It’s midway through term. Assignments are looming. There’s the pressure to keep up with social plans.

And you might start to notice a familiar feeling creeping in - exhaustion. Every day.

Whether you find yourself retreating to your room or hitting the pub more often than usual, that lingering sense of unease could be a sign of stress.

What is stress?

You may know what stress means on paper, but it’s easy to neglect your own symptoms when they arise.

When managed well, stress can help you perform under pressure. But when you become overwhelmed, stress can disrupt all aspects of your life.

It’s important to recognise what causes you stress, the difference between good and bad stress and to learn about your body’s way of coping with stress. 💜

How your body reacts to stress

When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action.

Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time and enhance your focus. This is known as the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you.

When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you stay focused, energetic and alert. In emergencies, stress can save your life – giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam the brakes to avoid an accident. 🚨

Stress keeps you alert during a presentation at university and sharpens your concentration to help you study for an exam.

But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body.

The impact of chronic stress on your body

When you repeatedly experience the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ stress response in your daily life, it can lead to serious health problems.

Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can:

  • Shut down your immune system
  • Upset your digestive and reproductive systems
  • Raise blood pressure
  • Increase the risk of heart attack and stroke
  • Speed up the ageing process
  • Leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems

The following are some of the common warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.

Physical symptoms of stress: 

  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds or flu
  • Cognitive symptoms
  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgement
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Emotional symptoms
  • Depression or general unhappiness
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Moodiness, irritability or anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Other mental or emotional health problems

Behavioural symptoms of stress: 

  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

Tips for managing stress

The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship.

However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as going to university, marriage and buying a house -  did you know that 57% of Brits say moving is the most stressful event of their lives? 🤯

There are things you can do to help manage your stress so you don’t become overwhelmed:

Emotional awareness

Knowing when you’re feeling stressed and the ability to self-soothe can help in the moment. Some examples of this might be practising deep breathing, meditation or journalling. 

Social engagement

Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling. Develop a network of people to engage with when you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t be afraid to ask for help. As the old saying goes, ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ - often, just talking through something helps the brain see things differently.

Physical activity

Exercising regularly, whether it’s a walk, gym session, playing sports... whatever feels right for you. Exercise releases those ‘happy’ hormones. 

Diet

It may sound like a broken record, but it’s true - good food can make you feel better, whilst too much sugar and processed foods can wreak havoc on your system. But, again, listen to your body – everything in moderation!

Self-care

Taking time for yourself is also essential for managing stress. Whether that’s having a hot shower, getting a haircut or binge-watching your favourite show, a little bit of ‘you’ time can go a long way.  

Challenges on campus

There will be a myriad of challenges and stressors you’ll be faced with when you head to university or college. It’s important to recognise that although it can feel stressful and overwhelming at times, you want to have fun and enjoy yourself while also accepting there will be challenges ahead.

Some challenges you might be faced with on campus are:

  1. Alcohol abuse
  2. Eating disorders
  3. Drug abuse
  4. Exam and general stress
  5. Gambling
  6. Crypto trading
  7. In-game spending
  8. Financial stress
  9. Peer pressure and social anxiety

In this section we’ll look at each of these and how you can avoid pitfalls, getting help to address problems and what to do if you’re feeling stuck.

Alcohol abuse

Alcohol may be one of the most common problems on campuses. 
When is enough enough? When does too much become an issue? How do you know how much is too much?

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges you’ll face at university is the pressure to drink. But this doesn’t mean you have to give in to the temptation to fit in. 🙏

Part of the difficulty is knowing your limits. Once you know what is going to take you over the edge, it’s a good time to stop drinking or at least cut back.

Here are a few tips for helping moderate your drinking habits: 

  • Set yourself a limit before going out 
  • Rotate between an alcoholic drink and a glass of water
  • Always eat before drinking
  • Talk to your friends about it - more people may want to cut back than you realise!
  • Opt for activities that don’t revolve around drinking like sports or a morning coffee
  • Practice mindfulness to better understand your thoughts and behaviours (your ‘why’ for drinking) 

If you’re concerned about any issues associated with alcohol, see your GP or contact Alcoholics Anonymous.

Drug abuse

It’s no secret that university and college students dabble in recreational drug use. No one can stop you from experimenting but if you do just do it carefully.

