The assignments are piling up, the coffee jitters are starting to affect my handwriting and I can feel the hot breath of exams on the back of my neck. I’m not having fun, and by the look of the hollow eyes and slumped shoulders I see around campus, neither are you.
It’s usually at this point that I withdraw from the people around me, become irritable, uncommunicative, combative and prefer the company of a pair of headphones and whatever distraction is currently appearing on my phone.
When we’re stressed our relationships suffer.
I had a chat with University of Newcastle counsellor, Richard Thorpe, to find out more about stress, how it can impact our relationships, and what strategies will help keep those all-important human connections on track while you’re drowning in the end-of-semester current.
“We tend to view students as individual units, but we all have human connections and relationships,” says Richard. “University life can affect these relationships and this in turn can badly impact our studies.”
Having a solid connection to other people and maintaining relationships is key to surviving stressful periods.
“There’s a tendency to isolate and withdraw during those times,” continues Richard. “People will seek out psychological safety, withdraw from the world, try to keep ourselves safe and in a controlled environment, and yet we need the exact opposite. We actually need connection.”
Richard points me to a TED talk – which I highly recommend you watch – that outlines how important our own conception of stress can be in managing stress, and how connecting with others in times of stress is a crucial way to overcoming it.
Richard is also keen to change the terminology around stress. “What you’re experiencing as a student, in an exam situation for example, is pressure. You have pressure coming in on you. How you respond to that is the stress.”
“Our bodies are really good at harnessing energy for a potential fight,” explains Richard. In short, our digestive, immune, reproduction systems shut down, our circulatory and respiratory systems gear up and the frontal part of the brain, used for thinking, shuts off allowing for better reflex and reaction times when we need to fight or run. Obviously, these things are great if you’re about to be mauled by an animal, not so much when you’re trying to understand some complex piece of uni work and your frontal lobe has checked out of its room.
“If you think of pressure as a threat, you’ll get a stress response,” continues Richard. “We need to start looking at pressure as a challenge, rather than a threat. A challenge, that if we overcome, will be of benefit to our future. Without a challenge, there’s no growth.”
Once we view pressure as a challenge, rather than a threat, we can reframe the body’s response as a positive.
“The brain is evolved to be negative, because negative kept us alive. ‘She’ll be right’ would get you killed, so we evolved to catastrophise everything.”
This can often undo an otherwise successful relationship in time of intense pressure as negative thinking can convince you that a healthy relationship is falling apart.
You may feel like your partner no longer understands you, is out to get you, or that small issues are now insurmountable. You might start to feel like isolation is the best policy and you’re better off alone. We actually need the opposite.
Richard explains that connecting with others is part of the scaffolding of healthy brain development.
“Everything begins with a sense of safety. On top of that we need to have a sense of being in control, people don’t like to feel their lives are managed. We then need human connection and a little bit of fun, or what psychologist call ‘absence from pain’.”
“Optimal brain development is like building a house.”
Once you have this balance in place you can build a roof, which I have decorated with a lovely smiley face for comedic effect.
“When you’re under the pump with assignments that’s where this balance comes in handy.”
Richard advises to look at what parts of your little mental health building are lacking and timetable in some solutions; especially when it comes to connecting with the people around you.
“People who are isolated, or isolate themselves, are at a much greater risk of getting depression,” continues Richard, “Being connected to people stimulates a hormone called Oxytocin, which some people call the cuddle hormone, but it’s actually a stress hormone and it makes us a lot more resilient to stress.”
So, what do people in relationships do when the stress rears its ugly, drooling, multi-headed countenance?
Richard says the key is planning. Sit down and be pro-active “almost like a fire evacuation plan”. Discuss what happens when you get stressed and what you need. Work together to help each other. Perhaps a cup of tea, or a shoulder rub, or just some patience.
Say to each other, “It’s going to be a really stressful time right now, let’s hang in there together, we might not get along for a little while, it might be a little bit of a rough road, let’s help each other through it. Work with each other rather than against each other. We take care of each other. That’s what we do.”
If you’re the partner of someone dragging themselves through some hellish uni work strewn landscape Richard advises to, “Listen. Don’t give too much advice. Listen to what the other’s needs are”.
It’s also important not to take another’s stress, and how they act under stress personally.
Partners need to keep reassuring each other that it’s uni stress and not relationship stress. During times of pressure, both partners in a relationship can lose that sense of control which is part of their scaffold and feel helpless which can cause instability.
“Make time to spend together to debrief. You don’t have to fix the problems, just share them and time with each other.”
If uni or life is becoming unmanageable, or you just want to talk to a professional you can contact a University counsellor like Richard.
The University also offers many other services, if you need a little boost in your academic skill set.
If the relationship you’re in isn’t a successful one that is just suffering from the pressure you’re under, but an abusive one, or if you feel unsafe or in danger in your relationship call the police or a domestic violence service.
Police Emergency 000
1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732
Mensline Australia 1300 789 978
Lifeline 131 114