Updated: Jun 7
‘Stress!’ The word itself is a cause of stress for many individuals! And it’s definitely not a novel, exotic term for students. Many students face academic pressure and tons of stress every single day. Adolescents go through changes everyday and hence are more susceptible to academic stress. Well, stress is typically seen in a bad light, but I can tell you that it is a natural part of life and is not intrinsically good or bad. Stress is like butter to bread. (Where the bread is your life and stress is the butter!) So, yes, stress can indeed be inevitable at times. But that does not mean it always has to bog you down!
Low stress doesn’t mean that the students will necessarily perform better because as there is no challenge, many refrain from moving out of their comfort zone! Certain levels of stress (I call it good stress) can actually motivate students to push themselves towards optimal performance, but when it is not coped with efficiently, it can have dreadful repercussions for them.
Fortunately, there is a lot that can be done to keep stress and anxiety at a manageable level. Good nutrition, regular sleep, exercise, healthy and stable connections with adequate periods of relaxation and fun are vital to keeping excessive stress at bay.
Some Causes and Effects of Academic Stress
There are myriad causes of stressors amongst students. One of the major causes includes examination related stress. Stress can also originate from unrealistic expectations, transitioning to a new experience, excessive assignments, the vastness of syllabus, long hours, poor time management and social skills, peer competition, issues in financial management, fear of failure, etc.
The unmatchable expectations and intense pressure of doing well academically lead to poor self-worth and the deteriorating mental health of the students. Anxiety, stress, insomnia, binge-eating, anger-related issues, etc. are some of the many problems reported in students with high academic stress. Extremely high stress can lead to students engaging in various risky behaviors and unhealthy coping mechanisms such as poor eating and sleeping patterns, physical inactivity, substance abuse, unprotected sexual activities, etc. Research says that the pressure to accomplish which students deal with is quite severe and can result in a five-fold increase in suicide attempts. The statistics are too bad. A 2012 Lancet report mentioned that the 15-29 age group bracket in India has the highest rate of suicide in the world (as cited in “India has the Highest Suicide Rate”) and these numbers show no sign of plummeting. Academic stress has been recognized as the primary cause of these alarming figures. (1) Every hour one student commits suicide in India, according to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau. (2)
But how is academic stress related to diet? And can diet play a role in alleviating stress?
Students can experience different types of stress that affect their mental, physical, social health and academic achievement. This in turn affects their diet patterns and overall lifestyles.
A 2019 study published in Behavioral Sciences Journal highlighted two points related to the relationship of eating habits with academic stress. Firstly, following a balanced diet may help reduce levels of stress, as the body will have the essential nutrients which will help in preventing imbalances in the production of neurotransmitters that could facilitate states of anxiety. Secondly, the academic stress itself may lead to non-adaptive behaviors linked to the intake of unhealthy foods, which will culminate in the increased risk of the development of chronic, non-communicable diseases in the future. Thus, developing flexible approaches and learning strategies that will reduce stress levels in students is essential.
Now, many might think that stress only leads to over-eating, but that’s not always true. Eating has been recognized as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress and emotions by either under eating (hypophagia) or overeating (hyperphagia). Larger portion sizes, calorie-dense, excessive sugar, fat-containing foods, and hyper-palatable foods that students tend to consume during major academic stresses such as examinations contribute to the increasing trend of obesity and other chronic health conditions. Studies of stress and food choice have also found that students undergoing stressful periods overeat unhealthy food items they would customarily avoid.
Basically, there exists a strong relationship between the level of stress and poor eating habits. Various researchers have found that in students who follow a diet of higher nutritive quality, a lower level of academic stress has been observed.
In a cross-sectional survey that I’ve conducted on 116 college going girls, turns out that almost half (47.2%) of them skip breakfast daily. And a lot of them frequently skip the subsequent meals as well. That’s a significantly large figure! Excessive academic workload and stress were also found to be associated with decreased recreational activity levels. Leisure time is crucial for the well-being of an individual and is a great way to reduce stress.
How to Prevent Stress By Adopting Healthy Eating Habits?
