How to deal with academic stress and tips to overcome.

Sheila Iveth Bockelman

Sheila Iveth Bockelman

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School education is one of the most important elements of an individual’s life as it will later be reflected in their academic life; however, an excess of academic stress during this stage can result in adverse and prolonged effects. It seems that these days, in the educational environment, students of all ages and from different cultures are experiencing internal and external stressors that affect their academic life. However, this is not new. Children as young as preschoolers can experience various psychopathologies (e.g. anxiety, depression, and nervousness) that have an effect in their academic performance and achievements. Due to the increase of mental health awareness, there are now empirical approaches that both educators and parents can use to combating stress.

Stress can be defined as an individual’s body’s non-specific response to the environment: it is a process by which individuals perceive and cope with environmental challenges and threats. Stress, in small amounts, is normal and can help individuals to be more proactive and productive; but, if an individual experiences stress over prolonged periods of time and in high levels, it can mentally and physically affect the individual. For that matter, academic stress is defined as the body’s response to academic-related demands that exceed and have an effect on the adaptive capabilities of students, resulting in major health obstacles. Moreover, academic stress includes academic frustration, academic conflicts, academic pressures, and academic anxieties. Students that experienced academic stress have undergone significant neurohormonal changes at the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis with an increase of stress hormones, such as ACTH and cortisol, resulting in an incomplete, dropped course or lower grades. Studies have shown that the most common academic stressors are related to oral presentations, lack of time to meet commitments and balance leisure time, heavy academic workload, taking examinations, attending university for the first time and meeting academic standards, moving away from home, academic and achievement expectations, inadequate instructional methods, poor physical classroom environments, and highly competitive educational environments.

Furthermore, when students face high levels of academic stress and they cannot bear the pressure, some may exhibit destructive behaviors such as suicide and bullying. Thus, school and academic alienation contributes to the risk of bullying, which has a close relationship with an individual’s personality, social cognitive development, and social phenomena. Bullying is defined as a process in which one person repeatedly uses superior strength or influence to mistreat, attack or force another person to do something. The key factor of this aggressive behavior is the power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim, including derogatory comments, social exclusion, and physical assaults. Bullying affects an individual’s learning experience as it diminishes the student’s quality life and education and, therefore, academic performance. Bullying decreases all sorts of academic attendance rates, motivation to study, academic achievements, and contact with peers, while increasing the incidence of depression, anxiety, and physical injuries, hindering the student’s ability to communicate. Bullying behavior is often modeled, as the perpetrators can learn from their family and culture. For example, if the family of the bully uses aggressive behavior to solve problems, it is feasible for that child to copy those communication mechanisms and those same aggressive ways to achieve his goals. 

How do stressful academic situations compromise performance?

Stressful academic situations can reduce the working-memory available to perform and complete the task’s requirements and its execution. According to Miyake and Shah (1999), “working-memory is a short-term memory system involved in the control, regulation, and active maintenance of a limited amount of information immediately relevant to the task at hand.” If this working-memory used to maintain task-relevant information is disrupted, performance is expected to suffer as this reaction is defined as the distraction account of failure. Moreover, stressful environments place individuals in a dual-task situation in which task execution and performance-related worries affect the working-memory capacity of the task at hand.

Who fails when the stress is on?

Every individual has his own goals; however, when their self-efficacy is low, their goals become the stressors, as they think they cannot control the events in their lives, resulting in stress. Often, these individuals use aggression to solve their problems and to reduce their stress. Moreover, high-stakes situations compromise how individuals’ performance is reflected in the tasks at hand. Additionally, careless mistakes contribute to less-than-optimal performance, showing that pressure exerts and compromises the working-memory system. Stereotypes threaten situations regarding gender differences also are high-pressure stressors that affect the academic performance of students, making both men and women to be susceptible to failure. Even if working-memory is portrayed as a general cognitive construct, it can vary according to each individual, which means that some individuals, regardless of their genre, have more of this cognitive capacity. This more or less working-memory affects and reflects how individuals presented with high-pressure stressors perform on academic tasks.

How to cope with academic stressors?

These are some tools students can use to manage and overcome academic stress:

  • Establish and set small and doable daily goals. This can be a way to anticipate and achieve an academic successful performance without stressing. 
  • Exercise regularly in order to decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.
  • Create an organized schedule to manage and balance academic and leisure life in a more efficient manner.
  • Understand and comprehend your academic strengths and weaknesses, without focusing on unreasonable expectations.
  • Create a positive working environment which encompasses a level of respect, empathy and overall understanding between colleagues.