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Stress, worth stressing about?

Have you ever felt the pressures of student life? Venetia Rainey takes a journey into the realms of relaxation to find out what best to do when everything gets too much.

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Have you ever felt the pressures of student life? Venetia Rainey takes a journey into the realms of relaxation to find out what best to do when everything gets too much.

This week has not been a good week. Between trying to have a social life, getting my next essay done, working on Nouse and writing this article, I think I could fairly say that right now I am feeling a little stressed. The irony, as I'm sure you will have spotted, is that this article is, in fact, about stress; that little word that covers all manner of causes and effects, and can reduce sane people to gibbering wrecks in the matter of a few days. It is everywhere and can affect anyone. In fact, everyone has probably felt it at some point in their lives.

Money, relationships, friends, family, a job, degree work, your health, self-image - the list of worries that seep daily into our lives is an exhaustingly long one, and, despite most people's perceptions of students as lazy, apathetic bums rolling around in the government's money and sleeping in until four in the afternoon, we get it pretty hard as far as a stressful life goes. Most people I know feel like there aren't enough hours in the day to please everyone and also have time for themselves. We are expected to have heaving diaries full of parties and coffee dates, participate in at least a handful of societies and extra-curricular activities, build up our CV with relevant work experience, not come out of university steeped in debt, not forget about family and friends back home whom we have deserted, be as sexually active as we dare, and also, of course, graduate from with at least a 2:1. Being a student today is by no means an easy option.

Luckily, stress is now a recognised condition, and, if you feel so inclined, a great way to start you on the road to salvation is to diagnose yourself. Stressbusting.co.uk and lessons4living.com/stress are two great websites for telling you how stressed you are. Currently I'm only scoring 11 out of a possible 20, which means I have "pretty good control", but last night I was scoring a worrying 17, just on the threshold between "Danger zone, watch out!" and "Stressed out. You may need help." Most stress tests are based on a combination of psychological, behavioural, emotional and physical symptoms. For example, tightness in the chest, muscle twitches, indigestion, headaches and unusual bowel movements can all signify stress, as well as a loss of concentration, lower sex-drive and mood swings. One of the most common feelings associated with stress is that nagging thought of 'I should be able to cope with this, why do I feel like such a failure?' or even an irrepressible urge to run away from everything and everyone.

Stress is biologically defined as the disruption of homeostasis by the release of hormones in response to an outside stimulus, which can be anything from a rollercoaster ride to anxiety about a loved one. In the short term, such stresses are healthy and normal, and often enhance bodily functions. This is termed "eustress", i.e. a surge of adrenaline which enables the flight or fight instinct to be effectively activated. Distress, the counterpart to eustress, describes a more persistent state of pressure, which remains unresolved and results in damaging effects. The problem with stress as a medical disorder is that it is such a wide umbrella term encompassing a huge range of triggers and consequences, leaving it with no set definition and no set cure. As a result, the idea that someone is 'suffering from stress' is seen as something too commonplace and vague to deserve any kind of special treatment. It is definitely not considered as detrimental to one's health as many other mental disorders, and most feel that it is something to just get on and cope with alone rather than a sign that it's time to reach out for help.

With this in mind, I set to seeking out a solution. Where, as my sleeping hours decreased and my irritability increased, could I turn for help? The World-Wide Web, of course.

Cast your mind back for a second to November 7. Where were you going, what were you doing? More likely than not you were blissfully unaware that it was National Stress Awareness Day, an event proudly championed by the International Stress Management Association. Having been on a stress awareness bender, however, I was alert to this fact. So when the day finally came round, I excitedly checked the internet to see what mind-boggling things were planned to open up people's eyes all over the country to the problem of stress. Television programmes, I speculated, free goodie bags, perhaps even those fun stress-busting games you can play on the internet. You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, when I logged-on to the dedicated website (nationalstressawarenessday.co.uk) only to be greeted by Stephen Fry's face looking pained and confused (should he be my stress busting role model?) and the rather tacky and worryingly ambivalent slogan 'Let's give stress a holiday'.

There were two further links on the page. The first was to a list of the top ten ways to bust stress, each tip punctuated by one of a set of extremely irritating emoticons, beside which were a few lines telling me to exercise, make time for myself, and hug people more often. The other link allowed me to send a virtual postcard complete with an smiley face and custom message which, I am reliably informed, did little more than clog up my friend's inbox and take a frustratingly long time to load. There was also, as the final icing on the cake, a number to call to talk about stress, open only on November 7 from 8am to 8pm.

So I turned instead to the University's pages to see what help they could afford me. Three main services seemed to offer themselves to my cause. Nightline, a 'confidential listening and information service...run by students, for students'; It's a Duck's Life, a 'self-help website where students can share their mental health problems', and the University's Counselling Service.

