In recent years, doing a degree almost seems to guarantee stress. More and more students are displaying symptoms of burn-out, in Wageningen as elsewhere. With its new Surf Your Stress campaign, the university wants to turn the tide.
text Luuk Zegers illustration Yvonne Kroese
Hundreds of Wageningen students turned up on Tuesday 8 October to see Time Out, an interactive play with which WUR kicked off Surf Your Stress. Student psychotherapist Esther Ruijters is the project leader of this large anti-stress campaign. Resource had a chat with her.
Have WUR students started suffering more from stress in recent years?
‘I can’t give you exact figures on how much stress has increased. The general literature shows that one in four students suffers burnout symptoms such as emotional exhaustion. We are also hearing signals from our colleagues. And there are more and more factors that can cause stress in students (see inset, ed.). What we do know is that there has been a big increase in recent years in the number of students making appointments to see the students’ psychologist. Where study-related problems are concerned, they mainly talk about study stress, fear of failure, discipline issues and graduation issues. In the personal problems category, depression is by far the biggest issue. The parents of the current generation of students often say your university years are the best days of your life. But things were different then, because you got a grant and could take 10 years to complete your degree. Perhaps it was easier then to have a good time than it is now. Especially if you do want your student days to be “the best days of your life”, if you go for broad development with a year on a committee for example and still want to graduate in the set number of years because you’re afraid of a large student debt.’
Now there is the new Surf Your Stress campaign. How did that start?
‘Last year, the Student Council drew attention to complaints of stress among students and suggested organizing a thematic week on stress. It soon became clear that one week wouldn’t be enough, and this has evolved into a much bigger project.’
A project that will relieve students of all stress?
‘No. You can’t remove stress in its entirety. Anyway, stress is good for people – within reason. It helps you perform during a match or an exam. Stress comes in waves. You have to learn how to deal with those waves, how to surf them. Hence the name. Perhaps you’ll fall off the surfboard and go under occasionally. That’s fine. It can happen to anyone and you can learn from that. The trick is to climb back onto your surfboard and start surfing again.’
So what will Surf Your Stress do?
‘Break the taboo on stress by putting it in the spotlight. Stress is still something people find hard to talk about. We want to use the Surf Your Stress week from 11 to 15 November to start off a discussion. We also want to give students pointers that will help them deal with stress better. An example is the Life without Mobile Devices workshop. It will be given by a man who spent a year without a phone. He will talk about what he learned from that and how you can reduce your digital dependence. Or The Art Of Failure, a kind of masterclass on how to fail in which you learn to make mistakes and find out why that is important for learning and growing.’
How can you tell if you’re too stressed?
‘It often has an effect on both your body and your mind. You’re tired mentally and you’re less interested in doing things, for example studying, playing sport or meeting up with friends. You may burst into tears for no reason. Or have physical symptoms such as pain in your neck, shoulders or back. If your stress persists, your body reacts with physical complaints that are essentially telling you to take things easy. But the tricky thing is that stress also makes your body produce adrenaline. That makes it more difficult for you to notice your body is exhausted.’
So when does that qualify as a burnout?
‘There is a lot of debate among psychologists about what a burnout is exactly. I think you can compare it with overcropping. Farmers need to let their fields lie fallow occasionally for a couple of months to let the soil get new nutrients. If you don’t and you keep growing new crops, that might be effective in the short term but in the long term you leach all the nutrients out of the soil and you get soil exhaustion. Then nothing grows any more and you end up much further from your goal.’
If you suffer from stress or burnout symptoms, or have questions about stress, check out wur.eu/surfyourstress. You will also find the programme there for the Surf Your Stress week (11-15 November).
