Dealing with Stress

Introduction: What is stress?

Stress is very common among post-secondary students. To maintain mental and physical health, learning to deal with stress is essential.


Stress is a response to situations and events in our lives that we see as challenging or threatening. They can be positive or negative.


♦ Our body tries to prepare us for this situation by releasing certain chemicals (e.g., cortisol and adrenaline) that heighten functions such as our heart rate and alertness. Other functions, including our digestive and immune systems, slow down.


♦ People experience stress in different ways and something that is stressful to one person may not be stressful to someone else.


♦ See the Canadian Mental Health Association and Medical News Today for more details.


The causes of stress are different for everybody and you should take some time to evaluate what exactly causes you stress. For students, some of the most common sources of stress are:


School: Keeping up with assignments and studying, getting good grades


Lifestyle: Living away from home, living with roommates


Finances: Having unexpected expenses, working as a student, going into debt


The future: Having worries about finding a job and starting a career


Other life circumstances: Relationships, family life, etc.

How do I get rid of stress?


Stress is not something that you can eliminate. Moderate amounts of stress can actually motivate you, make you more alert and increase your productivity. However, persistent stress is a problem, potentially leading to the negative outcomes described below.


What you can do is remove some sources of stress and learn how to better cope with stress. A large part of dealing with stress is understanding yourself and your reactions.

What are the negative effects of stress?


Potential negative effects of stress include:


♦ Feeling tired, run down or overwhelmed

♦ Irritability and anger

♦ Poor concentration and memory

♦ Losing sleep

♦ Headaches, stomach aches, or other physical symptoms

♦ Getting sick (due to a weakened immune system)

♦ Overeating or undereating

♦ Anxiety or panic

♦ Depression

Am I doing too much?


Sometimes, having a high workload is expected (e.g., exam time). However, if you feel frequently overloaded with work, think about the choices that you have made regarding school, work or other responsibilities that can be changed.


♦ It can be difficult, but learn to say no when you have to. Choose your commitments carefully and avoid taking on too many.


♦ Manage your time and avoid procrastination. When something is on your mind and worrying you, tackle it immediately.


Tactics to avoid procrastination, based on research by Timothy Pychyl at Carleton University.


◊ Other useful tips from Real Simple and Top Universities.


♦ A possible source of anxiety for post-secondary students is guilt about not doing schoolwork.


◊ Sometimes, you may need to set aside time for yourself to relax/socialize etc. You will probably enjoy your free time much more if you do not feel guilty.

What can I do to cope with stress?


When people are stressed, they often turn to bad habits such as watching more TV, eating unhealthy food, and drinking more alcohol. However, these behaviours can make you feel even worse. Positive ways to cope with stress include:


♦ Getting regular physical activity.


◊ Exercise (even just taking a walk) can help you clear your mind by focusing on one thing and it will release endorphins in your brain which can put you in a better mood.


◊ Yoga can be a great way to de-stress. Look for classes offered at your institution or for student deals at other locations.


♦ Getting enough sleep so that you can function well throughout the day. It is recommended that you get 6 to 9 hours a night, depending on the individual.


◊ Having a regular sleeping routine will help your body know when it should be alert and when it should be resting.


◊ See information and tips from the Canadian Sleep Society.


♦ Eating healthy.


◊ Limit your intake of processed foods. See tips on how nutrition can help you deal with stress.


◊ Drink lots of water to hydrate your body and brain, limit caffeine and alcohol intake.


♦ Listening to your body: Take a break when you need to and rest when you are ill.


♦ Learning some relaxation techniques and using them on a regular basis. Try out a few and choose the one(s) that work best for you:


Breathing exercises


Progressive Muscle Relaxation


♦ Taking a technology break during your leisure time.


◊ You are probably on your computer daily for your studies. Being on the computer too much can cause eye strain, back aches, and other issues.


◊ Dedicate time every day to be away from the computer and TV.


◊ Staring at a bright screen before going to bed can affect your internal sleep schedule.

Asking for help to deal with stress


♦ Seek out assistance from a parent, friend or sibling.


◊ This can included talking about it or asking for help. This can help you put things in perspective and lift a weight off your shoulders, even if they cannot do anything about it.


♦ Seek out professional help.


◊ See your doctor when mental and physical problems arise, in case they are caused by more than stress.


◊ Find counselling services. You can likely get free counselling at your post-secondary institution and through your doctor.


◊ Look for group workshops on dealing with stress through your institution.

Managing financial stress


Financial problems are one of the main sources of stress for Canadians and Americans.  


 Reducing financial stress


♦ Create a budget.


◊ Monitoring your finances and having a plan for your future can help you feel in control instead of overwhelmed by the costs of PSE.


♦ Apply for non-repayable funding:


◊ The stress of completing applications will be outweighed by the stress-relieving benefits of having money to help pay for your education. It can mean working fewer hours and potentially having less debt.

Save money.


◊ Having savings will reduce financial stress in your future.


♦ Find work that fits your school schedule.


♦ Keep your receipts and other papers organized.


◊ Designate a drawer with files that contain documentation you may have to refer to later.


◊ Having to search for documentation makes many tasks much more stressful, including filing income tax and submitting a healthcare claim.

Dealing with worries about the future


Post-secondary students often have concerns about finding jobs after graduating and paying back high levels of student debt. What should you do?


Be informed: If you are interested in a particular career, find out about the job prospects and requirements. Resources can be found here.


Be financially smart: Budget, apply for non-repayable funding, save money


Get work experience and network: Learn more about finding work and volunteer positions to enhance your skills for the job market and make connections.

How do I deal with debt?


♦ A calculator can help you figure out the best way to pay off your debt, especially if you have multiple sources of debt. A downloadable debt reduction calculator can be found here and an online calculator can be found here.


♦ If you are struggling with debt, you may want to get financial advice.


◊ Find out what financial counselling services are offered to students on campus.


◊ You may want to consult a non-profit credit counselling organization in your region.


♦ Get information about dealing with debt at


◊ One option is debt consolidation, which will combine several loans into one single debt with lower interest.


◊ You may be able to negotiate a lower interest rate or lower the amount you owe.


◊ Find some tips here.


♦ If you have “bad debt” (borrowing money for unnecessary purchases), it is important to think about what you can change to prevent it from happening again by creating a budget and a savings plan.


◊ Find information about using credit cards here.

Resources for dealing with stress


♦ Find advice on how to cope with student life at


♦ About stress:


Health Canada


Canadian Mental Health Association


National Health Service (United Kingdom) offers ways to reduce, prevent and cope with stress.


♦ About general mental health issues:


◊ Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) fact sheets


American Psychological Association (APA)


♦ For students with children:


◊ The American Psychological Association offers advice on managing stress for a healthy family and the Canadian Psychological Association offers advice for women on managing the stress of family responsibilities.