies of over 208 published reports of experiments in which people’s cortisol levels were measured while they were undergoing a stressful task showed increased levels of cortisol, especially in cases that involved a threat to social status or self-esteem. This fits well with the evidence of rising anxiety in society.
A study of cortisol levels in medical students in the USA showed that their challenging environment produces an increased prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicide compared with age matched peers. Analysis of cortisol levels showed significant rises during inpatient rotations.
One of the more modern techniques used to combat stress is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This is a psychosocial intervention that teaches you how to deal and cope with your mental health issues. It aims to change the way you look at the challenges and problems you face in life and how you react to these challenges. In the study “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses” it was determined that “CBT interventions were more effective in comparison to other intervention types such as organization focused therapies.”
Planning out your work will lead to a much better college-life balance, and help reduce the stress you feel throughout the year. A study carried out by NYU in 2015 highlighted the importance of reducing cortisol levels with sleep being an essential factor in maintaining optimal cortisol levels. Following sleep deprivation, there can be an increase in cortisol levels by as much as 45% potentially resulting in immune compromise, cognitive impairment, and metabolic disruption. These consequences should give pause to anyone contemplating an all-nighter the day before an exam.
There is no denying the extreme stress felt by third level students. However, through accessing the support systems provided by the university and talking through problems with peers and mentors, some stress can be alleviated, making the college experience more positive.