We talk a lot about stress as something negative, something to be avoided. Students tell me all the time how “stressed” they are as if it is something entirely negative. The reality is that often stress is an appropriate response to a situation. A student should feel stress, particularly when going into an exam. If you do not have stress, I would be even more concerned.
Stress tends to have the impact that you expect it to have. If you believe your stress is harmful it is more likely to be harmful and if you believe your stress is a resource we can use it to activate the energy and focus we need to overcome challenges.
Stress is not something that happens to us, instead, think of it as something that happens within us. It is a subtle distinction, but if we think of it as something internal rather than external being forced upon us, we feel a greater sense of control and ownership over how we use it. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, an expert in the field of “science help,” recommends that we do not attempt to directly fight the physiological responses that we have to stress, but instead subtly reframe it in a way that is positive. Thus, instead of trying to calm ourselves down, we should see the surge of adrenaline, energy, etc that often comes with a stressful situation as an indication of excitement. Indeed, at times of stress, our bodies and minds are in a state of excitement. While it may feel unreasonable to convince yourself in those moments to be calm, it is not unreasonable to convince yourself to view your emotional and physiological response as excitement.
Further, it is important to remind ourselves that stress is fundamentally linked with what we care about and what we value. If we view the stress we encounter in each day as a part of eudaimonic well-being, then we will be have the courage and resilience to grow from stress and realise its critical role in self-realization. (Eudaimonic wellbeing is an alternative to hedonic happiness; it focusses more on human flourishing including self-realization, values, and purpose and less on the pursuit of pleasure that is associated more with hedonism.)
We can use this perspective on a daily basis when dealing with the inevitable stress that is associated with doing a university degree. By reframing our thoughts on stress and seeing stress as something we can harness and use to our advantage rather than something that is happening to us and is innately negative, we will be able to help alleviate some of the more destructive consequences that the negative view of stress has on our academic, physical and psychological well-being.
The reality is, stress is an essential part of a fulfilling and productive life. If we had no stress, we would not have the pressure and motivation to get up and do anything. Stress is what gets us going, it is what helps us be energetic and engaged at the right moments. The goal should not be to eliminate stress, but to get better at interpreting stress as a productive tool.