You know you’re stressed when...

One student shares how bad her stress gets come exam time. Coping recommendations included.


Fourth-year University of Alberta student Brooke Taylor* is so stressed out during the school year that she sleeps on average less than five hours a night.

“I started using a sleep app to record what was going on, and I learned that I was talking in my sleep about not getting enough sleep,” she said, laughing.

Laughter (with a heavy dose of dark humour) is one of Taylor’s main coping strategies when her nursing clinical placements, assignments and exams all seem to coalesce.

“My friend and I will joke about how teachers seem to have co-ordinated things, like ‘Oh this week, let’s destroy them.’ When I’m not crying, I’m laughing about the situation.

“I’m also constantly reminding myself that today might suck—and tomorrow, too—but it will get better,” she added. “The reason I am putting myself through this immeasurable crap is that I will be happy in the future. I will get into my career and then I will have some meaning to my life.”

Taylor is only half-joking about having meaning in her life: during the height of the school year, it can be tough for students to see the light at the end of the tunnel, said Kevin Friese, assistant dean of health and wellness in the Office of the Dean of Students.

“When students get into the thick of things, like exams, while balancing work and relationships, things may start to peak in terms of stress.”

The biggest stressors students tend to experience are time management, volume of academic work, finances and relationship woes, said Friese.

Significant mood changes and isolating oneself are two major indicators that outside help is needed, he added.

The U of A offers a range of direct mental health and medical supports available through Counselling & Clinical Services, the Community Social Work Team, and the University Health Centre. They provide everything from counselling to psychiatric support along with crisis support and life skill training. However, Friese said, “Sometimes what students need isn’t just to talk someone, but a toolkit of resources and strategies they can use when they are particularly stressed out.”

With that in mind, here are some common stressed-out scenarios, and ways to help cope in the moment.

You’re snapping at people for no apparent reason

“You often don’t realize how stressed you are until you find yourself irrationally mad, looking back on it and saying, ‘Who was that person?’” said Taylor, who recalls one incident of yelling at her younger brother for humming around the house.

Mood swings and irritability are signs that you are over-stressed, said Friese.


So is sadness. Taylor said she sometimes just feels bummed when she hears friends in other faculties talk about how they slept for 10 hours straight or have no schoolwork.

She tries to fit exercise in her schedule when she can to help combat the blues.

“Just going outside and getting fresh air and a change of scenery can make a big change in your mood.”

But the most important support she gets is sharing her strife with a close friend—a fellow nursing student.

“I was lucky to make a good friend in first year. We found each other and became each other’s support system. Part of getting through university is finding someone who can help you stay positive and say, ‘Yes, this sucks, but we’ll get through it.’”

If you don’t have a close friend you can lean on, consider joining an undergraduate student association (check with your faculty) or one of more than 400 student groups on campus, suggested Friese.

The U of A’s Community Social Work Team also offers a program called Unitea that enables students to enjoy one-on-one conversations about anything over tea.

“It’s a great way to connect with a peer and enjoy casual conversations,” said Tiffany Sampson, a community social worker at the U of A.

For a confidential place to meet with peers to discuss more serious concerns, try the U of A’s Peer Support Centre, she added.

You’re overwhelmed and the clock is ticking

Turns out Taylor talks about more than getting more sleep in her sleep. She also murmurs about what she needs to study and how.

“What I find helps [in the daytime] is making lists,” suggested Taylor. “I will organize a list for every week. But I also have a master list for all the projects due the whole semester. Then, each Monday, I will assess what absolutely needs to get to done that week.”

The worst thing you can do is procrastinate, added Taylor, who said that lists help to keep her on track.

Mebbie Bell, a learning specialist and director of the U of A’s Student Success Centre, agrees. “Procrastination can compound stress and anxiety.”

If you struggle to manage time, visit the Student Success Centre to find tips and techniques for how to learn smarter.

“However, studying non-stop can also have the same effect on your stress levels,” added Bell.

She recommends choosing a cut-off time to end studying every day, taking frequent short breaks while studying, and incorporating several longer stress-relieving breaks. “Do whatever it is you love to do. Go for a run. Watch the next episode of a show on Netflix. Call a friend.”

Taylor said that every Friday night, no matter what, she and her friend don’t do school work. “That’s our break night. We’ll go to a movie or just hang out. And it’s a major de-stressor.”

It’s not a bad idea to remind yourself that everyone is in the same boat, too, added Taylor. She said it’s comforting to hear that other classmates haven’t started a project yet, too.

“Just looking around, and seeing everyone walking around miserable with bags under their eyes, knowing we are in the same boat and can laugh through the pain, is a big relief.”

Checking in with each other is an important stress-beating strategy that is being encouraged by the university, said Friese. Programs like the U of A’s Community Helpers Program, funded by Alberta Health Services, are open to students, staff and faculty who want to gain the skills to support others’ mental well-being.

“Don’t underestimate the benefit of simply asking someone who sits beside you if everything is OK,” said Friese. “Sharing concerns and feelings is an incredibly valuable de-stressor.”

You’ve forgotten what a good night's sleep feels like

One of the most important ways to manage stress is to maintain a steady routine, including getting enough sleep, said Friese.

“Often, as human beings, one of the first things we give up when we are stressed is routine. Eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep should not be sacrificed for exam prep.”

Though Taylor is working on a plan to improve her sleep—especially after letting a teacher know about it recently—she admits that waking up in middle of the night and working on a project for a few hours is one way to help her fall back asleep.

“Nurses know how important self-care is. We also know how bad we are at it,” joked Taylor. “One of my projects this semester is self-care.” Do you know what she did? She took one of the allotted morning self-care time slots and slept in.

* Name changed to protect privacy