Stress and students

James Beaton.

Lately, stress seems to be more on the forefront of people’s minds with the need to meet deadlines on all fronts. As a fourth year physicist I am currently looking for jobs, writing applications and performing ‘extra curricula’ activities for my society. Coupling this with the work for my course and it all becomes a bit stressful. But what are the effects of this stress? And is the stress I’m putting myself through worth it for later life?

It seems fairly common knowledge to me, as the media is a constant reminder, that long-term stress has been directly related to depression, anxiety and other psychopathic ailments [1]. But actually there is more to stress than just the bad. In fact it has been shown that there is a certain level of stress where people are most productive [1]. Too much stress and you’re weighed down by it, not enough stress and you have no incentive to work. It’s hardly surprising for most people, we all have tasks that don’t need to be done and thus aren’t. Similarly most of us will have had the feeling of being over-worked and wanting to give up. Stress related productivity uncommon in children, particularly before puberty, and the elderly [1]. Stress in adolescents and young adults is an interesting and incomplete topic however, and it is this we shall talk on further.

In rats, stress caused in adolescence directly links to a greater chance of anxiety when effected by stress in adulthood. There are higher levels of stress related hormones secreted in adolescent rats compared to the adult rats that are subjected to the same stressor. Stress in adolescent rats also leads to habitual tendencies, which increases the likelihood for drug abuse [1]. Whilst some data gathered from rats is not directly comparable to humans, due to the differences in the development of the brain, the information provided is not useless. In both humans and rats the frontal cortex and amygdala continue to grow during adolescence [1]. This suggests that we are also most susceptible to the effects of stress during these years. In humans information also suggests that during puberty adolescents have higher base levels of stress naturally, potentially due to changes in of sex steroid levels [1]. I am sure many of us would agree with this from our own awkward teenage years. The combination of higher stress levels and higher susceptibility to stress is supported by greater numbers of adolescents with depression, anxiety and other mental health ailments [2,3].

The NHS has reported more than 80,000 children and young adults suffering from depression in some form and 190,000 suffering from anxiety [4]. In fact, between 1980 and 2000 the number of 15-16 years old with depression almost doubled. Many sources claim that substantially more people are effected [5]. It is hard to verify the exact number of people suffering with these conditions but all sources seem to agree that the number is rising. Clearly there is a real problem if the numbers of children and young adults with stress related mental health illnesses is rising. This insinuates a higher level of similar mental health defects in later life, as stress in adolescence leads to greater levels of stress in adulthood [1].

So why are more teenagers and young adults being diagnosed with depression? Part of the increase is due to a betterment in spotting depression in children. As a society we have come to recognise that mental health issues can be as big an issue as physical disabilities. The greater awareness has led to more numerous diagnoses in this field. This is a good thing but it has skewed some previously recorded data. As mentioned earlier we can attribute some of the stress in people of this age to the higher base levels of stress that we experience passively. However it would be short sighted to assume that teenage angst is the only problem. We have seen in recent years that the number of teenagers with specifically stress-related illnesses is growing. But what is causing the rise in levels of stress?

Most people will probably agree they want to do well in life; get a good job, have a nice home etc. From a young age it is drilled into many of us that if you work hard and do well you will succeed in your endeavours. Yet, as everyone tries to push themselves to stand out above the rest it drives an inflation effect. We see year after year in the news that more students are getting better grades [6]. To counteract this effect the exams are made harder so that the numbers of students in each group receiving these grades is reduced [7]. This grade inflation effect has been reported on heavily in recent years, usually from July through to September when results are released. With grade inflation there comes a need for students to work harder to achieve these grades, potentially causing more stress in the process. The focus of schools to produce well-rounded individuals can also put more pressure on students. This is not necessarily a bad thing as adolescents need the valuable life experience and health benefits that certain activities have to offer. The stress can arise as a result of students competing to out-perform each other for the best jobs or university places.

Modern life has also increased stress, specifically for adolescents. From sleep deprivation [8] to problems with body image. These can in themselves lead to other mental health issues, and in some cases physical illnesses. The social media websites (Facebook, Twitter etc.), that most young people use, are fantastic for communication and the spread of information. However, after talking with people who use social media regularly Joe Hadley concluded that “Many of the social websites turn the complex way that people socialize into a numbers game. If I make a post and get lots of feedback, good or bad, I feel happy. Whereas if I get no response I feel alone”. With these platforms comes a new form of social interaction which, for people who haven’t discovered their place in society, is stressful.

So what can be done to reduce stress for teenagers? In the short term, not a great deal. There seems to be a lot of information as to the effects of stress and the reasons behind it, but not much on a solution. Many of the schemes in place treat the symptoms of depression or anxiety rather than the causes of the problems. This is mostly because it is hard to judge exactly what causes the most stress, as it varies between people. Looking at long term plans there needs to be more research into reducing the levels of stress in teenagers and young adults. The grade inflation effect would be a place to start. Controlling the level of work that is needed to do well could reduce levels of stress from schools. Monitoring social websites and reducing the impact of things that are said or shown online could be another point to consider.

In summation students are subject to an ever increasing amount of stress, which leads to higher numbers of people suffering from depression and anxiety at this age. This is generally true for young adults as well, as the brain is still reaching maturity. The increased stress primarily comes from the level of work required to reach goals set by schools and parents. Furthered by raised levels of stress just due to that period of life and the modern social requirements and behaviour of the online community. There is much that needs to be done to solve these issue and I feel the best starting point for a long term solution is to evaluate the causes of stress and reduce it than to just treat the end result.

Stress and students

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