Nightline operates around three levels of communication - face to face, telephone, and email - and is only open from 8pm to 8am. I sent them an email detailing how stressed I was, and got a very sweet email back one night later which was concerned, but not all that helpful. Their reply consisted mainly of empathetic statements like "That must be really hard for you" and questions like "What do you think you could do to change this?" It was a response, but not a particularly useful one, and certainly not one that made me feel much better. If anything it made me more aware of the plethora of problems I had, but then what was I expecting? A solution to all my problems from a stranger who knows nothing about me apart from the fact that I'm 'stressed'? I concluded that the service probably works a lot better as a continuous dialogue, but this was something which I decided not to indulge in past the first email. It is an excellent idea, though, and not a service offered at many other universities.
My next port of call was It's a Duck's Life, a site for people to write about things troubling them in order to get them off their chest. Featuring a forum and a place for posting whole articles, there were quite a few interesting pieces, especially concerning social anxieties. Some of the material was poetry, and some of that was depressing verging on the suicidal. I did feel like there were other people going through similar crises to me, but was slightly put off after discovering a page littered with spam links for soft porn and pharmaceutical deals.

The counselling service was far more receptive to my needs. They replied to my rather brief 'I'm stressed' email within 24 hours, offering me an appointment in the next few days and encouraging me to go to one of the specially created relaxation courses they run.

The counselling session was, to understate the case, very awkward at first. I felt shy and a little embarrased, whilst the silent, probing looks from my counsellor left me wondering what I was supposed to be talking about. Once I got into the flow, however, I soon found myself talking freely about whatever came into my mind, and the conversation began to wander into more specifically stressful areas of my life. I left clearer in my mind and lighter in my heart than I had felt for a long time. And all I had done was explain my situation to someone who knew nothing about me. And all she had done was listen and repeat back to me the main points. Simple, but incredibly effective.

I had also picked up a relaxation CD. For only 50p, I could enjoy my very own 20 minute de-stress session at home. Of course, in the race of activity and work over the next few days I completely forgot about it, until one night, trying to finish an essay, the abandoned thing caught my eye. Sitting comfortably, I found myself closing my eyes and wallowing in the world created by Lorraine van Donk's soothing voice, as she told me to tense and then relax every muscle in my body step by step, concentrate on the difference, and enjoy the weight of a relaxed limb. Fairly standard breathing exercises left me feeling sleepy and calm, and were followed by the best bit of it all, the path to my "special place."

Although my housemate was a little confused upon hearing the line 'Now touch your special place', this was the most relaxing part of the CD. Spoken in a manner so controlled and soothing the experience was more akin to hypnotism than anything else, I was told to imagine my special place, visualise the views and colours and finally, reach out and imagine touching a part of my created world. I found myself peaceful and focussed afterwards, and more than a little wistful for the realisation of my 'special place'.

However, these are all quite specific services, and of course, will help treat stress if you have the courage to reach out to ask for the help. Much like going to the doctor or dentist, treatment is out there, but only if you choose to seek it. But of course treatment of the symptoms is only one side of dealing with a problem; the other side is preventing the issue from arising in the first place. With this idea in mind, I approached the Student Support Office to see what the University as an institution was doing to address stress.

"Well, one of the areas for students we can have the most influence on is money. There is a lot of evidence that money is one the things that students are most concerned about. Consequentially, a series of articles go out on York Extra every couple of weeks about budgeting and use of money, all of which end with the message that if you are in difficulty there are people you can talk to about it. So we try to help manage this particular one of those areas that can lead students into stress." Steve Page, Student Support Services Manager, looks very calm himself as he talks me through the various ways in which the University tries to tackle stress. "I mean, we can't do much about students' academic studies, but we do have a support structure that hopefully will pick up people who are in difficulty. There is obviously an element that students need to declare their problem. Most students are over 18 and therefore adult, and need to be able to run their own lives, but if we see someone that is clearly in difficulty I think there are a number of people who will pick that up. Hopefully academic departments will pick it up if someone's work nosedives. Plus, I think the supervisor system is quite good on the whole, they might not see problems immediately, but they will see trends over time."

Page, however, is not blind to the problem that I seem to keep on coming up against, the prospect of creating an environment in which stress is no longer such an accepted and inseparable part of student life. "We are starting to think: 'Can we think a bit more holistically about well-being and what we as a University can do to approach that?' And to what extent are we able to support the notion of student well-being as a whole? At the moment I would say we've got some good services, but it would be an additional level if we thought about it all more holistically. The sports centre, for example, is keen to take a much more inclusive approach to sport. In the past it has tended to focus solely on the interests of people who are quite serious about sport, but of course from a stress point of view some basic level of exercise is a really good idea. So I think they are now thinking quite actevely about a sport-for-all approach."

It is this kind of attitude which is really needed both by those who are supposed to provide a support framework for people under stress, and also by the people suffering from stress themselves. There is no easy cure, although a chat with someone, anyone, and a space to clear one's head goes a very long way indeed. The important thing to do is to change the way we live our lives. So next time the pressure starts building up, think about what you can alter to make your life a bit easier.

No-one can have it all, so stop demanding the impossible from yourself. In the immortal words of Sex and the City - in a very real way, my TV special place - "Stop expecting it to look how you expected." With a few visits to your own special place, you might well find you sleep a bit better at night.

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