How to help a tertiary student who isn’t coping

Having a conversation

Illustration of Stressed Woman Learning Books

Stress is a common and natural response to challenging situations or environments. It has both a mental and a physical component and we often notice it both in our bodily responses, and the way we feel in our minds.

While everyone experiences stress from time to time, and it can serve a purpose in helping us ‘rise to a challenge’, too much stress is not a good thing. Extended periods of stress or extreme stress can not only be uncomfortable, but they can also be physically and mentally harmful.

Tertiary students often experience stress in relation to their studies, and competing life demands such as work, family, friendships, and finances.

If you are a tertiary student yourself, the chances are, you will know a friend or peer who is experiencing stress at any given time. If you think someone you know might be struggling to cope with that stress, there are things you can do to help.

What exactly is stress?

It might seem simple – after all, we all know what feeling stressed is like – yet many people still don’t understand the biology and psychology behind stress. Stress is a response to external or internal stimulus that can trigger a ‘flight or fight’ reflex causing complex reactions in the neurological and endocrine systems within the body. Stress hormones can fluctuate in the body during times of stress. This can in turn result in physical, mental and emotional symptoms. You will most likely notice it first in a person’s mood or how they behave.

It is also important to note that stress can be positive and negative. Positive stress serves people in a good way by signalling that something is important and needs a reaction. It can alert people to danger or even prompt them to push themselves to achieve something important. Negative stress occurs when stress becomes overwhelming, chronic or prolonged. It can have side-effects that are not helpful.

Physical symptoms of negative or long-term stress include:

  • Racing heart, tightness in the chest or high blood pressure
  • Headaches or pressure in the head and neck
  • Changes in diet e.g. loss or appetite or over eating
  • Sleeping problems e.g. insomnia, irregular sleep patterns, or constant tiredness
  • Irritable stomach or bowels
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Decreased ability to fight illnesses

Mental or emotional symptoms of negative or long-term stress include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling anxious or overwhelmed
  • Panic attacks
  • Feeling down or depressed
  • Mood swings or erratic moods
  • Emotional outbursts e.g. yelling or crying
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Withdrawal from others or situations
  • Failure to cope with otherwise normal situations

How common is it for stress to be a problem?

A recent survey of young Australians reported that 1 in 3 students experienced levels of stress that were impacting  their health and well-being (ReachOut, 2020). According to the Australian Psychological Society, research has also suggested that the incidence of stress in young people aged 16-34 is higher than in older Australians.

It is also estimated that overall, more than half of all Australians experienced at least one ‘stressor’ in a 12 month period. People who already have a mental health condition, are more likely to report experiencing stress, indicating that mental health problems can exacerbate stress and reduce coping mechanisms (AIHW, 2020). 

Whatever statistics we look at, it’s clear that stress remains a part of our lives, and this can be particularly prevalent during the competing demands of university.

Common causes of stress:

  • Competing demands on time
  • High expectations (from self and others)
  • Increased pressure to perform (outside of usual routines)
  • Personal financial situations
  • Family and relationship worries or trouble
  • Illness or not feeling fit and healthy
  • Worrying about others and their wellbeing
  • Body image concerns
  • Bullying or abuse
  • Conflict with others
  • Previous experience with trauma
Stressed Out Woman on Couch

How can I help a friend or peer who is feeling stressed?

If someone you know isn’t coping with their stress, they might benefit from your support. Having a friend or peer offer support early on, can prevent stress from getting to levels where it becomes chronic or prolonged.

 It’s very important to understand that everyone copes differently with stress. While you might be coping well with the competing demands of being a tertiary student, others may not be. The way a person copes is contingent on many personal and environmental factors. Remember – struggling with stress does not make a person weak or strange. It is not a reflection on their intelligence, capabilities, or other strengths.

What can I do to help someone experiencing negative stress?

1) Look out for signs – Look for signs that the person might not be coping with their stress. Don’t ignore these, take steps to connect.

2) Get talking – ask your friend or peer how they are feeling and express your concern for them in an authentic way. This can be the beginning of a conversation around their broader mental health. Most people experiencing challenging times respond well to offers of support.

3) Respect privacy and boundaries – while talking and offering support is a great thing to do, you should always respect the person’s boundaries. Remember also that personality, lifestyle, cultures, religions and other beliefs can influence the way a person wishes to communicate about their well-being.

4) Take time out together – If they are receptive, suggest something that might remove them from a stressful situation or environment. This can be as simple as going somewhere at university or off-campus to sit and talk.Or you can offer to participate in a stress relieving activity (one they might actually like):

  • Spending time in nature – the beach, the bush, or even just in the garden
  • Exercising – at the gym, playing a sport, going swimming, or taking a walk
  • Dining – having a coffee or nice meal together
  • Doing something fun e.g. going to the movies, playing a boardgame, or whatever other activity you would enjoy together (the possibilities are endless)
  • Connecting with friends – socialising in a positive way
  • Practicing relaxation, meditation or mindfulness activities (usually best if led by a professional)
  • Creating something – participate in an arts or crafts activities

5) Don’t minimise the stress/problems – Try not to compare yourself to the person, or minimise or belittle their stress e.g. “That doesn’t sound so bad,” “I have just as much on as you,” “You’ll be fine, just forget about it,” “I think you’re over-reacting”. While it can be tempting to also highlight your own stress or that of others, this is not a time to compete with the person’s problems, but rather to focus on them. Remember, you will rarely understand the full extent of a person’s life challenges.

6) Offer helpful well-being reminders – without over-simplifying the problem or solution its worth reminding the friend that people are better able to cope with stress if they:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene (enough quality sleep)
  • Maintain a balanced diet and stay hydrated
  • Get some exercise routinely (in accordance with their health needs and abilities)
  • Avoid over-use or misuse of substances such as alcohol and other drugs
  • Create manageable routines and set reasonable goals and expectations
  • Get physical and mental health check ups from professionals

7) Make suggestions for supports – If you sense that the person isn’t coping with their stress and needs further support then suggest options to them. These can include:

  • Calling a help line or text support line
  • Speaking with a University or externally based counsellor, psychologist or support worker
  • Talking with a medical practitioner such as a GP
  • Looking for online supports – information and tools

8) Check in – Remember to check in with the person to see how they are coping. You are never expected to be a person’s long-term or formal support, but sometime stress can fluctuate or build over time, and your initial approach might need a follow-up if the stress continues or gets worse.

What if it’s more than stress or something else?

Stress is just one issue impacting well-being and it is often linked to other mental health problems. Many of these conditions will need a mix of formal and informal supports to aid recovery. The mental health of tertiary students can vary greatly in terms of severity, duration, and diagnosis. Some common mental health problems can include:

  • Anxiety and panic disorders
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders
  • Non-suicidal self-injury (self-harm)
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Find out more about Mental Health First Aid training for tertiary students and how you can learn the skills to support a friend or peer experiencing a mental health problem or mental health crisis

If you feel like a problem is too big for you to handle and the person you are worried about is it at risk, find someone who can help them immediately.

If you or anyone you know needs help:


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