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How to manage and reduce stress

Are you struggling with study-related or personal issues? Do you find yourself surrounded by textbooks, outlines and deadlines wondering how you will get all this work done for the exams? In these cases you might feel a bit stressed. A little bit of stress can be a good thing as it motivates to work hard. But when stress levels get out of hand, it can stop you from performing at your best.

Chronic stress has a very negative impact on you because it can disrupt important parts of your brain - you can read all about how this works in this neuroscience article about the effect of stress on the brain at NRC.nl (in Dutch).

Study stress and burnout are a hot topic in the news lately. According to research, the current generation of students feels increasingly under pressure to perform. Research conducted at the UvA (in 2016) showed that a quarter of the students suffers from burnout symptoms nowadays. 

What are the signs?

How do you know that you might be overstressed? Some typical physical signs include: difficulty sleeping, diminished appetite, increased heart rate, shallow breathing and fatigue. Psychological symptoms include feeling depressed, irritable or more emotional than usual, feelings of anxiety, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, indecisiveness and procrastination. If you recognize these symptoms, don’t walk around with your stress related problems for too long to prevent them from accumulating and potentially resulting in burnout.

Managing stress can be learned

Also if you don’t experience any negative effects of stress (yet), it can be good to increase your resistance to stress as a way of prevention. Though how you manage stress is for a large part innate, psychologists believe and studies have shown it can also be learned. It is a crucial skill in today’s demanding society and workplace, so it’s not a bad idea to start investing in stress management skills to prepare for your future career.

Soft skills like stress management are crucial in today’s demanding society and workplace.

Four important ways to prevent, reduce and recover from negative effects of stress

These activities make your brain more resilient to stress in your daily life:

  1. Sport: During physical exercise, the brain produces growth substances that recover the brain. It is not necessary to train for a marathon. Scientists found out that people who walk three times a week for 45 minutes have already less shrinkage in important brain areas and improved executive functions. So make sure you get enough exercise, especially when you need to do a lot of studying.
  2. Sleeping: Chronic sleep deprivation inhibits the metabolism of the brain area that is important for executive functions. During sleep, waste materials are also cleaned up in the brain. On average, we need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, so make sure you get this rest.
  3. Eating healthy: The metabolism can be disrupted by chronic stress, especially the hormones that play a role in blood sugar, such as insulin. Therefor it is important to eat a varied and well-balanced diet during stressful times, with enough fruit and vegetables, grains and proteins and not too much sugar.
  4. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a more advanced technique, focused on being fully present in the moment and experiencing what is going in and on around you. People who regularly do mindfulness meditation train their brain and can focus their attention more quickly after they get distracted, they also have a better working memory, respond more flexibly to new things, and are better able to deal with emotions. You can learn to meditate easily with free phone apps like 'Headspace' or 'Insight timer'.

Ask for help

If you are struggling with stress due to study-related or personal issues – ask for help. Fortunately, within the UvA, there are several departments to which you can turn and things you can do. Here is an overview:

  • Study advisers: If your stress is a result of your studies, you can visit the study advisers during the open office hours, or you can book an appointment online. They are there to answer all study-related questions and can advise about planning your study program. For example, they can guide you with spreading your study load to relieve stress. 
  • Student psychologistIf your stress stems from personal circumstances, or if you have questions or problems that relate to you as an individual (rather than being directly related to the content of your studies), you can always visit a student psychologist for individual sessions.
  • Stress relief walk-in hourThere is a ‘stress relief walk-in hour’ that takes place every first Monday of the month. Here you can learn a number of techniques based on mindfulness and cognitive therapy that can help you cope with stress. The stress relief hour is also helpful for international students who feel homesick, lonely and/or have problems with adjusting.
  • Mindfulness-training for stress reduction: Student psychologists offer a mindfulness-training for stress reduction three times a year (for free). In 8 sessions you will learn various mindfulness techniques. This can be very helpful in dealing with stress and can help reduce negative thinking. The techniques can also help you improve your focus, concentration and thinking skills. Be quick, as there are limited spots for the training that fill up soon. International students are given priority. 
  • Mindfulness at the University Sport Centre (USC): At the University Sport Centre (USC) you can also practice mindfulness in different forms. 
  • Meditation on campusFree weekly drop-in practice on campus to experience inner silence, relaxation and connection in between classes. Every Wednesday from 12.00-12.45 pm CREA opens up a space for UvA students to enjoy a guided meditation.
  • Psychological support workshops and groups for international students: Studying in a foreign country can be overwhelming and lead to stress. Student psychologists offer free psychological support workshops and groups specifically for international students. For example about managing stress or dealing with worry and rumination.
  • Psychological support workshops and groups for Dutch studentsStudent psychologist also offer free psychological support trainings and workshops for Dutch students that can help coping with stress during your study. For example about handling study stress, exam self-confidence and presentation fear.