Stress in Undergraduate Programs

Written By: Nehal Lubana


Stress is an all encompassing term used to describe how the body reacts to harsh or harmful situations. Stress has been consistent throughout time, and has more recently come into the spotlight due to high stress and high speed lives, facilitated by modern society’s focus on money over self-care. This especially includes university students,  making the transition to university from the relatively low-stress high school environment. A variety of factors can cause stress, and if all happen in the relatively same time period, it can lead to one dealing with their issues in a self-destructive manner, in the format of increased alcohol and drug consumption, and a decrease in exercise. These lifestyle impacts can impact the rest of one’s life, causing severe weight gain and potential organ damage. These changes are further facilitated by academic burnout, as a large workload accompanied by a difficult program can impact students negatively. Improvement to these stress-related choices can only happen if students are self-motivated to improve and have the resolve to not give up. 


Stress, when built up over time can cause a variety of damning health issues, including high blood pressure which can lead to heart attacks. Stress, anxiety, and other mental stressors can begin or continue in undergraduate programs of study, mainly due to the often heavy course load combined with financial barriers and familial pressure to succeed. This is outlined within this piece with a focus on three factors: consumption of drugs/alcohol, lifestyle factors, and long hours or burnout. Stress must be addressed with a greater focus on  addressing and identifying its contributing factors. Stress, anxiety and other issues can lead to a student feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with their university experience, and should be minimized when possible. Individuals should not try to hide their issues, or cover them up with more self-abuse. Instead, as will be discussed later in the article, they should use initiatives or empower themselves to remove themselves from stressful situations. 

Stress & Drug Consumption:

Among Canadian undergraduate students, 89.5% of respondents felt overwhelmed with school, with 13% having seriously considered suicide.1 Students often cope with stress in unhealthy or unproductive ways, frequently involving excessive consumption of cigarettes and alcohol. This is highlighted by Zhang and colleagues who found that in regions such as China, university students are at a high risk of both cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption, with 67.0% and 30.5% of total surveyed taking part, respectively.2 

Additionally, these problems can also be facilitated by the university and city social culture, which could lead to students increasing their consumption of depressants and stimulants to deal with their stress. These activities can force longer hours of studying, and subsequent sleep deprivation, resulting in a need to catch up on missed work, and an alteration in melatonin levels.3,4 Studies from Southern Illinois University showed a negative correlation (r=-0.28) between alcohol consumption (number of drinks consumed and frequency), and cumulative GPA, which can lead to further complications, including alcohol poisoning and alcoholism.5 Excessive alcohol consumption plays with the neurotransmitters in your brain, causing chemical imbalances that promote the release of corticotropin releasing factor, which stimulates the release of stress chemicals and the suppression of excitatory neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine).6 These neurological effects can lead to a relapse into more drinking to get into that happy state, which is further promoted by stress-related work and long studying hours. That becomes a circular relationship with each behaviour reinforced by the previous activity.

Lifestyle-Related Stress:

Stress in university life also manages to promote unhealthy lifestyles, with undergraduates consuming more unhealthy foods and participating in less exercise if they reported experiencing high amounts of stress. Specifically, a McMaster-based survey showed that students with poor diets suffered from greater amounts of stress than those with better diets (p<0.001).1 Unhealthy diets and reduced exercise can lead to obesity, which can further impact one’s stress and mental health. Short term, stress-driven consumption (defined as 55% kcal from fat) reduces cognitive function and impairs exercise activity, which could impair one’s studying habits.7 It is well established that social and academic stress are key contributors to negative changes to students’ eating habits.8 This is applicable to McMaster University, as many campus eateries (e.g. Tim Hortons, Pizza Pizza) serve foods considered “unhealthy” within the Canada Food Guide, with many containing  high amounts of sodium, sugars, or saturated fats.9 Moreover, the majority of first year students have a meal plan, which limits their choices to many of these “unhealthy” restaurants. The combination of these food-related factors can impair frontal, limbic, and hippocampal function in the brain —regions that are imperative to learning and retaining information.7 Under a high-fat diet, the hippocampus produces a neuroinflammatory response to an immune challenge (including stress), causing memory deficits.10 Proinflammatory cytokines in the hippocampus have also been shown to result in deterioration of long-term memory.10 These neurological changes can lead to impared studying and a negative effect on an individual’s grade point average (GPA), which, when lower than a 9 on McMaster’s 12-point scale, has been associated with greater stress.11 Ultimately, this results in a positive feedback loop with more stress leading to a lower GPA and so on and so forth.

Stress Management:

Canadian universities are putting in effort to put new mental health initiatives into focus, which includes the Student Wellness Centre (SWC) and available therapists at McMaster. As mental health continues to become a prevalent topic of discussion within mainstream media and a more open topic in social circles, universities are making the adjustment for the sake of their students, who want to talk about their issues, instead of hiding them, with the provision of therapy circles and therapist appointments available to the students via the SWC. These programs at all Canadian post-secondary institutions emphasize the need for education on mental health and stressors. Accompanied by these programs, students can be prescribed pharmacological drugs to manage stress, including benzodiazepines (to deal with anxiety) and serotonin 1A receptor agonists (which can produce anxiolytic and antidepressant effects).4 These drugs are important as stress prevention can allow for the avoidance of lapses in immune function due to psychological stress.4 Moreover, these pharmacological interventions can help decrease the frequency of alcohol abuse and poor eating habits that are directly associated with stress. Overall, initiatives that target students’ stress are necessary to help ease their transition into university life, and universities are taking steps in the right direction to provide students with the help they need to stay successful.


To conclude, those faced with issues with eating habits, stress related to their academic standing, and alcohol abuse need to take steps towards preventing themselves from being consumed by them, and having their academic progress halted as a result. Stress and their associated lifestyle changes can impact one’s life negatively, and as seen before, affect one’s GPA. With networking and applying for the coveted internships a student may need to advance in their desired field, applying, waiting, and/or getting rejected for those things can become stressful problems. Various initiatives are in place that can help with a student’s stressors, however, at the end of the day, students themselves need to take an active role in their own education and their mental health by taking advantage of the available initiatives. Additionally, this should be combined with good eating habits and a push to reduce the use of alcohol as a relaxation tool. In doing so, they will be able to stay focused and maintain their academic standing. Overall, stress needs to be addressed as a huge concern for students now and going into the future, so that the correct measures can be taken to improve their lives and reduce their stress. 


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