Addressing academic stress

Addressing Academic Stress

Stress, on its own, is not a bad thing. There’s even a word for good stress: eustress. And even bad stress (distress) can be caused by something that’s worthwhile or necessary, like moving house or going to school. However, when stress is acute (intense) or chronic (sustained for a long period of time), it can harm your health (mental, physical, social, etc.) and performance. And college students, especially when balancing other responsibilities like work and family, tend to experience both acute and chronic stress.

The Stress Cycle

It can help to know about the stress cycle and what your specific stress cycle looks like. Emily and Amelia Nagoski (2020) explain the stress cycle as the process of experiencing and processing the stress from a stressor. Simply removing or addressing the stressor may not be possible or enough to process the stress; often something additional is required to “complete the stress cycle” so that our mind and body no long feel in-danger. Here are two examples of completing your stress cycle: 

Example 1: You encounter a bear, so you run away from the bear (physical exercise), tell your friends and family about it (connection and support), get a good meal and sleep that night (sleep and eating healthy), and perhaps engage in some other relaxation or joy-bringing activities (dancing, singing, bathing, deep breathing, painting, etc.). 

Example 2: You complete a difficult, 3-hour exam, but still feel stressed or wound-up afterward; or maybe you can’t stop thinking about the exam questions and what grade you might get. These are signs that you have not completed your stress cycle. Running on a treadmill or doing some quick jumping jacks might complete the cycle. Or perhaps having a good meal and an early bedtime. Or perhaps talking with your therapist. Or perhaps taking a hot bath with some deep breathing. 

How to Complete your Stress Cycle to Address Academic Stress

Different people and different stressors need different things to complete a stress cycle. If you complete your stress cycle differently than other people or if the first thing you try doesn’t work, that’s completely normal and OK. Nagoski and Nagoski (2020) describe completion of the stress cycle as “the certain knowledge that your body is a safe place to be” (p.6), and you’re often the best judge of how and when you’ve accomplished that. But below are some of the most accepted and effective ways to manage stress and complete your stress cycle.

Exercise is the “most efficient way” to process stress (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2020, p.14). According to the The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults (n.d.), a healthy, active lifestyle includes setting a routine with:

  • 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week
  • 2 sessions of muscle-strengthening per week
  • Fewer than 8 hours of sedentary time per day
  • Fewer than 3 hours of screen time per day
  • Several hours of light physical activity, including standing, per day

Some people find exercise easier with a friend, as part of a sport, or while listening to music or a podcast. 

However, not everybody can or will exercise regularly or at all. But according to Nagoski and Nagoski (2020), “even just standing up from your chair, taking a deep breath, and tensing all your muscles for twenty seconds, then shaking it out with a big exhale” can help (p.15).

Exercise shouldn’t be yet another thing to stress about, so be proud of yourself for whatever improvement you’re able to try or achieve.

Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Not getting enough sleep, especially repeatedly, can itself cause stress and make existing stress worse. Prioritize getting enough sleep most nights, even if it means saying no to friends and responsibilities. And if you can’t fall or remain asleep often, consider accessing medical advice and intervention. 

Consider trying grounding or mindfulness exercises like muscle relaxation, visualization, or somatic processing. These methods can be as quick and simple as running your hands under cold tap water or as involved as attending a yoga class. 

  • Consider using an app like Mindshift,  Headspace, or Finch to find beginner-friendly guided meditations and grounding exercises.

Connection is one of the best ways to improve mental health, both short-term and long-term. Even if you’re not talking with people about your stress, simply forming social connections, staying active, and belly-laughing can help you manage stress. The following can be good sources of connection:

  • Friends and family
  • Support groups, led by both professionals or peers. These groups tend to benefit people who can’t confide in their friends and family, or who want to talk with people from a certain community or who possess certain experiences. Togetherall is an online space for nearly anyone to get peer-support and Helpseeker can help you find local health and community supports. Consider looking for a space that fits you. For example, the Skipping Stone Foundation has peer- and professional-led support groups for trans folks, as well as their loved ones.
  • A hobby- or interest-based space. Join a sports team, attend an amateur painting class, or find a D&D group.

Scheduling time to eat healthy foods can help you cope with stress. When you eat regular meals of nutrient-rich foods, your body has the proper fuel to stay alert and productive throughout the day. Resist the temptation to reach for high-fat, high-sugar foods when you are stressed and choose healthier foods instead. 

However, not everybody can or will eat healthy all the time. Just do your best and prioritize avoiding significant over- or under-eating. 

If your stress is acute or chronic, you could probably benefit from at least some professional advice. This does not mean that there’s anything “wrong” with you. And even if there is something “wrong” with you, getting help is usually the best and healthiest thing to do. 

  • Most colleges have a health or wellness centre. Lethbridge College students can contact Wellness Services to access health resources and professionals, including in-house counsellors.
  • Some health services can be expensive, but various organizations may offer more affordable options. Helpseeker may help you find some such organizations in your community. 

Make Time for Addressing Stress

Stress management is as important as any of your responsibilities; prioritize it and make time for it. If you tend to ignore your stress cycle, consider planning for it. For example, you might already have an important exam in your day-planner, but you might consider  adding in a 20-minute gym session and an early bedtime in your day-planner as well. Consider our Time Management page for more advice. 


Nagoski, E & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Ballentine Books. 

Public Health Agency of Canada. (n.d.). Make your whole day matter: The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Adults (18-64 years). 

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