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How Stress Impacts Academic Performance

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The stress and demands of daily life — both in and out of campus — can make it hard for students to take time away even to enjoy playing trivia games with friends or some other form of relaxation. And that by itself is not a bad thing. After all, anything worthwhile is worth sacrificing for, and trading some leisure time in exchange for a degree and a potential career is not a bad trade. The issue emerges when students push themselves so hard that their stress levels start to impact their health and their academic careers.

Discussing the impact of stress on academic performance is important for a variety of reasons. This discussion is important for students, of course, who need to keep in mind that managing their own mental health is also a crucial step if they want to achieve academic and professional success. But the discussion is also important for educators and university administrators, who will be wise to balance stress-inducing activities with more laid-back educational approaches to stop students from burning out within a semester.

The impact of stress

There has been an abundance of studies looking into the impact of stress on students at various levels of education, and the results weren’t good. Human stress response evolved as a mechanism to deal with immediate threats; it puts the body on edge, making it ready to react. These effects can be very useful when you are a hunter-gatherer trying to avoid being mauled by a bear, but it provides little benefit in an academic setting.

After all, stress is all about keeping the body alive in the immediate present. While academic studies are almost always future-oriented; students put in the effort today so they’ll be able to reap the benefits of having that knowledge in the future. Given that contrast, it’s somewhat predictable that stress would harm academic performance.

Notably, stress tends to make it harder for students to focus, and it can make them more irritable, which gets in the way of critical thinking and impacts academic performance. Finally, stress can also affect sleep patterns and cause insomnia, which can have a massive impact on a student’s routine and study habits.

Dealing with stress

Professors and administrators can help students deal with stress by encouraging students to exercise, offering reasonable schedules and deadlines, and just generally working hard to be helpful and communicative with students who are struggling. But at the end of the day, stress is a deeply subjective emotional response; an event that has no impact on one student may cause a panic attack in another.

Given the subjective nature of stress, it is also helpful to make sure students know how to keep track of their stress levels. It’s easy to chase so hard after a goal that you fail to pay attention to just how stressed and anxious you are. Students who can identify their own stress levels are much more likely to be able to do something about it. Whether it be slowing down or simply changing how they have been spending their downtime.

Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, trouble sleeping, chest pain, digestive problems, constant feeling of exhaustion, and various other symptoms can be caused by high levels of stress. A vague feeling of “brain fog” is also commonly reported, and it’s a good sign to keep an eye out for. Students can help themselves stave off stress by looking into stress symptoms and stress management tools on their own time, and educators can help students by reminding them to take care of their mental health from time to time.