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Student Stress Psychology

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    Stress is a negative emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological, cognitive and behavioural changes that are directed either toward altering the stressful event or accommodating its effects (Taylor, 2012). It can be described as the difficulties and strains experienced by living organisms as they try to adapt to changing or new environmental conditions.

    All situations that require adjustment can be regarded as potentially stressful (Butcher, 2012) Stress is the effect on the organism and is a dynamic construct because it reflects the interaction between the organism and the environment over time (Monroe, 2008). Stress is a reaction to a stressor. Stressors are demands made by an individual’s internal or external environment that upset the balance, thus affecting psychological and physical well-being and requiring action to restore balance (Lazarus & Cohen, 1977) The anticipation of a stressor can be as stressful as its actual occurrence and sometimes more (Wirtz et al, 2006).

    For example, for students the thought of exams can be more stressful than actually doing them. Selye (1974) suggested that stressors can occur in negative situations (e. g. for some taking an exam) and in positive situations (e. g. a 21st birthday party) therefor affecting the person’s physiological and psychological health negatively and positively. He described the negative experience distress can be damaging and unpleasant and the positive experience as eustress.

    If a student experiences eustress before an exam it can sometimes be beneficial as the characteristics are; heightened awareness and increased mental alertness which may result in better cognitive and behavioural performance (Rice, 1999). The sources of student stress There can be many sources student stress which include time management (part time jobs, setting priorities, setting deadlines), financial problems, family expectations, family and peer relationship sleep, nutrition, weight, future goals, exams and social life.

    Stress can come from within the individual person. Being a mature student can cause stress, going back to ducation after being out of it for so long, relating to the younger students who are dealing with the dynamics of young adult relationships and emerging into adulthood can propose challenges for them.

    Stress can come from the students family, for example a divorce, illness, financial problems, death or new addition. Stress can come from students community, the demands and responsibility of the student’s job – work overload, underutilization, job ambiguity, interpersonal stress (Riggio, 2009).

    The job can be time consuming and cause lack of sleep which can impair attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem solving. This makes it more difficult to learn efficiently (Peri, 2012). The students environment can sometimes be stressful for example their commute into college if crowded, noisy, or the student is claustrophobic, rush hour traffic, the size of the college, size of the lectures, new accommodation, for some being self-sufficient and away from family support. “Due partially to stress, a surprisingly high percentage of college freshmen don’t go on to graduate. ”(Scott, 2012). Murray (2010) study of Irish students found up to a third don’t make it to second year.

    Academic stress and the work load of college is much higher than secondary school, students could be going from a class of 20 to lectures of over 200 students. Scott (2012) suggested the more independent nature of the college learning structure could be a challenge for students. Facebook can also be a generator of stress, 96% of US students have a Facebook account (OnlineEducation. net, 2011) Austin (2012) found the level of desire for Facebook was higher than that for both alcohol and tobacco. Studies have found that students are using Facebook for up to 8 hours a day and checking it up to 20 times.

    London (2012) study found over a third (38 per cent) of young adults admit to worrying about being tagged in unflattering photos. Charles (2011) found in her study that the more friends you had the more stressed you were, 12% admitted to anxiety from it “It’s like being a mini news channel about yourself.

    The more people you have the more you feel there is an audience there. You are almost a mini celebrity and the bigger the audience the more pressure you feel to produce something about yourself” Charles (2011). It was claimed by doctors writing in The Lancet that stress from a Facebook update triggered an athsma attack in a 7-year old girl. Added to all this is time lost that could be used to study.

    Possible effects of student stress. The way the body confronts these changing environments is by the process of primary appraisal which determines the meaning of the event as positive, negative or neutral. Potentially negative events are then assessed for their harm, threat or challenge. As stressful primary appraisals are occurring secondary appraisal begins which assesses an individual’s resources and coping abilities and if they are able to meet the harm, threat or challenge (Taylor, 2012).

    Individuals have different stress tolerances, the same experience maybe highly stressful to some and not others. Stress disrupts emotional and physiological functioning and when stress continues unabated, it lays the groundwork for health problems (Taylor, 2012). Stress can contribute to a number of negative effects including cold sores, the flu, substance abuse, suicide, depression and physical problems like cardiovascular disease (Compass et al, 1988). The student can be cognitively effected in positive and negative ways.

