Small changes can reduce stress

Living through a global pandemic has been an immense change for all of us and we’ve been going through particularly stressful times for the last while. While there is little that we can do about many of the things worrying us, what we are able to do is control how we react to the stress in our lives.

Learning how to deal with stress will help you in your academic pursuits, your career and your personal life. In this article, we’ll look at the dangers of long-term stress and offer some practical tips to reduce stress.



What is stress

Stress is the body’s physical reaction to perceived danger. When you’re in danger, your body goes into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, pumping your body with adrenaline and other hormones to rapidly increase focus, memory and reaction time.

This is good for running away from danger or confronting a dangerous situation, but it becomes less useful when the threat is emotional or mental. Too much stress can leave us tired and lacking in enthusiasm and motivation.

We often refer to different types of stress, identifying them by their sources, such as work stress or emotional stress. Medically speaking, however, there are two main types of stress, acute and chronic.

Acute stress is when we experience a stressful situation, but it passes. A bit of stress can help us with things like meeting deadlines but it becomes problematic when the stress is repeated or continues.

Chronic stress is when we feel ongoing stress for a longer period of time. This could be due to things like pressure at work, relationship conflict, money troubles or any other ongoing cause of worry and concern. Without properly managing and reducing this stress, it can lead to physical and mental health problems.


Symptoms of stress

These are some of the common symptoms you might experience if you are suffering from chronic stress:

  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Insomnia
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling paralysed
  • Feeling emotionally drained


Ongoing stress can also lead to anxiety and depression, which each have their own symptoms.


How to reduce stress

The University of the Witwatersrand’s Counselling and Career Development Unit (CCDU) have put together some useful resources on coping with stress and how to manage stress, which we will share at the end of this article.

Here are tips for dealing with stress as provided by Wits CCDU, both for day-to-day living and for dealing with exams and assessments:

Plan ahead

While exams or assessments are stressful, they are also predictable. You will always know well ahead of time when you will be tested and you can plan ahead to manage your exam stress. By doing so, you’ll avoid that last-minute panic and the risk of having to “cram” your studies, and instead, be able to approach your writing date better rested and calm. For more detailed tips on planning your time, view this infographic Stress Busters: The academic challenge


Keep up-to-date and informed:

Before you begin, ensure you have all your notes and the correct materials required for the exam or assessment. This is easier with online learning than with traditional contact classes, as all your material is neatly provided, but still check carefully what will be in the assessment so that you know which areas to focus on.


Create a plan:

Once you’ve worked out what material you need to cover, draw up a schedule that you will be able to stick to or adjust if need be. Carefully consider the volume of work to be revised and allow yourself enough time in your plan to get through everything. Set specific and achievable goals in your plan. For example: “I will revise the work I’ve done for five minutes at the end of every study session” is a better goal than “I will do more revision”.


Connect with others

This is especially true when you are studying online. Humans are social creatures and too much isolation is not good for us, resulting in elevated stress levels. Having a supportive network of friends and family will make it easier for you when dealing with exams and other life stresses. For more on the importance of connection, you can download or view this CCDU guide: Stress Busters: Staying connected.


Avoid too much social media

This is a danger to avoid that is a little riskier with online learning. Social media does indeed allow us to keep connected with others over long distances, but it also creates a false impression on the lives people are leading. This can leave one feeling miserable that your own life does not seem to compare. It can also consume large amounts of your time and worsen procrastination if you are not careful.



During exam time, it’s particularly important to lead a balanced lifestyle to offset the effects of stress. Ensure that you eat well, get enough sleep and have regular exercise. We wrote previously on the importance of staying connected for your mental health and taking care of your physical health. You can also view this CCDU infographic: Stress Busters: Positive living.



Exercise helps to counteract the negative effects of stress hormones, and also boosts your mood. In a previous article, we gave several suggestions for how to easily work a regular home workout into your daily routine. As a Wits student, you can make use of the Wits gyms and join any one of the many sports clubs.



Take the time to fit in some relaxation when you can. There are many relaxation exercises or breathing exercises such as mediation that will help you relax and combat the effects of stress. Spending some time in nature helps greatly with relaxation, making a nature walk an ideal way to get exercise while relaxing at the same time. You can view the CCDU’s tips on this infographic: Stress Busters: Doing stress simply.


Eat a healthy diet

Eating more nutritious food helps your body cope better with the effects of stress. It can be tempting to turn to junk food when you are feeling under pressure, but try to stick to healthier choices such as fruit or nuts when snacking “on the go”. For more on a healthy diet, take a look at the healthy foods to improve the focus section of our previous health article.


Rest and take breaks

Getting enough rest helps your body to combat the effects of stress. Make time to have some downtime and try to get to bed early enough to get your seven to eight hours of sleep before you have to get up again in the morning. Also remember to take regular breaks while you are studying to allow you to return feeling better refreshed and more able to absorb information.


Change how you think about the situation

This tip takes from stoic philosophy, which entails the concept that while we can’t always change a situation, we do have control over how we react to it.

Sometimes it’s helpful to change how you view the situation if you are not able to change the situation itself. For example, you can see exams (which you cannot change) as a way to really engage with your field, and reaffirm the end result (getting your degree) – rather than just a horrible time to get through.


Fidgets and other stress toys

The popularity of fidget toys or fidgets boomed in recent years, with many new toys entering the market. These include stress balls, fidget spinners that users rotate between their fingers, fidget cubes offering six different sensory controls and pop it fidget toys to replicate the soothing sensation of popping bubble wrap. These offer a short term respite from feelings of stress and can help some people, but there is far stronger evidence that a good diet and regular exercise will alleviate stress.


Wits support structures

The Wits CCDU team has compiled many useful guides for students on stress management and exam preparation.


If you feel that you are struggling to cope with your stress and are suffering from anxiety, please make use of the various counselling services offered to you as a student.