Supressing stress

Pre-conceived expectations are a major contributing factor to first-year stress, HCDS director says

Frosh week is a busy time at the Queen’s Learning Commons, where students can receive help on studying, essay writing, research and stress-related issues.
Frosh week is a busy time at the Queen’s Learning Commons, where students can receive help on studying, essay writing, research and stress-related issues.

For Andre Sousa, Sci ’13, his first year of university went by with much less stress than anticipated.

“I actually expected to be more stressed than I was,” he said. “I felt really overwhelmed over the summer. I even went and bought my books over the summer.” Sousa was one of many students who enter university with expectations of extreme stress and anxiety. Unlike Sousa, who experienced a relative lack of stress, many students do go on to experience overwhelming first-year anxiety that can put their academics, health and well-being at risk. In order to derail these patterns of stress, the University offers a number of services that can address the pressures students face.

While Sousa said he did experience some stress initially, he was ultimately able to adjust to university life after just a couple of months.

“I found first semester I had a lot of stress because it’s unfamiliar,” he said. “It’s a big change from high school, trying to get organized with the workload. That’s a little overwhelming at first, but after the first month or two I got used to it.”

Sousa said his stress never got to the point that he needed to seek out help from any of the resources Queen’s offers.

“I dealt with it myself,” he said. “I had friends that would help me out and TAs were great with helping with problems.”

For students looking for help outside of the classroom, one of the resources available is the Queen’s Learning Commons (QLC), located in Stauffer library.

QLC coordinator Nathalie Soini said the Learning Commons works in conjunction with five partners - the Adaptive Technology Centre for students with disabilities, IT Services, Learning Strategies, the Writing Centre and the library - to help provide a positive educational experience for students.

Soini said Learning Strategies is an especially useful resource for students who are nervous about the transition from high school to university academics.

“They offer workshops on how to make the transitions from high school to university, how to take notes and how to avoid procrastination,” she said.

Soini said Learning Strategies also offers counsellors and peer mentors for one-on-one assistance.

“You can sign up for a counsellor, just put your name on the whiteboard and you show up for your appointment if you’re having difficulty, if you’re anxious or if you just can’t seem to deal with the transition of coming into residence and leaving home,” she said. “If you want to sign up with a peer mentor because you’re not comfortable meeting with a counsellor let’s say, then you can do that.”

Soini said the Writing Centre also offers a workshop called “How to Write Your First University Essay” which is quite popular with first-year students.

“There’s about 300 students who register for that particular workshop,” she said, adding that the Writing Centre also offers one-on-one essay consultation. “Writing an essay at university and writing an essay in high school are two different things, and [students] usually don’t find that out until after they’ve submitted their first paper and they get their grade back.”

Soini said she thinks students who are worried about academic related stress should visit the QLC website, which includes useful links and information. The website features an online assignment calculator, which helps students create a day-by-day schedule for completing assignments, as well as quick, accessible online tutorials on topics ranging from preparing for exams, to creating a thesis statement, to time management.

Health Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) Director Mike Condra said time management skills are especially vital to students who wish to avoid excessive stress.

“There’s strong evidence to suggest that good time management skills help to foster success in university even more than intelligence. It’s a more powerful predictor,” he said.

Condra said he thinks one of the biggest contributing factors to first-year stress is the pressure students place on themselves to succeed.

“Most students anticipate that not only will they be taking a full course load, but that they’ll be engaged in at least one or two more activities,” he said. “They’ll be on committees in the residence, or they’ll get involved in the student government or social service activities or, you know, departmental, class representatives and so on. So often there’s a lot of demand on students to juggle all of those responsibilities and that is a key part of stress.”

Because of this pressure, it’s important for students to know their limits, Condra said.

“There’s a fair bit of peer influence to get engaged, to get involved in lots of things,” he said. “But we all have an upper limit and our upper limit is individual so it means starting by knowing yourself.”

Condra said he thinks another cause of stress for frosh is the adjustment to their new surroundings. This includes making friends and possibly living independently for the first time, he added.

“I think there’s a process of adjustment that happens every time we move into a new phase in our life or move to a new place and live there,” he said. “[Students are] developing a new part of their identity. They’re now going to be university students, no longer high school students.” Andre Sousa said he thinks that living at home during first year was a major contributor to the relative lack of stress he faced.

“Staying at home made a huge difference,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry about getting my own meals or doing laundry or stuff like that. I could just concentrate on doing the work.”

For those students who wish to discuss either academic or non-academic related stress, HCDS also offers one-on-one counselling. Condra said it’s important that students who are experiencing stress seek help before their health and academics are threatened.

“When we’re fatigued and tired, we can’t participate well, we can’t engage well in academic activities, we feel tired and I see that as being kind of a fairly immediate consequence of the heavy amount of stress students can experience,” he said, adding that exhaustion can lead to infection and illness.

“Of course, it also has an impact on academics,” he said. “If you’re overtired, not making it to early morning classes, and that of course then becomes a pressure because students don’t feel comfortable in missing classes.” Condra said he thinks it’s important for students to take advantage of the people and resources available to them, such as residence dons and the services offered at HCDS.

“There’s this department, HCDS, where [students] can receive counselling, they can see a physician or a nurse, we have self-help material, we have health educators, who can all help them learn more how to deal with the stresses that university inevitably brings,” he said. “There are resources on campus that can help you. Use them.” Visit HCDS online at or QLC at

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