Stress in Academia: Debunking Three Common Myths

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Universities have become a breeding ground for stress, so much that I can hardly remember a day going by without hearing the words, ‘I’m so stressed’ being uttered by my students. With multiple deadlines, performance pressure, escalating tuition fees, and an uncertain job market, it is no wonder that students are reportedly experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety. However, students aren’t alone in their experiences, as administrative and academic staff have also exhibited a sharp increase in stress-related illnesses, leading to higher numbers of absences throughout the academic year.

Accompanying the increasing number of stressed out staff and students is an almost tacit acceptance of stress within university culture. Not many people question or challenge the prevalence of stress in higher education –  instead there has been a normalization of stress within academia. This normalization of stress has been propagated and reinforced by several myths. In this post, I will highlight three of the most common myths relating to stress in academia.

 

Myth#1: Stress is Natural

The first myth about stress is that it is a natural part of academic life. I came face-to-face with this attitude when I was attending a Q&A session for incoming doctoral students. When asked about how to manage the anxiety associated with completing a doctorate, one of the panelists remarked: ‘You are a PhD student, you are supposed to be stressed out.’

The trouble with this outlook is that it brushes aside the impact stress has on our physical and mental health.

Stress is not simply a feeling we experience as a consequence of a situation or event, it actually facilitates a physiological response in our bodies known as the fight or flight mechanism. Most of the things that trigger our fight or flight responses – exams, dissertations, deadlines – are things we face on a daily basis. As a consequence, we tend to live in states of prolonged and chronic stress, all of which can have a detrimental effect on our health and wellbeing.

So despite the tendency to see stress as a natural part of academic life, when we consider its impact, there is actually nothing natural about it.

 

Myth#2: Being Stressed is a Virtue

Not only is stress seen as a natural part of studying and working in academia, it is also commonly equated with productivity and performance. On this basis, it is easy to assume that there is something virtuous in being stressed out – so many wear their stress as a badge of honour.

I recall on countless occasions asking colleagues how their holidays were and have noticed how their responses are often framed in relation to how much they ‘accomplished’ during their time off. In a profession where individuals have considerable freedom to establish working hours and routines, it is interesting to see how holidays have been transformed into work spaces.

This non-stop, 24/7 approach to work has also impacted students, as reflected in the introduction of 24/7 libraries across several universities. Irrespective of their convenience, the onset of 24-hour libraries sends a message to students that there is no natural end to the working day. In this respect, the stress-as-a-virtue approach is tacitly condoned and perpetuated by many higher education institutions.

 

Myth#3: Stress Comes from Outside of Me

A final myth about stress is that it is something that comes from outside of us. It may be an upcoming exam, publishing your first book, applying for jobs or preparing a conference presentation. When we feel stressed in the midst of any of these tasks, the source of the stress is thought to reside outside of us – it is a consequence of the task itself.

The notion of stress coming from outside of us puts us in a disempowering position since there is little we can do to control our external environment. The fact is, there is nothing inherently stress-producing about an exam, a publication, job interview or a conference presentation.

The root of our stress is not the event or situation, it’s the internal dialogue in our minds in relation to that specific task, the stories we tell ourselves and the way we get caught up in our thinking. When we recognize the true source of stress, it becomes much easier to tackle it head on.

So what does all of this mean? It means that if we are going to lower the rates of stress across higher education institutions, we must make a concerted effort to debunk these myths.

  • First, we will need to counter the tendency to normalize stress by appreciating the actual impact it has on our health.
  • Second, we should stop equating the experience of stress with productivity and performance by refusing to wear our stress as a badge of honour.
  • Finally, we need to acknowledge our thought processes as the true source of our stress.

Want to Overcome Exam Stress?

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When it comes to managing exam stress there is certainly no shortage of advice for students. What I have noticed, however, is that most of the advice that is on offer tends to focus on either exam prep or relaxation techniques. The idea behind this is that if students are better prepared and go into their exams feeling relaxed this will significantly minimize their stress levels.

While I wouldn’t necessarily dispute the importance of either of these areas, the fact is that exam preparation tips and relaxation techniques are dealing more with the symptoms of exam stress as opposed to its actual causes.

Contrary to what many people believe, much of the stress that students experience in relation to their exams is by no means inevitable, nor does it really derive from the exam itself. In fact, the roots of exam stress originate in the mind and more specifically, in the types of thoughts that are attached to an exam and the stories a student tells himself or herself in relation to their performance. This is incredibly normal, but it’s no fun for those who experience it.

While it isn’t possible to change the fact of exams or avoid taking them altogether, it is possible to get to the bottom of the stress surrounding an exam and to shift your experience of it. All it requires is a willingness to overcome the stress and an openness to explore your thought patterns and underlying belief systems. I’ve helped many students do just that.

If you would like some assistance in overcoming exam stress, I offer one-to-one coaching sessions as well as workshops for larger groups, so please feel free to get in touch with me at info@academease.org

All Work and No Play: Are 24-Hour University Libraries a Good Idea?