    The Yerkes-Dobson law indicates that certain amounts of stress can be beneficial and increase arousal results in better performance but optimum performance may not be possible if the student is under or overly stressed. Negative effects can also occur such as learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975). The immune system can be effected. The brain (stress) and immune system communicate via cytokines. Psychoneurimmunology is the study of interaction between immune and nervous system (Butcher, 2012). There are numerous studies indicating that stress weakens the immune system.

    The immune system fights off infections. Antibodies fight harmful antigens that try to enter the body. T-cell, B-cells and natural killer (NK) cells are produced in response to the antigens. As a result for students undergoing exams, their immune system may be less effective and may result in them becoming ill due to the release of hormones by the adrenal glands which suppress certain immune cells (Cohen & Herbert, 1996). Research in relation to the immune system found that students had lower levels of T-cells in the months leading up to exams compared to months after (Kiecolt-Glazer, 1988).

    Glasser et al (1985) research suggests that stress-related immunosuppression can significantly modulate herpesvirus latency. Suggesting that the more stressed a student is is the more likely susceptible they are to cold sores. Stressful life events, self-perceived stress and negative emotion, all assessed before exposure, each significantly predicted who came down with colds (Cohen et at, 1993). Stress slows the healing of wounds by 24-40% (Butcher, 2012). These would all be short term effects.

    Gaining weight is another effect that may be because of stress and partially because of other social and practical issues faced by college students, many struggle with their weight. Many gain 10-20 pounds in their first year (Scott, 2012). This can add stress, some will try to diet, this may lead others to eating disorders and obesity. Stress can also affect the students emotions inducing fear, anxiety, excitement, embarrassment, anger, depression and many other emotions. The effect of stress on behavioural responses are virtually limitless depending on the event (fight/flight).

    It has been proposed that when an organism perceived a threat the body is rapidly aroused and motivated via the two components of physical stress, the sympathetic nervous system and the endocrine system (Taylor, 2012). The effects on the physiology in the body involves two systems in the stress response in the adrenal gland. The sympathetic-adrenomedullary (SAM) system which prepares for fight or flight, the response begins in the hypothalamus, then stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), adrenaline and noradrenaline are then secreted.

    The heart rate increases, the body metabolizes glucose quicker. The second, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, the hypothalamus releases corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH) which travels through the blood, stimulating the pituitary gland which then secretes adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), this induces the adrenal cortex to produce glucocorticoid (the stress hormone) which is called cortisol in humans. Cortisol prepares the body for fight or flight but also inhibits the immune response (Butcher, 2012).

    When students are stressed their allostatic load is high, they may experience the biological signs, increased heart rate and levels of cortisol. (Butcher, 2012). Sleep can be effected “When stress interrupts your sleep on a nightly basis, it sets you up for a chronic insomnia” (Bain & Michaud ). Individual coping strategies Cannon (1932) suggests that as a result of the stressors being experienced homeostasis occurs, which results in the need to apply a coping mechanism to dapt to changes in the environment and regain stability within the body. People deal with stress in different ways, not always positive.

    Coping resources are influenced by the person-environment interaction, a persons beliefs, commitments, values, constrains and demands all influence the potential resources (Folkman & Moskovitz, 2004) All students will have different coping strategies. Responses can be voluntary or involuntary. Individuals may not be conscious of how they are coping with their stress. Some cope well some don’t.

    The problem focused coping strategy is where the student will attempt to change environment or situation, these have more positive outcomes. Students who perceive events as controllable are more likely to use problem-focused coping strategies (Roussi, Miller & Shoda, 2000). This is an active way of coping. They can plan, seek information or support about what is causing them the stress, it is associated with higher levels of self-esteem. This is a conscious way of coping, they are aware of what they are doing to lessen/cope with the stress.

    It is a good way for students to deal with their stress. Approach-engaged is similar to problem focused coping and results in similar responses. The adaptive coping strategy is another active way of coping, taking action, trying to remove stressor, getting support, religion and acceptance. The emotion focused coping strategy is where the student will try to lessen emotional pain, they may try to modify reactions to the stressor. Students who perceive events as uncontrollable may use emotion-focused and disengaging behaviour (Roussi, Miller & Shoda 2000).