Too often students turn to the wrong behaviors to "eliminate" stress. Instead, controlling stress by adopting a healthy lifestyle which includes eating well, exercising, sleeping adequately, and indulging in recreational activities can prove to be way better! Nutrition and stress are interwoven and one of the major tools for stress management is good nutrition. Here are some tips to manage stress:
1. Eat regularly. Stress takes a greater toll on our health when our bodies are poorly fed and the brain needs glucose to work. Eating regularly throughout the day helps keep the blood glucose levels stable and in the optimal range. Studies have shown that a stable blood sugar level is associated with better academic performance in terms of higher concentration and memory retention. Also, skipping breakfast has to be avoided. Eating a healthy breakfast in the morning can help in reducing frustration when faced with difficult tasks.
Additionally, stress can seriously jumble up hunger cues. One underlying cause is the release of the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) which triggers the body’s fight-or-flight mode during acute stress. That can temporarily shut down feelings of hunger. When this happens, hunger cannot be sensed until people finally calm down, and by then, they may be starving – which then leads to overeating or making poor food choices.
2. Add a splash of color! General rule of thumb is to eat at least 5 servings of different types of fruits and vegetables every day. Even better if you choose seasonal, local varieties, (and no, potatoes/fries don’t count!) Fruits and vegetables contain essential nutrients like copper, zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and vitamins A, C, E. Leafy greens are particularly great. These vitamins and minerals work to neutralize harmful, pro-inflammatory free radicals produced when the body is under high stress.
3. Add high-fiber foods. High fiber intake has been associated with alleviated stress and anxiety. So add fiber-rich foods like beans, pulses, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits, and vegetables to your diet.
4. Get your healthy fats. Omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts, flaxseeds, and fatty fish are associated with improved brain function. Deficiencies of this fatty acid may result in depression and/or anxiety. Nuts like almonds, peanuts are particularly high in healthy fats - MUFA (mono-unsaturated fatty acids) and also contains fat-soluble vitamin E, which is a potent antioxidant. Switch to groundnut/sesame/mustard oil for cooking. They give a tough competition to the western counterpart – olive oil, which is also an excellent source of MUFA.
5. Eat Mindfully. Being more mindful has a multitude of health benefits. And mindfulness can significantly decrease stress levels. Focus on the now, on the food that you’re eating and not on counting the number of assignments you have to submit by the end of the day! Also, eat when you are actually hungry, not when you’re bored or stressed!
6. Stock up on healthy snack items. If you know that a stressful or busy time is imminent, arrange for healthy snack items so that you aren’t tempted to reach out and eat junk food. Healthy snacks are high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Not empty calories. Avoid HFSS foods i.e. High Fat, Sodium, Sugar items.
Even if you can’t prepare and miss out on healthy eating a few times, that’s alright! Don’t worry. Be kind to yourself and do the best you can. It will ultimately help reduce your stress levels. How students can cope with stress is often a choice. Support from parents, teachers, friends, and experts proves to be rather helpful in developing healthy coping mechanisms.
Honestly, I know how it feels! When your plate is completely jam-packed and you have 10 different things to take care of at one go! An assignment submission deadline on Monday, a presentation tomorrow, a research project to be completed, all of this while you have to prepare for your semester exams! Phew! It’s no joke! Being a student is HARD WORK. Pat yourself on the back, because you’re acing it :)
When it gets too much, take a break, walk, talk to a friend, meditate, practice yoga, or any other form of exercise, or just turn on “Under Pressure” by Queen and dance it out! And if it’s still a lot to handle, don’t be reluctant to get professional help from a qualified counselor/therapist to set things straight. Asking for help is an act of bravery!
If you feel like you need some professional help with redirecting your mind to more positive pursuits, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or Book your Initial Consultation on www.themoodspace.com/freeconsultation.
Written by - Krutika Wadhwani
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(1) Reddy K. J, Menon K. R, Thattil A. Academic Stress and its Sources Among University Students. Biomed Pharmacol J 2018;11(1). http://biomedpharmajournal.org/?p=19485
(3) Chacón-Cuberos, R., Zurita-Ortega, F., Olmedo-Moreno, E. M., & Castro-Sánchez, M. (2019). Relationship between Academic Stress, Physical Activity and Diet in University Students of Education. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 9(6), 59.