A knot in your stomach

Stressed out students

Two out of three Groningen students experience stress almost constantly, Groningen student union GSb discovered. Where do they get all that stress? And how can they get rid of it?
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Illustration by Kalle Wolters

You can feel it the moment you wake up in the morning: that little knot in your stomach. You have a busy day ahead. You check your day planner, the knot growing. In class, the lecturer is emphasising the importance of the material, but to be honest, you barely understand it.

You should have done your reading, but you didn’t have the time: you had a committee meeting. There’s also an essay due the day after tomorrow. You haven’t even started on it, because you picked up some extra shifts at work to pay the rent.

Maybe you shouldn’t go out to dinner with your year club. It will save money. And time. The knot in your stomach grows.

Everyone gets up; class is over. As you are leaving, the lecturer says: ‘I’m assuming everyone has started studying for the exam next week?’ The exam. It’s next week. The knot is beginning to feel as though it will never leave.

Two out of three Groningen students feel stress almost constantly. Approximately ten percent never feels pressure, the rest sometimes or often. This according to a study done by the Groningen Student Union (GSb). 551 students from the Hanze University and RUG filled out a survey about stress and how they deal with it.

Study association

The GSb is shocked by the results. ‘We knew the problem existed, that’s why we did the survey’, says Anne Klaver, treasurer and one of the researchers. ‘But we were shocked to see how many students suffer from stress.’

Charlotte de Haas, a student of social geography who recently finished an Honours programme, says she can relate to the results. She experiences pressure herself. ‘It’s mainly study pressure, but it’s ultimately a combination of things. You also want to work, have a social life. And everything has to be perfect.’ When her studies overwhelm her, she temporarily quits other thing. ‘I’ll skip association activities, for example.’

Law students Enisa Doko, Jop van Heijningen, and Stephanie Noguera are currently going through a hectic time. Exams? ‘Yes, those are coming up as well’, Van Heijningen says. ‘But we’re mainly busy with our association.’

The three students are in participatory association Progressief Rechten. ‘The study pressure itself is not so bad’, says Doko. ‘But it’s all those external obligations. You have to set yourself apart from the others. A degree alone is no longer enough to get a job.’


This seems to be in line with the GSb’s findings. Almost all respondents are involved in extracurricular activities, either to increase their chance of a job, for self-fulfilment, or for financial reasons.

In short, students are busy. But does that necessarily mean they are under pressure? Isn’t self-fulfilment good for people? And besides, a little bit of stress never hurt anyone.

True enough, says student coach Niels Bakker. ‘But the situation becomes unhealthy if people don’t allow themselves to recover. If they stop doing things that are fun, stop eating healthy, because they don’t have the time or because they think they don’t deserve it.’

Taking time to recover is important. ‘You have to find that balance between effort and relaxation. Make time to do the things you have to do, and take it easy by doing things you’re allowed to do.’

Bakker helps students do this at his own coaching practice, Wakker bij Bakker. Four years ago, he started in Groningen. Since then, he has opened practices in six other student cities. ‘I expressly called it “coaching”‘, Bakker says. ‘It sounds more approachable than “psychologist”.’

That’s also why he doesn’t use the words ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, or ‘disorder’. ‘Labels like that are difficult for people. I’d rather talk of challenges people face, and what they can do to resolve them.’ Nevertheless: Bakker is an actual psychologist, and these challenges can be very difficult. ‘Not everyone comes here because of stress, but the majority do.’

He sees all kinds of students. From the Hanze and the RUG, first-years, eighth-years, men, and women. ‘The BSA has really increased the pressure. The loans system means people have to graduate faster. Social media also plays a role: all those success stories from other people. It’s a bad time to be a student.’

Everyone experiences stress

The students that come to see him can be roughly divided into two groups. One group spends little time on their studies and more on extracurricular activities (‘I call them selective achievers’), and the other group is so busy studying that there isn’t much time for anything else.

‘That last group often suffers from perfectionism and fear of failure’, Bakker says. But the selective achievers are also stressed out. ‘They distract themselves from their obligations for as long as they can, which means they have to do everything at once at the last minute.’

Johanna Baltes from Germany is one of those last-minute types, she frankly admits. She studies art, culture, and media. ‘We have assignments and classes to prepare for. But I only get really stressed out during exams.’

‘I was incredibly stressed about absolutely everything’, her fellow student Gabriela Gaweda from Poland says. ‘Constantly. I’m doing much better now. I no longer panic at the thought of everything I have to do.’

That’s the trick, they both say: figuring out how to deal with all your obligations. Don’t they think the university should do something about the pressure, though? They shrug. ‘Everyone experiences stress. I don’t think the university could do very much about it’, Baltes says.

With this view, she is part of a minority; only nine percent of respondents in the GSb survey felt that educational institutes do enough to prevent stress. Twenty-six percent said they felt heard at their university.

‘The university is not even remotely doing enough’, says law student Enisa Doko. ‘They should have more confidential advisers. It’s not as easy to discuss personal problems with a regular study adviser.’


She is sceptical when it comes to the student psychologists at the Student Service Centre. ‘A friend of mine went there for depression, because there was a chance she was getting a negative BSA. They told her there was a six-week wait. What good does that do if you may be forced to quit your studies?’

Anne Klaver with the GSb also feels the RUG could do more to combat stress. ‘They shouldn’t emphasise performance and graduating quickly so much. And they should provide more information, so students know where to go.’ Only 41 percent of the respondents in the survey know of the existence of student psychologists.

‘We would like to prevent all students from experiencing stress’, says RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker. ‘But we can’t cure everything. We do have psychologists, and clearly people know how to find them, as evidenced by the wait times.’ The RUG will go and talk to the GSb. ‘We might learn a thing or two about providing information’, says Jorien Bakker. ‘We would like to have a discussion about that.’

‘I don’t think people are as keen to ask a university for help when it’s that same university that’s causing the stress’, says student coach Niels Bakker. ‘I’m sure the student psychologists do excellent work, but students might question their neutrality.’

He does not work with educational institutes, but he does work with associations. ‘I want to be on the side of the students. Also to help destroy the stigma of seeking help.’

Bakker is currently working on a series of advertising videos in which students talk about their problems and the coaching they received. ‘To show their environment that it isn’t weird or shameful.’


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