Post-Secondary Stress Management: A refresher of five coping strategies that are often overlooked.

October, 2018

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Life outside the nest isn’t easy. Post-secondary students are often on their own for the first time,
balancing courses, jobs, loans, active social lives, and the never-ending laundry. Stress can be a positive source of motivation, but if unmanaged, it can counteract and result in a range of mental and physical health problems. Without adding too much to the already long reading list, here are a few stress management strategies that promote a healthy balance now and long after graduation.

Get Organized

The items on your to-do list buzzing around in your head add stress. Map out classes, assignments, exams, work shifts, and social events. Put it all into a calendar. Is your timeline manageable? This strategy will help you to problem-solve more efficiently, stay focussed, and optimize free time. A well-spent break between studying can improve creativity, productivity, and stress levels.

Eat Right

Not eating right can lead to stress and vice-versa. The dreaded ‘Freshman 15’—a term coined by Seventeen magazine in 1989—suggests that students inevitably pack on 15 pounds during first-year university or college. The good news is that, in fact, weight gain is not caused by post-secondary attendance. Most often, shifts in weight coincide with shifts in eating habits and physical activity, which can be controlled.

Adult males typically burn 2,500 calories and females burn 2,000 calories daily. One Big Mac meal is 1,100 calories. Not all calories are created equal, either. A 200-calorie doughnut doesn’t have the same nutritional value as two scrambled eggs. Your body needs a variety of protein, vitamins, minerals, and plenty of water throughout the day to function properly, physically and mentally.

Avoid skipping meals, binge drinking, or stress eating. Late-night snacking doesn’t allow time to burn those calories before sleep. Excess caffeine causes restlessness, high-fat foods cause fatigue, and sugar causes energy crashes. This is all elementary stuff, but it bears reminding.


As alluring as Netflix is when you’re mentally exhausted, you need to work in some physical activity. Even 10-minute increments of exercise can decrease stress hormones and increase endorphins. It can also help promote a more positive self-image and better sleep.

Full-time students typically get free access to school gyms and pools. Others offer student discounts. Join a sports team. Take a workout, martial arts, or yoga class. Any movement increases your fitness level and decreases stress, so choose activities you enjoy. Try hiking, gardening, tobogganing, or skating. Walk to the store to stock up on healthy snacks. Take the stairs. Join Quidditch; it’s actually a thing. At least put a treadmill in front of the TV.


Adults have a basal sleep need of seven to nine hours per night. Getting less accumulates sleep debt. And like most debts, you pay interest: reduced cognitive function and motor skills, fatigue, irritability, and potentially, anxiety and depression. No choice but to be up late? Try to avoid morning classes. Have to be up early? Try to sleep earlier. Pulled a late night? Try to make up sleep and reduce your sleep debt.

Power naps can reduce sleep debt and kick the fatigue that naturally occurs eight hours after waking. Sleep cycles consists of light, deep, and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. Power naps are most effective if you complete an entire cycle (about an hour) or cut it off before deeper sleep sets in (after 15 or 30 minutes). Just ensure that naps don’t affect your ability to fall asleep at night.

Speak Up

You may be able to survive on your own, but research shows lower stress levels in students with social support. This includes sharing with family and friends, relating to fellow classmates, and taking social breaks from stressors.

Most schools also have student counselling centres and same-day appointments for students in crisis. But you don’t have to be in crisis to use school resources including health and wellness programs and workshops, support services for English Second Language (ESL) students and learning disabilities, and consultations and referrals. If feelings of anxiety or depression occur and persist, consult a doctor. And don’t forget about your instructors—they were students once too. Talk to them; they know what you’re going through and they can help.  t8n



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