University stress
Image Credit: Pexels

Dubai: Mental health is often considered the number one determinant of a student’s academic success, and an even better predictor of educational outcomes than tests or examinations. As a result, it is an important issue for educators, who are often the first line of defense for their students. Almost all education professionals today acknowledge the impact that a student's mental health has on learning and achievement and realize that much can be done to help university students who may be dealing with mental health issues.

In fact, studies undertaken by the World Health Organization found that globally 35 percent of students struggled with a mental illness. The most common was major depressive disorder (21 per cent), followed by general anxiety disorder (19 per cent).

On the occasion on this World Mental Health Day, Gulf News speaks to Prof. Ammar Kaka, Provost of Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

Ammar Kaka Heriot Watts Provost
Image Credit: Supplied

He shares his top tips on how students can overcome their struggle with anxiety and manage their mental health to make the most of their time at university.

1. Be organised

Lack of organization can lead to poor control of situations, which is a stress trigger. While homework deadlines, assessments and exams are an inevitable part of university life, students can stay in control through judicious use of their time and not leaving tasks unfinished until the last minute. If a task appears unsurmountable, breaking it up into smaller chunks and into more manageable goals can help one stay on top of university work. At the same time, it is important to find time to unwind and socialize as these activities are instrumental in helping students build a support network away from home. Indeed, well-being professionals strongly advocate creating ‘me time’ as a stress management technique.

2. Self-care matters

As part of learning to live away from home, university students also need to learn to plan and prepare their own meals. This often means they may have a nutritionally poor diet with bad eating habits. They also report getting less sleep than they need – studies show that on an average, most students get 6 - 7 hours of sleep per night, as opposed to the recommended eight. Sleep helps regulate metabolism and many other body functions and a lack of it can directly impact academic performance as well as increase stress levels. The good news though, is that all of this can be easily combated. All that is needed is to establish a proper routine which includes time for adequate sleep, regular exercise and eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and limited intake of processed foods and sugar. This serves to maximise brain function, along with keeping stress levels in check. Students must also be aware of the dangers of emotional eating which can be brought on by an increase in stress levels and do their best to maintain a healthy diet even during these times.

3. Be open about the way you feel

One of the biggest causes of stress for university students is the fact that they may be living away from home for the first time ever, which in turn can make them feel as if they are lacking any sort of social support, including friends and family. It is important for such students to realise that they are not alone in feeling this way, and that they should not bottle up such feelings. Students should feel comfortable talking about it and seek support – from a parent, a family member they may be close to, a friend or their personal tutor. Alternatively, universities offer well-being services with qualified professionals who are equipped to counsel and help such students. For example, Heriot-Watt University’s Student Wellbeing Services provide a range of support and guidance, activities such as counselling, mental health support and mentoring, well-being activities and more, to help students to be their best.

4. Mindfulness

All of us possess mindfulness, which can be defined as the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing. Mindfulness also stops us from being overwhelmed by what is happening around us. Most importantly for students, scientific evidence shows that mindfulness builds an inner strength to help withstand stress better. It reduces the activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for switching on stress responses. Mindfulness can be cultivated through several established techniques such as meditation, paying attention to breathing and things around you and making an effort to understand thoughts and emotions.

5. Having your own space

Having your own space allows you to focus and concentrate, as well as act as a getaway when you want a quiet moment all by yourself. Some ways by which students can make their living space a restful and stress-free zone is by keeping it uncluttered and organised, having electronic items such as mobile phones away from the bed and by using calming décor which can comfort (such as photos of home or of a pet). If a student has a noisy or ever-present roommate, they can try looking for a quiet café or a corner in the university premises where they can unwind and get things done.

6. Cultivate new interests

University life is a time to explore and grow interests. There are always amazing opportunities for learning and new experiences available. For example, Heriot-Watt University’s Student Hub encourages students to take part in activities, community services and networking to develop leadership skills, positive interpersonal relationship skills, and to encourage exposure to various cultures, ideas, arts and styles of life. Taking up a new activity or hobby is an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety and stay healthy.