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When the jug spills over – some thoughts on stress at university

Portrait of Mary Keeling, UKCP Research LeadWritten by Mary Keeling, PhD.  

I remember the day I travelled from my hometown down the M1 to start University. Car full of my belongings, proud parents up front and me sat in the back nursing a hideous hangover. My parents decided they would stock me up on food, so off we went to the local supermarket. Mum asked if I wanted skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, that was it, the tears started to roll. I tried to hide them and barked “I’m fine” when mum asked if I was ok. But essentially, I was full of a confusing mess of emotions and sporting a massive cold sore on my lip. I was stressed!

In that moment, and for a few months before, starting with the nervousness of awaiting my A-level results, my mind had been taken over with thoughts: “Would I get the grades to get in to my first choice university, would I make new friends when I got there, would I be able to understand my lectures, what if I can’t do it, what if I made the wrong subject choice, Psychology, really!!…Would I be able to manage my money, what would the student bar be like, am I going to miss my friends, who am I going to be living with, what things do I need to take with me, who’s going to take care of my cat, I’m already missing my cat just thinking about it…and so on”.

We only have a finite amount of resource to deal with the various aspects of life. When there are too many things, thoughts, concerns, obligations, deadlines, and responsibilities, it gets too much, we put stress on our resources and can’t function to our best ability.

Imagine a jug:

In life our stress jug always has a bit in it, which is good, it keeps us motivated and interested – there maybe the demands of work, study, essays, and a challenging exam ahead. However, sometimes unexpected things happen, a relationship problem, the cost of a car repair, a health concern, or an unexpected poor grade on an essay. Now your jug is almost full. When your jug is full the smallest thing can make it spillover – having to queue at the bank, someone getting in your way, a friend letting you down on your weekend plans, feeling tired and coming down from a weekend of partying. This spillover affects us all differently, but often people feel irritable and angry, have a churning stomach, feel lost, anxious and unable to cope, have trouble falling asleep, have racing thoughts, and heart palpitations.

Stress activates our automatic nervous system causing the hypothalamus (a tiny control tower in the brain) to send out the ‘stress hormones’ to activate the “fight or flight” response – the heart races, the breath quickens, and muscles get ready for action. This response is designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing it for a quick reaction. However, when stress continues, and the stress hormones keep firing, it puts your health at serious risk. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system, put pressure on the heart and respiratory system increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, it can lower sex drive, for women it can affect the menstrual cycle and lead to fertility problems, and for men it can lead to erectile dysfunction. High blood pressure, insomnia, headaches and depression are also common effects of prolonged stress.

The occasional overspill of our stress jug is normal. It likely happens relatively frequently across the course of our lives and there are things we can do to help us manage it. For example, taking time out to relax, cutting down your hours at work for a week to make time to concentrate on an essay or just take a break, talking to friends about how you feel, going for a walk or hanging out in the park, doing some light exercise, practicing yoga, or reading.

Recognising that things have got a bit too much is the first step to being able to manage the effect. Every time we experience a spillover we can learn from the last time about what was the best method for us to manage it. Finding ways to recognise and manage stress before it becomes chronic can help us to maintain better mental and physical health.

University is a challenging time with many new experiences, high demands, internal and external pressures to do well, plus partying and late nights, and new and sometimes complicated relationships. Feeling stressed occasionally is not surprising. However, look after your health now and for the future, tune in to your body and mind and learn the things that work well for you to cope and manage when stress happens.

It was university stress that got me in to regular yoga, taught me the importance of good friends and to reach out to them when I needed some extra support, to listen to my body and mind, and know when to take a break. And, don’t forget if you ever feel that it has got too much, there are always many places, services, and people where you can get additional support, advice and help.


For help at university please contact:

  • Student Support Services
  • University GP and Counselling Service
  • Family and Friends
  • Samaritans is free to talk about anything on 116123 or email them on jo@samaritans.org
  • Go to b-eat.co.uk about food and information about eating disorders.
  • The Mix, contact 0808 808 4994 regarding a number of issues related to drugs, alcohol and sex.
  • Talk to Frank on 0300 123660about drugs and alcohol.
  • Visit brook.org.uk regarding sexual health matters.