Managing study stress

Tips and resources to help you manage study stress and maintain a healthy study-life balance.

What is stress and how does it affect your learning? 

Stress is our body’s response to a demand placed on it. Stress is often confused with anxiety, but stress is not a diagnosable mental illness. Stress is a normal condition, experienced by everyone. It involves an emotional, physical or mental response to events that cause bodily or mental tension. 

A small amount of stress from time to time is not a problem - it can even motivate us to get things done. But when stress is intense and ongoing, it can start to impact our physical and mental health. 

Stress has many effects on learning. Stressful situations make it more difficult to recall information. During exams or tests, we may find it harder to remember key pieces of information. 

Stress impacts how we sleep and our general levels of exhaustion. When we are sleepy, our alertness and concentration is lowered and makes it difficult to pay attention, and to learn efficiently.

Stress also encourages us to prepare for danger; we want to respond instinctively rather than thoughtfully. This response means that we end up paying more attention to our environment, rather than absorbing academic information.

Symptoms of stress

The way we experience stress may differ from person to person. Here are some common symptoms: 

  • Feeling nervous, scared, or worried
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Muscle tension
  • Tearfulness
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Panicing
  • Racing or repetitive thoughts (e.g. “I can’t do this” or “I can’t handle the way I feel”)
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Procrastinating
  • Interpersonal problems.

Top tips for managing stress

Pause in the moment 

In the middle of a stressful episode, take a moment to pause. A short pause can create a buffer and weaken the impulse to fall into a stress response. Try counting to 10, breathing deeply or taking a short break. If you need a longer break, do something relaxing – take a hot bath, watch a film, or do some exercise. This produces chemicals in your body called endorphins, which make you feel good.

Notice it and name it 

Simply name your emotional reaction. You might say to yourself, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed at the moment.” By noticing and labelling your reactions you help activate the thinking part of your brain, helping you to step back and decide what action to take.

Acceptance

To prevent stress from overwhelming us, we need to work out what problems we can tackle and what we need to accept.

Organise

Write a to-do-list, organise your diary, draw up an action plan and clean up the clutter on your desk. Organising is a powerful antidote to feeling overwhelmed and provides a calming effect. Consider making a list of all the things in your life that are making you feel stressed by writing them down on a piece of paper. This can help you sort things out in your head. Problems look more manageable written down than in a big jumble in your head!

Visualise 

Take a moment to step back and visualise the bigger picture. Imagine yourself handling the challenge successfully and create an image in your mind that inspires calm. 

Focus

Our brains crave focus, but we often work against this by trying to multitask. Break your tasks into chunks and try to focus on one part at a time.

Stay connected

Connect with others to share the load and get help with the challenges you are facing. When you are in study mode, it is tempting to withdraw from others to give you more time to study. However, you need people to help stay grounded. Try chatting to someone you trust about it.

Helpful resources

  • Reach Out – Offers practical support, tools, and tips for everyday issues, tough times, mental health issues, relationships, identity, wellbeing or helping others
  • The Desk – Has free online modules, tools, quizzes, and advice that can help people improve their wellbeing and study more effectively
  • Practice slowing down your thoughts through mindfulness Headspace App or Smiling Mind App
  • RMIT Counselling – The RMIT Counselling Service provides one-on-one counselling for students
  • For more publicly available mental health support, see Community mental health support
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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.