The stress bucket: Managing your mental health at university

Studying at university is an important life chapter – it represents a new beginning on an educational journey that will shape careers, relationships and attitudes. It is exciting, transforming and can also be challenging; it’s not uncommon for students to experience mental health issues during their university studies and these issues can be triggered by a variety of factors. University stress can be caused by culture shock (yes, it’s a real thing!), homesickness, adjusting to a different education system, struggling to make friends, budgeting finances, dealing with unusual weather and living independently.

The stress bucket

The stress bucket is a metaphorical bucket which helps to visualise the things that stress you out and how you can then deal with them. How does it work? First you need to imagine that you have a bucket that is full of everything that makes you feel stressed. The stress bucket will differ from person to person and from time to time. If someone gets stressed easily then their bucket will be fuller than those who are more resilient to stress, and someone may be more prone to stress during certain situations, e.g. exam period.

Next, you imagine that the bucket has holes or a tap that can let the stress out. These are ways that help a person be less stressed, e.g. time with supportive family and friends, rest, doing something you enjoy, exercising. See below for an example of a stress bucket:

For a detailed diagram of the stress bucket, have a look at this resource from UNSW Counselling Service here.

Avoiding the over-flowing bucket

If the ‘holes’ in a student’s stress bucket are not working and they are experiencing or may likely experience an over-flowing bucket, encourage them to first recognise the stresses that are affecting them and to point them towards getting the right support at the college/ university, or provide tips for managing the stress themselves. For example, if a student is stressed with handing in an assignment, they can arrange a 1-2-1 session with their tutor or they can be advised to start their assignment preparation earlier to avoid stress later. If they are stressed about finding a part-time job, they could organise a meeting with the careers services or be encouraged to dedicate time out of their day to actively research jobs.

Beyond students’ own ways of coping with stress, help share your ideas and the ideas of peers for managing stress. This way they can work towards finding what works best for them.

Here are some ideas from a former and current student from the University of Northampton International College (UNIC) for overcoming stress:

When I first arrived in the UK I used to eat a lot of fast food and being around class mates and new friends all the time meant I was influenced to make cheap unhealthy food choices in order to make more time for assignments and socialising. Now I plan ahead and make an effort to eat better. I feel less stressed because I generally feel better in myself and have planned ahead.” – A. Raza

When I feel stressed about university work I make a list of the things I need to get done and then when I have completed them I give myself a treat. The idea of giving myself a treat has actually helped me get more work done as I know there is a positive outcome at the end of it. My advice would be take a break from your books, talk to friend, set goals to achieve by the end of the week and plan a reward.” – M.J. Okpala

There may be different points in university studies when your students feel overwhelmed and like they’re not coping very well. At those times it is useful to sit down, draw out their stress bucket and identify their stress level and some coping mechanisms to help empty the bucket. The stress bucket is a tool that can also be utilised by teaching staff; particularly when there’s a lot of tasks to juggle and complete at busier times in the semester. It is just as important to know how to look after your own mental health and wellbeing to provide a supportive learning environment for your students.

At UNIC we encourage our students to consider their mental health as important as their physical health. One way that we promote this message is by providing training to our student representatives on how to recognise the signs that one of their fellow students may be struggling: these students are encouraged to provide a listening ear, or signpost them to talk to us in Student Services, or to also contact The Samaritans, a national charity who provide mental health support either over the phone or face to face free of charge.

To continue the conversation, contact Louise Young, or share your thoughts and ideas via YammerTwitter or LinkedIn.