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In recent years there has been a noticeable expansion in wellbeing-related activity across many higher education institutions. Nearly every university now has a designated welfare officer or welfare rep, and an increasing number of institutions are starting to organise wellbeing events throughout the academic year. This growing commitment towards wellbeing has, however, occurred alongside another trend which constitutes a significant step back for advancing wellbeing in higher education – the introduction of 24-hour libraries.

In a study conducted by the Guardian, 77% of students that were surveyed indicated their preference for libraries to remain open around-the-clock. In their continuing bid to attract students, many Universities across the UK, including Leeds, Reading, LSE and King’s, have responded by extending library hours.

Among the reasons given by the students who have made this request is a desire for greater flexibility and more convenience. This may stem from the fact that students today tend to juggle their studies with other commitments, and may therefore need to use the library outside of regular hours.

Although the desire for convenience and flexibility is understandable, there is a considerable difference between late opening hours and 24-hour opening. Whatever the reasons are, working through the night and into the early hours of the morning does have a negative impact on wellbeing, as Bridget O’Connell of the mental health charity Mind has highlighted:

“While it is good that universities are allowing students to access libraries at a time that suits them, there is the concern that it could result in students feeling that they should be spending every spare moment studying. This is not a sustainable approach. Extended periods of pressure, including a lack of sleep, not eating properly, a lack of getting outdoors and exercising can all have a huge impact on mental wellbeing.”

Some Universities have opted for something of a middle ground and now offer 24-hour opening during exam periods only. Yet this approach is even more problematic, as it is specifically in times of intense pressure and stress that health and wellbeing so often take a back seat. Keeping libraries open at all hours during exam periods simply buys into the idea that academic performance should be prioritized over everything else (including sleep!).

Another point to bear in mind is that stress does not automatically end the moment a student graduates. Although they may be free of exams and dissertation writing, they will undoubtedly encounter other pressures in life. As such, the higher education community has a responsibility to consider not only the content of the curriculum, but also how students approach their studies and commitments. This includes providing an environment that fosters healthy working patterns and strategies for managing stress.

By having libraries remain open all night, universities are sending the wrong message to their students and enabling a terrible habit that will make it harder for them to cope with stress in the future.

While I can appreciate that Universities want to do all they can to continue attracting students, this objective should not come at the expense of wellbeing.

The Trouble with ‘Keep Calm and Study On’

You are probably familiar with the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, but do you know where the phrase comes from? It was actually coined by the UK’s Ministry of Information during the Second World War. The Government printed the phrase on a number of motivational posters at the height of the war in order to boost the morale of the British public throughout the war effort. The sentiments behind the poster are commonly seen as a testament to the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, which is essentially a form of stoicism in the face of adversity.

Keep Calm

Since that time, the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has been co-opted for several other purposes. These days it is impossible to walk into a greeting card shop without seeing various incarnations of this phrase applied to other situations. So I was very interested when I wandered into one university book shop and spotted a card that read ‘Keep Calm and Study On.’ Although the card was intended as a joke, the meaning isn’t too far off from the general approach towards work and stress management in academia.

There tends to be a belief that, irrespective of how challenging or difficult a task may be, whenever we confront a stumbling block we should ‘power through’. This was certainly the approach that was practiced when I was a student and I continue to see colleagues adhering to the ethos of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ when it comes to their own work.

But I can’t help but wonder – is a war analogy entirely appropriate for coping with academic stress? The message it sends is that we should overlook how we are feeling in any given moment in order to complete the task at hand.

I can definitely attest to instances when I’ve set aside feeling overwhelmed, stressed and tired – perhaps turning to caffeine or sugar to give me the quick boost I need to power through. In such moments it was as though nothing was more important than completing whatever task I had on my plate, whether it was writing a book chapter, answering emails, marking, or preparing a presentation. Many of us have developed a pattern of approaching our work in this way.

Ignoring how one feels may be necessary in the context of a war, but should we really be stoic when it comes to our work?

The reality is that applying a stiff upper lip approach towards our studies and work can be quite detrimental. The more we ignore how we feel, both physically and mentally, the more we set ourselves up for unhappiness, chronic stress, and a host of other health-related challenges. But irrespective of the consequences, once we’ve grown accustomed to neglecting our physical and mental wellbeing, it can be a tough habit to break.

Our work and studies should not be viewed as a struggle or something to simply get through. This is perhaps what is most misleading about the ‘Keep Calm and Study On’ ethos in academia. It teaches us that our work is meant to be a struggle and that we shouldn’t expect it to be enjoyable.

The truth is that it is entirely possible to enjoy our work and it is actually when we take good care of ourselves that things flow. It’s when we don’t that our work tends to take double the amount of time and feels like a slog.

In order to get into the space where our work can flow, it is crucial that we resist the inclination to power through it at all costs and to start to consciously pay attention to how we are feeling. In other words, it requires us to reject the notion of keeping calm and carrying on.