    Self-blame and blaming others is common within this strategy. Sometimes they will seek emotional support and others will avoid it. This way is more inclined to be unconscious. Avoidance/disengaged coping similar has characteristics to emotion focused – distraction, denial, social diversion, behaviour disengagement, drugs and alcohol use (not all coping mechanisms are positive, they may lessen stress but be damaging in other ways. The maladaptive coping strategy is a self-distraction, disengagement from goal, denial, rejection of stressor – drugs and alcohol use are common.

    Social support is a good coping strategy for students and often comes from family or friends, it is a very effective way of lessening stress. The best type of social support is invisible support, the student is unaware they seem dependent on another which removes the sense of guilt. Therefor it is important for students to have friends to receive the social support from them. Support can sometimes be negative. There are studies on gender difference in coping strategies. Females tend to be more emotion focused than males in coping mechanism in response to academic stressors (Compass et al, 1988).

    Females experience higher levels of stress, particularly in adolescence , females also tend to use more social support when dealing with stressors. Emotional intelligence is a fairly new phenomenon. Salovey and Mayer (1999) suggest that highly emotional intelligent individuals can cope better under stress than those low in emotional intelligence as a result of basic emotional skills, greater emotional knowledge and more effective emotional regulation. Matthews et al (2006) study found that lower emotional intelligent individuals used more avoidance coping strategies.

    Personality plays a key role in how the student will cope. Students who tend to be optimistic and have a more positive outlook on life generally have less risk of illness by having better coping strategies (Carver & Bridges, 1994). Students who tend to be pessimistic are associated with denial and distancing from event, focusing directly on stressful feelings and disengagement (Scheier, Weintraub & Carver, 1986). People predisposed to Type A behaviour pattern characteristics have an excessive competitive drive, extreme commitment to work, impatience or time urgency and hostility.

    This leads them to becoming stressed and has been correlated with higher instances of coronary heart disease (Butcher, 2012). The biomedical model should be the last resort for students to cope, it involves getting prescribed drugs for severe stress, depression or anxiety. Possible institutional interventions that might make the students role a happy one Colleges could provide optional stress management programs for students. Stress management would decrease the impact of symptoms of high stress levels (Magaya, 2009).

    There are three phases of stress management programs – education, skills acquisition and practice. It could decrease the likelihood of further destructive behaviour that could eventually lead to self-harm or in severe cases suicide (Compass et al. , 1988). Colleges should make sure all students are aware of the resources that are available to them. A student must be able to acknowledge what resources they have available, this is known as coping self-efficacy (Bandura, 1989). Relaxation and meditation techniques could be taught to the students.

    Students should be educated on stress and made aware of Yerkes-Dodswon Law showing that certain amount of stress is beneficial to them. Counselling such as cognitive behaviour therapy which is and individual modification of habits or Rational emotional therapy, learn how to replace the irrational thoughts with sensible ones. By changing perspective of a stressor from threat to challenge so the situation can be seen in a more positive light could lessen the stress. I would recommend regular exercise for students as it has been shown to reduce stress.

    Exercise can even eliminate some of the so called “internal” causes of stress, which are related to one’s frame of mind and outlook on life. Exercise essentially burns away the chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine that cause stress. Vigorous exercise releases endorphins into the system. Endorphins are morphine-like hormones that are responsible for the feeling of elation, or well-being. Other chemicals like dopamine and serotonin are also released in the brain during exercise. These can give a feeling of safety and security and could help reduce stress (Hupston, 2010).

    I would also advise students to have a healthy diet which benefits the immune system which is taxed during stressful times, try to avoid too much caffeine or sugar, have balanced meals, avoid using food as a stress reducer, keep meal times pleasant and try not to skip meals. (Bowerman, 2011).

    For the severally stressed students they may need to get prescribed drugs such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors SSRI which will lift their moods. To conclude students have access to a lot of internal and external stressors. Most of these are short term. How they cope will depend on the individual and their resources. Social support and problem focused coping strategies may be the best solution for most students, again it really depends on the individual!


    1. Austin, M. (2012). Facebook Addiction. Retrieved from Psychology today http://www. psychologytoday. com/blog/ethics-everyone/201202/facebook-addiction.
    2. Bain, J. & Michaud, E. 18 Stress Fixes for Better sleep. retrieved from Reader digest – http://www. rd. com/health/wellness/1-stress-fixes-for-better-sleep/

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