High stress and loneliness among students: insight, tips and initiatives
The majority of students in higher education experience psychological symptoms as anxiety and depression. Students experience performance pressure, loneliness, emotional exhaustion or even life fatigue. This is evident from the mental health and substance use monitor from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM). Unfortunately a recognizable picture for Tilburg University, says Vice-Rector Magnificus Jantine Schuit. The university is developing various initiatives to improve the situation. There is also a great deal of scientific expertise in the field of stress, depression, loneliness and substance abuse. Where possible, this knowledge is used to improve the situation.
The RIVM monitor shows that 51% of students experience psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Performance pressure and stress are often to blame. Also 80% of the students feel lonely.
We recognize this worrying picture from research we have done ourselves into the mental health of students. The corona period is very tough for many of them. That is precisely why it is so important to provide physical education. Tilburg University is already doing a lot for the mental health of students and we also work closely with the GGZ and the municipality. In the coming period we will put even more effort into providing good information in cooperation with students
- Jantine Schuit, Vice-Rector Magnificus
Twice as much stress
Researcher Nina Kupper (Medical and Clinical Psychology) also recognizes the picture. She has been researching stress for years, also among students: "From questionnaires completed between 2011 and 2016 by a total of 750 students, it appears that in this group anxiety and depression occur at least twice as much as in the general population. A nuance is that a score on a screening questionnaire does not necessarily say anything about a diagnosis. Apart from that, it remains of course a major problem, which by the way is not exclusively reserved for students."
Period of transition
Kupper: "Research shows that the main cause of stress is the period of transition that adolescents and young adults go through. Their lives are changing and more is expected of them. And they often have little control over that situation. In addition, another great life event is going on at the moment: a pandemic. That comes on top of an already challenging situation."
Transition moments and 'life events,' like the corona pandemic, are a major cause of stress
This same moment of transition - especially in combination with lockdowns and limited social contacts - is also a breeding ground for feelings of loneliness. That this problem is also widespread is clearly seen by researcher Gerine Lodder (developmental psychology).
During the Week against Loneliness in October 2021, she shared her expertise, along with tips from the student psychologists at Tilburg University, in this article. Their most important advise is: talk about it. And also: don’t despair; loneliness is a problem that can be dealt with.
Experiencing a lot of stress is not an uncommon phenomenon. To some extent stress can even be good for you. It puts you in action mode and helps you perform. "“There is a limit, though,” Nina Kupper explains. “Ideally, the stress hormone level peaks briefly and then goes back to normal. If you worry a lot, this will prevent your body from recovering. You experience chronic stress, which is not good for your overall health, nor for your performance.”
“There are various scientifically proven strategies for managing stress: do not want to be in control all the time; accept a situation as it is; set yourself specific and achievable goals”, Nina explains. “Learning to use these interventions preferably starts at home. Parents who know how to manage stress will be an example to their kids. They pass on their lifestyle to the next generation. But even if you were not taught to manage stress from a young age, there are ways to manage fretting and worrying, for instance. Taking a moment a few times a day for three to five minutes to become aware of your breathing and to consciously experience how you are feeling can reduce stress. It addresses the biology of the stress cycle: the well-known fight or flight reaction kicks in when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. With breathing exercises, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This will help the body to relax and recover.”
Taking a moment a few times a day for three to five minutes to become aware of your breathing can reduce stress
Researcher, psychologist, and mindfulness trainer Dr. Ivan Nyclicek (Medical and Clinical Psychology) is an expert in the field of mindfulness and teaches courses via www.mindfulnesstilburg.nl (website in Dutch). “Students can also take mindfulness courses via the Sports Center. And free apps are available such as Headspace, Breathe, and Calm.”
Nina Kupper: “Clinical trials have shown that mindfulness works. But it does require practicing every day. A one-off training course is not sufficient to achieve a lasting effect.”
Relatively new interventions are techniques for biofeedback. They help you to visualize physical reactions. You are connected to a device that shows how calmer breathing allows for better heart rate variability. This in turn helps you to better maintain the breathing techniques. This visual biofeedback thus helps to reduce stress. Unfortunately, no app is available yet, but there are stress management training courses in which this technique is used.”
Want to know more?
RIVM, GGD GHOR Nederland and Trimbos-instituut have carried out a monitor at the request of the Ministries of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) and of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) to investigate the mental health and substance use of students in higher education. Also the related factors were mapped out.