Distance learning can produce a unique type of stress and anxiety.
Students can feel isolated at home without the camaraderie of classmates or personal encouragement from teachers.
Flashpoints can occur when booking assessments or panicking during revision. Stress can also be triggered by practical difficulties linked to problems as mundane as slow internet connections, or the lack of a quiet space to study.
However, experts agree that whatever the challenges may be, stress when distance learning can be avoided and overcome with the right mental attitude.
“Often you can’t change your broadband speed or you can’t change your IT but you can change your attitude,” said Professor Stephen Palmer, director of London’s Centre for Stress Management.
Strive to be more organised
Instead of accepting “low-stress tolerance” where you tell yourself you can’t stand a particular situation, opt for “high-stress tolerance” where you teach yourself to accept a situation that you don’t like, he explained.
“So you actually change your inner dialogue and are more resilient to do a distance learning course.”
Harbouring unrealistically high expectations for yourself and others or taking a perfectionist approach to life also added to the pressure, he said.
“Changing your thinking style can actually help. Instead of saying ‘it must be this way’, it’s better to say it’s preferable to be this way but it doesn’t have to be. So you can take some of your self-created stress out of the equation,” Palmer suggested.
On a more practical note, however, he advised that striving to be more organised was also an important stress-busting technique.
“People put themselves under time pressure, and often will leave things until the last moment. That’s when IT or your computer goes wrong. Things happen. Life happens and it’s about how to tackle it when it crops up. Give yourself more time and don’t do things at the last moment,” he said.
Focus on positive emotions
Elaine Sanders, a life coach and co-founder of The Stress Experts, said that in order to be able to handle stress better, it was imperative to understand the difference between the terms “stressor” and “stress.”
“Stressors are those things that trigger you, in this case the deadlines, time pressure, faulty technology, or difficult people. Stress is your emotional response to those stressors,” she said.
“While you can do very little to escape, change, or prevent the stressors, you have absolute control over your emotional response and thus your stress. Preventing stress, therefore, depends on your ability to regulate your emotions,” Sanders explained.
Lingering negative emotions add to stress by creating disharmony among the brain, heart, and other body systems, leading to “drained energy, lower concentration, impaired memory, and decreased brain function,” she added.
Tackling this requires a focus on positive emotions including “enthusiasm, appreciation, care, or self-compassion” and spending less time and energy on negative ones.
Build healthy habits
Sanders recommends building certain healthy habits into your schedule to help regulate emotions.
“Before you even get out of bed, start your morning by feeling in your heart the emotion of appreciation – appreciation just for being alive. Try to sustain this feeling for at least the first half hour of your morning as you get ready for your day,” she said.
Controlling your emotional responses also helps to overcome procrastination, one of the barriers to the successful completion of distance learning.
“Preparation is one of the best habits to implement. Prepare for each day, each segment of your work, each project by asking yourself what you want to feel in that particular situation,” said Sanders.
“Do you want to feel engaged and attentive? No one is going to reach inside you and make you feel that way. If you want to feel it, you need to intentionally bring it.”
Maintaining a healthy diet and getting 7-9 hours sleep a night are also vital to well-being, she said. “End your day in the same way you began it, feeling heartfelt appreciation before you fall asleep.”
Take a break
If you do feel your nerves becoming frayed under building stress, it’s important to take a break, said Sanders.
“Not just any break with checking email, visiting social media, or rehashing what you’re working on, but an intentional emotional break,” she underlined.
One technique recommended by Sanders is to pause, bring your attention to your heart, and breathe calmly.
“This technique, though simple, can have profound results if done genuinely. Focusing on your heart gives your mind a break from focusing on the problem. It also helps the heart to resynchronise the brain and other body systems,” she explained.
“Breathing calmly lets the body know that it is safe, helping the autonomic nervous system return to balance.”
Managing your mental state
Mike George, an author and motivational speaker at The Relaxation Centre agrees that tackling stress when distance learning, or in life more generally, is a battle with your mental state.
“No. 1, you’ve chosen the course so keep confirming that choice every day. No. 2, any pressure any fear is entirely self-created. It’s not the course, it’s not the deadline, it’s in your mind. So you have to manage your mental state,” he said.
“If you want to manage your mental state then No. 3, you have to find some kind of exercise like meditation or contemplation,” he continued.
“No. 4, don’t make yourself dependent on the outcome. If your life, your happiness, your feel-good factor is dependent on getting through it then you’re not going to be a happy bunny all the way to the end. Don’t make your journey dependent on passing and then you get rid of the fear of failure,” he said.
“Those are the four basic things because the stress itself is all in your mind.”
Resource of the day
Learn more about coping with stress when studying for your AAT qualifications.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.