University life can provide a lot of different experiences, many of them positive. But student surveys show that feeling under pressure can also be very common. Add in the fact that you have additional things to cope with and adjust to as an international student, and it's not surprising you may end up feeling stressed-out at times.
"International students face a unique set of challenges," says the Cairnmillar Institute's Dr Alexa Kambouropoulos, a psychologist with more than 25 years' experience in the tertiary education sector. "For starters, you're having to navigate a new education system that often has different expectations from the one you had at home."
"Then there's the language barrier, the fact you may be feeling lonely and homesick, and even simply trying to learn new life skills – having maybe recently moved out of home – in a foreign country."
Research shows that international students face a higher risk of experiencing issues such as anxiety and depression than local students. So if you find that your mood has changed, you're having trouble sleeping or finding it hard to concentrate, here are a few things you can do to look after yourself.
Research shows that people who make the effort to plan their days, weeks and schedules are better equipped to deal with stress. This is mainly because planning limits the impact of those daily sources of stress that crop up unexpectedly. Plus, planning simply makes managing and organising your time easier, and that can also help you manage your stress levels.
Get enough sleep
While feeling stressed can make it more difficult to get a good night's sleep, the reverse is also true – feeling tired and sleep-deprived can make it harder to cope with stressful events. So, making sleep a priority is a good idea. Most people need roughly eight hours of sleep a night to stay healthy and function well.
Do something active
Exercise has a wide range of health benefits and protecting against stress is one of them. While some research shows that a single workout can reduce stress levels, other research shows that getting regular exercise delivers results.
Exercise guidelines recommend people aged over 18 should do at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week, such as going for a bike ride or a brisk walk, but any amount of exercise is better than none. It's also important to seek advice from a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise program, or regime.
And, if you're worried that you don't have the budget to get and stay fit, don't be. Being active regularly doesn't have to cost much, if any, money at all. Medibank's Live Better at Home program provides access to free workout activities, or you can register for parkrun (free weekly community events that take place all over Australia).
Eat a healthy diet
There are specific nutrients that play a role in helping to reduce stress, but rather than focusing on any one food in particular, what's more effective for good mental health is a generally healthy diet. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables may be particularly important, with a 2021 study finding a link between that and lower stress levels.
Ask for help if you need it
Kambouropoulos says asking for help may be difficult for some international students, but it's incredibly important. "Accessing a counselling service may be a strange or even foreign concept for some students, depending on their cultural background," she says. "So it may be helpful to look at it as simply asking for help or support when you need it."
Even something as simple as asking your university tutor or department chair for assistance navigating and managing deadlines may help, remembering that improving time-management skills can be an effective buffer against stress.
Universities offer student counselling, but you can also reach out to organisations that provide mental health support services such as Beyond Blue – Australia's most well-known and visited mental health organisation – and headspace, which provides support to people aged up to 25 years.
24/7 Student Health and Support Line
You can also phone the 24/7 Student Health and Support Line for health advice from a registered nurse, counselling services, emergency legal advice, travel document assistance, interpreter service and more. The service is available 24/7 on 1800 887 283 if you hold Medibank OSHC or 1800 006 745 if you hold ahm OSHC. Policy holders can speak to a general practitioner (i.e., a doctor) via the Online Doctor+ feature of the Medibank OSHC and ahm OSHC apps, available 24/7.
+ A minimum out-of-pocket expense of $10 applies. Waiting times may vary depending on doctor availability. Online Doctor is offered on a trial basis and may be discontinued at any time. For privacy reasons, Partners and Dependants on a policy may not access Online Doctor through the OSHC app.