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How do students deal with stress? Research should provide more clarity

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The university must help students manage their stress better. With that premise, Michèle Gerbrands, innovation advisor at Biomedical Sciences, investigates how Fitbits, pedometers and sport apps for example can help with that. These applications of “quantified self” can teach good coping mechanisms, given that they give the user the right feedback.

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Students with a Fitbit on their wrist or a sports app on their phone can probably confirm this: it encourages you to move. A good thing, Michèle Gerbrands thinks, because exercise helps with managing stress and students stress too much. As part of her master’s in Media Innovation, she conducts research on the role of apps in combating stress and improving students’ mental health. Within those stress management apps, sport is an intervention to reduce stress. She focuses primarily on the feedback that the apps give, so that students are encouraged to change their behaviour constructively.

Quantified self (QS) applications collect all kinds of personal data: for example, you can measure biological or physiological data (such as with sports apps and measuring blood pressure and heart rate), but you can also track behaviour or more subjective data such as emotions. Yet Gerbrands did not just want to measure stress levels. “That does not help a student directly. It is useful to know what your stress level is, but it is even more important to know how you deal with it,” she says. “This technology can contribute to that. It can help students develop coping mechanisms that help with stress, such as exercise.”

Using QS applications is not just about collecting personal data, but also about self-reflection, according to Gerbrands. “You can discover patterns in your behaviour, after which you are able change that behaviour.” However, QS applications often lack a good interface, or a way of providing feedback that appeals to students. Gerbrands wants to use her research to map out what does work. “So it’s about the way feedback is given and what the perception on this is. People must feel that they can accomplish something and that they can achieve set goals.”

According to Gerbrands, setting goals is important, “but there are still all sorts of complicated factors involved, such as motivation and self-regulation.” She also wants to see if students prefer cognitive or affective feedback. Cognitive feedback is based on rational information: that your immune system and muscles become stronger from sports, for example. Affective feedback is more about underlying feelings, values and emotional associations. Then you are talking about feeling better about yourself by exercising. “Another example is the affective property of car brand Volvo,” she explains, “Volvos provide a sense of safety because of the cage construction.”

Increased risk of burnout
Gerbrands has become interested in stress management from personal experience. During her bachelor’s degree she suffered from a serious burnout, which is a risk for many students. There is a reason that stress management was central to the first Wellbeing Week at the UU. “It is a very big problem, especially with this generation. A great deal is expected from students from society, but they are also putting a lot of pressure on themselves. In addition to studying (at a high pace), they also experience the entire transition from adolescent to young adult, where they have to live independently, arrange their own finances, get into a relationship and build a circle of friends.”

“We live in a society where you are expected to perform. The assumption is that life can be made and that you are only successful if you obtain a master’s degree. People find it odd if you decide not to study but would rather work at a cleaning company, for example, while you might as well be very happy there. The question is, of course, to what extent you as an educational institution should feel responsible for that shape of thought. But why shouldn’t we help students cope with stress from day one? You can wait until they get complaints and drop out before you help them, but you can also try to prevent it.”

Harold van Rijen, program director of Biomedical Sciences, agrees. “The welfare of students is also our responsibility as an educational institute, as a university. It may well be a social problem, but everything we can do to improve it is our responsibility.” Therefore, a few years ago, the Fit for the Future educational strategy was introduced at UMC Utrecht. One of the eight themes that is central to this is resilience. “We want to investigate, in an academic and inventorying way, what exactly is going on with the prominent presence of burnout. A quarter of the (bio) medical students and PhD students in the Life Sciences now have a high risk of burnout. Coincidentally also because medical students are a well-researched target group, but this is certainly not an isolated phenomenon.”

Excellence
According to Van Rijen, the stress epidemic is a broad social problem that is being exacerbated by the academic world. “Naturally there are a lot of things going on in society. From the perfect life in which we are immersed on social media to choice overload, high expectations and the fact that the average income has fallen and so students have to work in pairs to have the same standard of living their parents had. But does the university not also create overachievers? It starts with the system of selection. There are bachelor’s students who are already worried at the end of the first year whether they will enter the selective master’s degree they want to do.”

And how does that actually affect social cohesion within a group, he wonders. “We expect students to work together, but they are also constantly reminded that they are each other’s competitors. Naturally, you will get highly competitive people whom will almost certainly be disappointed in the end. Because not everyone can win. We insist too much on excellence, on winning prizes and publishing.” Van Rijen would prefer to go back to a lottery system, but he says that probably will never happen, because students do not want that either. According to him, the subject of stress and burnout will continue to be an important topic. “At least until the incentives that induce this have been removed from education.”

Michèle Gerbrands will complete her research in June. As a UU student you can still help Gerbrands with her research by completing this survey. (10 minutes)

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