Keep breathing

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Keep breathing

The media pay a lot of attention to stress and burn-out among students. A fair share of students has psychological problems. Research shows that multiple factors cause pressures that are not always timely identified. This may lead to nasty problems. In the Netherlands a network of organisations has produced an Action Plan for Student Wellbeing (Actieplan Studentenwelzijn). “We must acknowledge that these problems are real”, states Jolien Dopmeijer, researcher at Windesheim Institute for higher education.

For the parents this news may be a strange sensation. Many of them have great memories of their study time: finally standing on your own feet, lots of freedom, living comfortably on a grant, joining a lot of parties and tending some classes once in a while, but never under pressure. Back in those days there were no social media, hardly any computers, and no internet. For studying you could take all the time you needed, and if you joined a student board you were allowed to delay your studies. This may sound overstated, but I hear those stories many times.
I also hear that parents feel alarmed, since they did not signal their son or daughter being in trouble. Some students don’t want their parents to know that they struggle, or just don’t have a good relationship with their parents. The parents sometimes feel guilty: “did we do anything wrong or did we miss anything in our parenting?” That does not necessarily have to be true. Education shapes our identity and our behavior, but it’s not only the parents that determine the education: “it takes a village to raise a child”. Nor is the stress issue limited to students, after all it’s a sign of our times, to be noticed all over our society. More than anything we witness a collective acceleration of pace, that manifests itself in stress issues.

In our young-adult days basically all our senses were open just as wide as they are now in our kids, but we did not get quite as many stimuli and there was less pressure. Comparing our days to the present day pressure cooker of universities we see that freedom and experiments have been replaced by high demands and expectations, either from the outside or from students themselves. They are being rushed and they rush themselves. Wageningen used to be a small town in “de Gelderse Vallei”. Today in Wageningen 12.000 students from over 100 countries study ‘healthy food and environment’ anywhere in the world. “The times they are a-changin” (Bob Dylan, 1964).

Student stress
Stress is a highly subjective phenomenon that defies one definition. Generally it is being regarded as a mismatch between demands and resources, as a physical reaction to stimuli. These stimuli enter our brain through the senses and switch on a cascade of actions. The heart starts beating faster, breathing accelerates, bloodpressure raises, the bloodflow to the muscles increases, adrenaline and cortisol fasten our behavior and so on. In that sense we are like other mammals, we act upon stress or threat. That has always been functional and it still is. Nothing wrong so far, we are talking ‘healthy stress’. But when the threat is over we need to calm down and relax, rest and sleep. Today we see in many students that their minds are in constant overdrive (accelerator / sympathetic nerve) and they lack compensation by relaxation (brake pedal / vagal nerve). They receive too much information, have high expectations of themselves, lose contact with their body, become insecure and cannot recharge. They are brooding and develop emotional problems and sleep disturbances, they start taking alcohol or drugs and develop an unhealthy lifestyle. Eventually they are unable to relax or balance: the natural relaxation response breaks down.

So there is work to do at the level of society, university, students and parents. In this little contribution I will focus on the perspective for students and parents.

Effective ingredients to reduce stress and to restore balance are simple, but never easy. There is no mumbo jumbo, but it is always a challenge to identify the core of the problem, to change behavioral habits, to steer away from addictive patterns and to resist pressures from the outside. The Dutch proverb ‘rust, reinheid, regelmaat’ (rest, cleanliness, regularity) doesn’t fit easily into a student’s life pattern today. Yet, the basic ingredients to reduce stress and enhance resilience are based on a healthy lifestyle with sufficient relaxation and rest. I’ll give a few examples (indicative):
• take away the overdrive by reducing ‘screentime’ (laptop, internet, smartphone, television) and kill all apps, beeps and push notifications;
• do one thing at a time (exit multitasking, welcome focus) and alternate strain and relaxation;
• re-establish the contact with your body and with nature (movement, outdoor games, music, dancing) and move slowly (walk, cycle, sport);
• be connected with your social support system (quality time with family and friends);
• breathe deeply and slowly (mindfulness, daily breathing exercises);
• limit the use of alcohol, drugs and medication and eat and drink healthy stuff.

For these behavioral changes one doesn’t usually need a psychologist, certainly not in the preventive phase. Studying today is top class sport. But sports professionals do sleep, rest and eat after each training. That’s how the body recovers and restores balance. Although strain and stress sneek in through pathways in the mind, the relaxation (that we need to attain resilience and vitality) works through the body. Regular relaxation, for example by deep and slow breathing, restores our relaxation respons and hormonal balance. There is solid evidence of the sustainable healing effects of structured breathing exercises combined with healthy movement.

A group of students who prioritize their health and wellbeing may reach far in healthy behavioral adaptations, provided their recognition, peer support and mutual stimulation. The fun part is that it will make them more effective and enhance their results. More results with less stress. The problem often is that students don’t see their life pattern as unhealthy or addictive (yet), until they end up with a burnout. That’s where parents may play an important role, by maintaining a good relationship, show supportive interest and involvement from a little distance, and to point out and acknowledge problems.

Society and universities face a challenge to reduce the structural study pressures and strains. Meanwhile students and parents may contribute a lot to resilience and vitality of students in these days. It helps when parents act from relaxation and loving attention, since this is about catching one’s breath and not about panic measures.

This blog was written for ‘Oudervoorlichting en relatiemarketing Wageningen University & Research’. It has also been published on