Stress is the number one contributing factor affecting individual academic performance at Duke, according to a survey conducted last semester by the American College Health Association.
In the survey of 585 Duke students, 28 percent admitted that stress negatively affects their academic performance, which was defined as receiving a lower grade in a class or even dropping a course. Maralis Mercado, program coordinator for the Student Wellness Center, said that this might have something to do with the high standards Duke students have for themselves.
But Gary Glass, assistant coordinator of outreach and developmental programming for Counseling and Psychological Services, said stress is a very misunderstood emotion. In fact, some stress in life is good.
“A certain level of stress actually improves your performance because it makes you run more efficiently and productively,” Glass said. “So you can use it to your advantage, but staying in that mode for too long is counterproductive.”
In response to the survey’s findings, the Duke Student Wellness Center will offer “Relax, Relate and Release,” a series of programs beginning March 22 that will teach students stress techniques such as proper breathing exercises, meditation and visualization. This new program will complement “Stress for Success,” the CAPS educational program concerned with properly educating students about stress management. The hope is that this course kit will give students the tools necessary to combat stress more effectively in the future.
“[“Stress for Success”] is about learning what stress is, how to manage learning how to change your thinking patterns concerning stress and how to relate yourself emotionally to moderate the effects of stress,” Glass said.
In general, stress itself is not a problem and is just the body’s automatic response to danger—that is why your muscles tense and your blood pressure rises. But when the danger you face is not a physical danger and instead an upcoming exam, family pressure or economic trouble, there is no method to release stress—causing a prolonged negative outlook and even depression. Understanding the roots and causes of stress is what Glass said he hopes to teach students in the upcoming workshop.
“We want students to take a break and take a step back from the hustle and bustle of everyday life as a Duke student,” Mercado said. “Everybody here is the best of the best but that isn’t enough, they also want to prove it and talk about it.”
Stress is a problem in the lives of students on campus, junior Angela Sheng said. She has taken advantage of some of the stress programs CAPS has offered in the past, but said that for a lot of students—women in particular—the most helpful stress reliever is simply talking about stress and relating to others about large amounts of work, even if that might not be the case.
“I think for girls it has a lot to do with talking about how stressed you are,” Sheng said. “Even if you aren’t all that stressed, you just say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have so much to do tonight, and I need to just stay in the library all day.’”
Glass said students relating to each other to alleviate stress is quite normal. At elite universities with highly competitive atmospheres, students do not feel safe to admit when they are struggling out of fear that it will be seen as a sign of weakness, he said. That is why simply talking about stress can lessen the emotional impact of a midterm exam or a high-pressure class presentation.
“Isolation feels dangerous and therefore it triggers the stress response,” Glass said. “Reach out to your friends when you are having a hard time because the more we bring the truth to the surface, the less dangerous it feels.”
Aside from talking to peers when stress creeps in, Student Health Center Dietitian Toni Apadula said it is important to keep in mind the importance of eating correctly. When students feel anxious, they have the reaction of either lunging for comfort foods or not eating at all, Apadula said. The former tends to become a form of self-medication because comfort foods are often rich in simple carbohydrates and release relaxing chemicals into the bloodstream like serotonin, and the latter leads to a general sense of tiredness and a lack of focus, she said. Apadula recommends that students make an effort to strike a balance with the food groups they are eating and to eat often to avoid fatigue.
“Even if you are going to be in the library all day, bring a healthy snack with you or your blood sugar levels will fall and you won’t be able to concentrate which will increase your stress levels,” Apadula said. “Don’t go more than four hours without eating while you are awake.”
Glass recommends exercise as not only a great complement to a healthy diet, but also as essential to releasing the energy that the stress emotion triggers.
“If you are oriented towards danger and feeling stressed because of it, you need to use your energy,” Glass said.
Biomedical engineer Runbin Dong, a junior, agrees and said any sort of activity that gets him out of the library and moving helps him deal with stress.
“Just going to a bar, going to watch a movie, going to the gym or just hanging out with friends all really help,” Dong said “My friends and I have instituted a Friday night gathering just to relax.”
But overall, Dong said that compared to its peer institutions, Duke offers its students a stable atmosphere to learn and grow.
“I think Duke students are actually pretty good at managing their stress,” Dong said. “We have a good life with balance—it is not like this place is like [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], just saying,”
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