If you find yourself abusing drugs or it’s negatively impacting your everyday life, seek help. You can contact your university or college support team who can signpost you to the right treatment providers.

You can also call the Frank drugs helpline on 0300 123 6600. They can talk you through all your options.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are a range of conditions that can affect someone physically, psychologically and socially. They’re serious mental illnesses and include anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders.

They can be serious - but they’re also treatable conditions. The sooner someone enters treatment, the better the outcome is likely to be.

They claim more lives than any other mental illness. According to Forward Thinking Birmingham, one in five of the most seriously affected will die prematurely from the physical consequences or suicide. 

Eating disorders are complex and there are many reasons why someone may develop one. A whole range of different factors including genetic, psychological, environmental, social and biological can influence the potential development of these disorders.

*Beat is the UK’s eating disorder charity and can be contacted on 0300 123 3355 or by emailing info@b-eat.co.uk

Exam stress

It’s common to feel stressed around exam time. You might feel there’s a huge amount of pressure to do well or anxious you can’t fit all the revision in. The build-up to results day can also leave you feeling overwhelmed and run down.

What are some symptoms of exam stress?

  • Difficulty getting to sleep or difficulty waking up in the morning
  • Constant fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • Aches and pains for no apparent reason
  • Poor appetite
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Increased anxiety and irritability
  • ‘Flying off the handle’
  • Increased heart rate\
  • Migraines/headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness

Everyone has bad days - but if you’ve noticed three or more of the above symptoms and you’ve experienced them for some weeks, you may need to do something about your stress levels.

Visit your GP to rule out other possible reasons for the symptoms such as depression and to get advice.

If you’re suffering from stress, try some of the following ways to calm down:

  • Make time for yourself away from your studies to wind down. For example, relaxing in a warm bubble bath, listening to soothing music and shutting yourself off from the world for a while
  • Take time for your mind and body to relax. Chatting with friends, meditation, yoga or just watching a bit of TV or listening to music can take the edge off
    Work out, run or play sports. Regular exercise is a good stress reducer
  • Eat well – skipping meals will deplete your energy and leave you drained
    Talk to your family and friends. Making time to see friends will help you unwind and let you unburden any problems

Gambling

According to The Guardian, nearly half of all gamblers between 18 and 24 say they’ve risked more than they could afford to lose. And 36% of those who had gambled in the last 12 months had sold possessions or borrowed money to place a bet. 

Opportunities to get involved in gambling are increasing. There are so many online sources nowadays available at our fingertips, including free gambling apps and games with gambling mechanisms built into them.

Moreover, the revised Gambling Act means that casinos no longer require membership, while bookmakers and online betting sites can now advertise on television.

With the increased pressure on student loans, it can feel more tempting to gamble – don’t! If for any reason you do fall into this trap, know that there are agencies that can help, listed further on. Gambling is as addictive as smoking – if you can avoid it, all the better for your mental health.

If you’re concerned about the amount of time or money that you or someone you know is spending gambling, you can talk in confidence to a Gamcare adviser, by phone on 0808 8020 133 or via the NetLine. (Available to those living in England, Scotland and Wales).

In-game spending 

If you’re a gamer, you've probably encountered opportunities to buy in-game items or enhancements.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of gaming and spend money you wouldn’t otherwise. In-game spending can create those same real-life feelings of social status: just like buying the latest trainers can give you a higher sense of self, buying ‘skins’ (how you appear in the game) can also boost your ego. 
While these purchases can enhance your gaming experience, they also come with risks.

Not everyone who gambles or games will run into trouble. But, it can be a slippery slope. 

Here are some tips for reducing in-game spending: 

  • Set limits on your gaming budget - just like you’d have a budget for other categories of spending, you can set some money aside for game purchases
  • Prioritise essential expenses - it’s important to prioritise basic needs first to help you maintain financial stability while still enjoying your favourite games
  • Be wary of in-game scams - Just like there are phone and email scams, you need to watch out for in-game scams too. Research conducted by Lloyds Bank found that ‘one in five (20%) players have fallen victim to a gaming-related scam or know someone that has’ 

Read their full report along with tips on how to avoid game fraud

If you're concerned about your in-game spending habits, don't hesitate to reach out for support. By being proactive and mindful of your spending, you can enjoy gaming while safeguarding your financial wellbeing.

