Sailing stressful seas

Sailing stressful seas

Stress is what motivates us, gets us out of bed in the morning, and supplies excitement in our lives. No, really. That feeling of get-up-and-go really is stress. ‘Motivation’ is just what stress feels like at manageable levels. For various reasons, not all of which are immediately obvious, many people are now experiencing more stress than is good for them. Happily, there are ways of transcending stress that at least have the potential to be effective in almost any situation.

It’s not just you

Stress and associated mental health problems is a burgeoning problem in the world. According to the Health and Safety Executive, 17 million working days were lost last year just to work-related stress, anxiety or depression across 914,000 workers. This represented 51% of all work-related ill health and 55% of all days lost due to work-related ill health and the rate at which new cases are being diagnosed has been been rising rapidly since the pandemic.

Student mental health is in no better shape. Student Minds report that academic pressure compounded by a need among many students to work and the ever-present need to “become more employable” has driven the proportion of students suffering from stress, anxiety or depression up 6% in just the last year, from 53% in 2021 to 59% in 2022. In line with the rest of the higher education sector, the University has been actively mobilising more resources and increasing wellbeing support over the past several years because (across the UK) 43% of students have reported needing support managing their health and wellbeing and 52% reported feeling isolated or lonely during the Autumn term.

Beset by illusory tigers

The good news is that there is much that however good or bad you feel right now, there is much that you can do to help yourself feel better than you do at the moment. We evolved to dwell on danger because things that make us feel safe and give us joy are not going to creep up on us from the shadows and kill us whereas dangerous things are potentially, well, dangerous. Our brains rely on an ancient emotional centre of control (and by ancient I mean literally as old as the dinosaurs) that tells us when danger threatens and helps us remember situations when we felt we were in danger so they are easier to recognise if they ever happen again.

This helped back when we lived in caves because there were literally wild animals hoping to snack on us. Unhappily, now we live safely in (hopefully) heated homes in comparative safety and luxury, we are surrounded by literally dozens of perceived threats all the time. Deadlines, money worries, disagreements with housemates, romantic breakups, assignments – particularly referencing – all become sources of worry. The trouble is that our brains have developed over evolutionary time to be able to imagine bad things happening even if they are not happening to us this very moment but the truly ancient part of the brain we still rely on for threat recognition has never changed. We literally respond to an impending assignment deadline or reprimand at work as if they were tigers in the room. Hungry, hostile tigers. Modern life supplies so many such illusory tigers that we can easily become stressed all the time. Our bodies were not designed for this much stress and over time it makes us tired, worn down, and eventually ill. The predisposition to focus on threats means we are evolved to survive but not necessarily to thrive. We all naturally dwell on the negative and more easily focus on and recall bad things than good things. The lower your mood, the stronger this tendency becomes.

The good news

Happily, it is possible to retrain your brain to be kinder to yourself. It takes effort to effect change, progress won’t be smooth, linear or constant but you can get there and it doesn’t take a lot of time to look after yourself.

Tackle problems early. Never put off dealing with anything that worries you. If you can’t find the information you need for an assignment, chat to us in the Library online or in person. If referencing worries you, read through our introductory referencing guide (this is only for the APA 7th ed. referencing style!), check out Referencing@Portsmouth then chat to a librarian about how it works and get help with the awkward examples that make no sense. If you are starting to wonder whether you know all you need about structuring an essay or report, talk to the Academic Skills Unit. If your assignment makes no sense, chat to your lecturer about what you are supposed to be doing. If in doubt, reach out to your personal tutor.

Checking in on your feelings each day using the WhatsUP app – this sounds pointless to most people but it takes mere seconds and noticing your feelings like this is on its own proven to lift your mood.

Stop and just breathe for a few minutes, focusing on what you can notice or simply counting your breaths. So many people get lost chasing things they believe they must achieve before they can be happy. Most die still adding things to the bottom of this endlessly growing list. Rest in the moment, let go of ambition and enjoy being. Over time, you may find that your mind becomes less reactive – less prone to go chasing worrying thoughts and imagining the worst possible outcome. If you need help to focus, check out the short mindfulness podcasts at Grounded in stillness, created by Sports & Recreation’s resident mindfulness expert Stephanie Slack.

Dwell on things that make you grateful and glad – specific things, and keep trying to think of just 2-3 new and different things each day. This has been shown to have a surprisingly positive impact on mood for many people.

Looking after your body also helps. Getting enough regular sleep, eating well, drinking plenty of water (2-3 litres per day is recommended, sipped throughout the day), and moving regularly to shake loose tension from the body as it builds up all helps (you don’t have to thrash around like a fitness fanatic, just dancing like no-one can see you to your favourite tunes is enough). Believe it or not, your brain watches your body for signs of tension and if it finds tension interprets this as a sign that you are reacting to danger and responds by making you feel stressed. Conversely, if you relax your body, your mind follows suit. Biology is strange like that.

Connect with others who help calm and support you helps you feel less alone. Setting time aside to enjoy yourself regularly is also important. There is much to do but it is important to make time for things important to you. Isolation feels threatening, while meaningful contact with others often makes us feel better.

Help is always at hand

You are never alone. Help is always available.

The WhatsUP app has lots of helpful tips and tricks to help you feel calm and comfortable. When that fails, the Student Wellbeing Service is here to listen, advise, put you in touch with self-help resources proven to be effective for whatever specific problem you are suffering from and, where necessary, put you in touch with counsellors who can offer brief therapy to help you resolve troubling emotional problems.

Sources of advice, help and support

Click here for more information about the WhatsUP app

Click here for more information about University services that can help support you

Click here for advice on supporting your own wellbeing from Student Minds

Click here for advice from the NHS on managing stress

Click here for further information about stress and wellbeing

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

One comment on “Sailing stressful seas

Leave a Comment (note: all comments are moderated)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

(you can use <b>bold</b> or <i>italic</i> markers)


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.