Student Joris Pierey survived a burnout
‘I dived into student life in my first year at Wageningen,’ says Joris Pierey (21), Bachelor’s student of Health and Society. ‘I became a very active member of KSV. After a couple of months, I started to have difficulty concentrating. At one point, I was sitting in a lecture room and I thought: I’ll see how long I can focus. After only two seconds, I could no longer follow what the lecturer was saying. There was a lot going on in my head and I was having trouble sleeping. But I thought: everyone does this, no one has problems, so I can manage too.’
Pierey scraped through to the second year with difficulty and a lot of resits. ‘I didn’t feel comfortable but I went full steam ahead again. I studied, joined AIESEC and became lead singer in a jazz band.’ He gradually realized that he couldn’t carry on like this. ‘When I was back home for the Saint Nicholas celebrations, I wanted to calmly tell my parents and brother that I was struggling a bit. But I suddenly burst into tears. Then I knew I really was stressed out and needed help.’
On the advice of his GP, Pierey cut back on various activities. ‘If everything is going full blast, you are bound to get burnt somewhere.’ He shared his story with family and friends and even wrote his thesis on stress among WUR students. ‘If you are in big problems, you think: everyone is doing this and I don’t see them crying — why can’t I cope? But as soon as I shared my story, I discovered I wasn’t the only one.’
It took a while before Pierey was back on track. ‘I had to reorganize my life and that takes time. But my symptoms were improving after six months.’ He advises stressed students to see how they can make life less busy for themselves. ‘As an expert based on my experience, I would say: always do that little bit less, and be bored occasionally. That lets you process the turmoil of your life and it means the things that are supposed to be fun really are fun.’ He also encourages students to discuss their problems. ‘That’s what helped me recover eventually.’
Pierey has some tips for the university. ‘Students have a lot of choice here but they often feel only one option is the right one. So the assistance they get in making the right choice could be improved.’ Pierey also thinks there is too much emphasis on high grades. ‘Are you a poor student if you only scrape through but develop in other ways? I don’t think so.’
What causes stress?
The Surf Your Stress project team asked Wageningen students what makes them stressed. The result is a list of 11 causes:
- Pressure to perform: Students put a lot of pressure on themselves, both in their studies and beyond. They want to have a social life, do a year on a committee, have a job, go on an exchange, travel, etc.
- Social media: Students compare themselves against other people on platforms such as Instagram. Because many people only share the positive things, it often makes them seem more successful or interesting. That increases the pressure to perform. Excessive screen time can also lead to attention and concentration problems.
- Taboo on stress Lots of other people might be stressed, but I’m not. Students sometimes admit they used to suffer from stress but they quickly add that they are better now.
- Pressure from parents: Many students feel pressurized to graduate quickly so they don’t burden their parents with additional costs. So-called ‘curling parents’ who sweep away any obstacles in their offspring’s path don’t give their children much room to fail.
- Loan system/financial worries: The longer you study, the bigger your student debt. That makes students worry about failing a module, choosing the wrong subject or getting ill. That anxiety can cause stress.
- Stress among staff: Students get the impression that many lecturers and study advisers are stressed themselves. That makes them reluctant to ask for help for their own problems.
- ‘There’s no help’: Students don’t always know who to approach if they are suffering from stress. Some students don’t realize there are also student counsellors and psychologists in addition to the study advisers and that workshops and courses are organized on how to deal with stress.
- Binding study advice (BSA): The BSA at WUR is not that tough (you need to get 36 of the 60 credits to progress to the second year) but it still causes stress among first-year students.
- How the teaching is organized: Students say they often have several difficult subjects in the same period, the short periods 3 and 4 are very intensive, group work is stressful and it is difficult to work on a thesis independently after having done a lot of group work. They also find the teaching buildings crowded.
- Grants/financial support: Some international students have to graduate within the set number of years because the grant provider won’t pay for any extensions. Pressure from parents, relatives and neighbours can also play a role, especially if they are contributing financially.
- Cultural differences: International students have to get used to a different culture and educational system and at the same time build a new social life. In some cases there is more shame surrounding mental problems in their culture, which makes it even more difficult to talk about symptoms.