If you need help with gaming or gambling: 

  • GamCare National Gambling Helpline (0808 8020 133 – with live chat also available)
  • NHS National Centre for Gaming Disorders and the National Gambling Treatment Service (0207 3817 722)
  • GAMSTOP – free service that helps restrict online gambling activities
  • RecoverMe – an app to support problem gamblers or those at risk of suffering from gambling addiction

Crypto trading

The rise of crypto trading has become another challenge for students.

While there can be a financial opportunity in crypto trading - if you do your research and thoroughly understand the market before taking a risk - there are lots of unknowns that could lead you to lose more than you invested.

Crypto markets can swing wildly both ways. Despite what ‘finfluencers’ may tell you on social media, crypto trading is not a guaranteed way to make money.

If you're considering crypto trading, make sure you do your research, understand market trends and consider consulting with financial professionals to develop a strategy that fits your risk tolerance.

And if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or facing financial difficulties due to crypto investments, reach out for help. Your university or college likely offers support services and financial advisors can provide guidance tailored to your situation. 

Read our blog ‘Crypto 101 for students’ for more on understanding cryptocurrencies

Peer pressure & social anxiety

Peer pressure is the influence you feel from a person or group of people to do something, including things you might not otherwise consider doing or even want to do.

It’s normal to want to be part of a group and feel like you belong in a community, especially if you’re new or less experienced than the people around you. This can happen while at university and you may feel compelled to take part in activities.

At university and college especially, you may feel even more pressure to fit in, particularly in the early days. You might try to live up to people’s expectations, but it’s important to be mindful to not let that cloud what you want.

If you’re dealing with peer pressure, you’re not alone. There are lots of ways to deal with it.

One of the most important lessons while at university is being able to make decisions that are right for you. It also means taking ownership and responsibility for those choices.

Spending time with people who enjoy the same activities as you may help alleviate pressure to do things you don’t want to. Remember, hanging out with the ‘cool’ kids isn’t cool if it means doing things you’re not happy with.

Financial stress

It’s normal to feel worried, anxious or down when times are hard financially. But there’s lots of support out there if you’re in financial difficulty.

According to our research, just 3% of students report feeling that they have enough money. This implies that, for almost all students, not being able to make ends meet is the ‘new normal’. 

Financial stress can affect your self-esteem, which in turn, can lead to emotional distress.

Here are some ways to manage financial stress:

  • Hardship funding and other financial help - your university or college may have a hardship fund if you’re in financial difficulties. Here’s everything you need to know about hardship funding
  • Food banks and hubs - Groceries can be expensive, but some services provide free food items. You can find a local Trussell Trust food bank here
  • Don’t withdraw from life because you think you can’t afford to be active or socialise. Keep seeing your friends. If you have more time because you’re not at work, take up some form of exercise, as it can improve your mood if you’re feeling low.
  • Facing your fears means not avoiding things you find difficult. For example, if it looks like you’re getting into debt, get advice on how to prioritise your debts. It’s better to face the problem before it becomes an even bigger one. 
  • Be nice to yourself - self-compassion can go a long way in helping you get better and tackle the issue at hand.
  • Keep a routine and stick to it - routine is key for staying on top of all your different priorities. Even if it’s as simple as setting an alarm for the same time each day.  
  • Get a good night’s sleep - adequate sleep will make a big difference for your overall wellbeing, financial and otherwise. 

Remember, you don’t have to suffer alone – there’s help out there. If you’re feeling worried and this hasn’t subsided after a few weeks, see your GP. Or contact helplines such as the Samaritans (08457 90 90 90) for confidential, non-judgemental emotional support. 

Here are some other resources for support: 

For more support, read our blog 'Where to find help if you’re struggling financially’.

As with anything in life, starting at university can be not only a really exciting and positive experience but also a frightening one. Remember that that there are lots of people out there who feel as you do and there’s lots of help available.

Get Money Smart today

Unlimited access to 100s of articles, videos, and funding options.

Register for free

Latest blog posts

View all
  • Accu's ‘Building Tomorrow’s Visionaries’ Scholarship: empowering engineers for a brighter future

  • 7 tips for travelling on a student budget

  • Student finance and working part-time - what you need to know