How stress affects students? A link between exam weeks and your health

Hvordan påvirker stress unge

Learning how to deal with stress is an important tool in life. The first time many of us may encounter some form of serious stress usually is at uni. Being aware of how to deal with uni stress and overcoming the obstacles that most of us face at the level of higher education is critical to overall success, not only at school but also in later life.

The effects of stress on students has sometimes been taken for granted, with insufficient attention being placed on how stress affects academic performance and student life overall. According to one study published in the Health Professions Education – Journal, excessive and continuous stress (notably among college students) can trigger various diseases, which can result in potential long-term illness.1

The reality is that stress can permanently affect the quality of life that a student enjoys, and in turn spoil what could have otherwise been an adventurous and enjoyable time filled with learning and exploration. Furthermore, your academic performance can potentially decline if stress and anxiety aren’t dealt with promptly.

What is stress?

So what is stress? When you’re stressed, it’s almost as if your body is in a constant state of high alert. You’re then affected by stress-related symptoms, which can be uncomfortable, depending on your overall stress level. It’s usually only at this point that it becomes clear to most people that something is wrong.

According to Harvard Health, stress entails chronic activation of the human survival mechanism.2 When this is sustained over a substantial period of time it causes impaired health in the long term.

Parts of the brain activate during stress

When one experiences a stressful moment, the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotional processing) sends a signal to the hypothalamus (the brain’s command center). The hypothalamus – the part of the brain responsible for control of nervous functions and involuntary body processes like: breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat etc.- then, in turn, communicates with the rest of the body. This distress signal causes increased heart rate, blood flow, and other symptoms, which could be defined as stress-related symptoms.

Stress factors for students

So what are the factors that cause stress in students? As most of us know, those project deadlines or upcoming finals can be a bit of a bother. Some of us may just brush it off as the usual ‘come and go’ of uni life, but for a large percentage of us, it can almost feel like a case of life or death. Whether it’s that scholarship you’re trying to hold on to, those student loans to pay off, or parental pressure, you may be feeling like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

What exactly causes stress for students?

Academic stress

According to one study in the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention, academic stress is defined as: “anxiety and stress that comes from schooling and education”.3 Being able to balance the rigours of academic life and other activities could prove a challenge for some students.

Poor time management

Even for adults, the balance of work and life proves tricky, imagine for the average college student. Ensuring that you spend the right amount of time on the right things is certain to give you some peace of mind.

Pressures of combining paid work and study

The reality of college for many students, especially those coming from limited means, is the necessity of taking on a job to earn a paycheck while attending school. According to research carried out by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, some 70% of students over the last 25 years have been employed while attending uni.4 That’s a massive amount by any stretch. The pressures of balancing both school and work can certainly take its toll.

School debt / finances

Difficulties with finances are one of the major causes of stress. Problems in finding sources of funding for your schooling, or to repay loans, may be the cause of massive amounts of stress on students.

Poor eating habits

For most students, trying to get an education is already work enough; add to that having to focus on Health & Wellness; things become even more difficult to manage.

Effects of stress among students

The effects of stress on students can be both short term and long term. As a student, the negative effects of academic stress can lead to many different kinds of problems and even potentially derail your goal of successfully completing your studies. Once you’ve been exposed to stressful situations for a substantial period of time, your body may react in some of the following ways:


The uneasiness motivated by stress may cause you to begin to construe most situations in a negative light. Even in cases of limited irritation, your muscles are already so tense that any feeling of slight disturbance may result in a disproportionately extreme outburst.


According to one research carried out by researchers at the Yale Stress Center, Yale University School of Medicine, psychological stress correlates directly with less physical activity.5 Not only does it reduce motivation but it also causes less general activity. For students, this could not be worse. Being an active and engaged student is critical to success at uni.

Memory lapses

Ever felt like you can’t remember what you read the night before the exam? Most likely it’s just the average pre-exam jitters. Now imagine that you have those jitters almost all the time. That’s what leads to stress-induced memory lapses. The Mayo Clinic notes that emotional disorders like stress and anxiety can cause: forgetfulness, confusion, or difficulty concentrating. For a student, this can be difficult to deal with.6

Social anxiety

In some extreme cases, high levels of stress and anxiety can lead to an uneasiness in social settings and even result in actual social anxiety. According to research conducted by the University of Bonn in Germany, “People with social anxiety avoid situations in which they are exposed to judgment by others. Those affected also lead a withdrawn life…”.7Although this particular research placed emphasis on the genetic connections to social anxiety, it does highlight the presence of symptoms which include: “Heart palpitations, trembling and shortness of breath…” Symptoms very much akin to stress symptoms.

According to the NHS physical symptoms of stress may also include:8

  • headaches
  • muscle tension or pain
  • dizziness
  • sleep problems
  • feeling tired all the time
  • eating too much or too little

Coping with stress at university

The paradox is, that dealing with stress can in itself be stressful. University stress and student anxiety have been part of the human experience for a long time. If you’re suffering from symptoms of stress, take it seriously, but know that there are available methods for dealing with the problem.

Some techniques for coping with stress include:

  • Manage your time better
  • Avoid nicotine, caffeine, alcohol
  • Get more sleep
  • Become more physically active
  • Talk to someone
  • Smile more!


  1. Stress & Quality of Life among University Students – Science Direct
  2. Understanding the Stress Response – Harvard Health
  3. Study on Academic Stress – IJHSSI
  4. Working while Studying – Georgetown University
  5. Effects of Stress on Exercise – NCBI
  6. Memory Loss – Mayo Clinic
  7. Social Phobia – University of Bonn
  8. How to Deal with Stress – NHS

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