Students, Stress and Coping Strategies: A Case of
Pakistani Medical School
BABAR T. SHAIKH, ARSALAN KAHLOON, MUHAMMAD KAZMI,
HAMZA KHALID, KIRAN NAWAZ, NADIA A. KHAN &
Community Health Sciences Department, Aga Khan University (AKU),
their coping strategies.
Methodology/Study design: A cross sectional study using a semi-structured self
administered questionnaire was carried out over four weeks, using a small sample of
students of all categories and classes of a medical college.
Results: A total of 264 students out of 300 (88%) filled in the questionnaire. Inability to
cope, helplessness, increased psychological pressure, mental tension and too much
workload are ‘stress factors’ for students. A considerable majority (490%) think that
they have been stressed at one time or another. Ninety-four per cent of males have
experienced stress. The senior students of the fourth and final year feel more stressed
(95% and 98% respectively). Low moods, inability to concentrate, loss of temper are
most common symptoms. Females report more symptoms. Academics and exams are the
most powerful stressors. Sports, music, hanging out with friends, sleeping or going into
isolation are various coping mechanisms. Stress can affect the academic performance. If
needed, students prefer to talk to a peer. They demand more recreational activities on
campus, revised schedule of academics and exams, better counselling facilities and
improvement in student-teacher relationship.
Conclusion: The prevalence of perceived stress seems to be high among medical students,
which tends to affect not only their academic performances but also all aspects of health.
Review of academics and exam schedules, more leisure time activities, better interaction
with the faculty and proper guidance, advisory services and peer counselling at the
campus could do a lot to reduce the stress.
Objective: Assess the perception of stress amongst medical students and
KEYWORDS Stress, students, medical college, coping strategies.
Author for correspondence: Dr. Babar T. Shaikh, Senior Instructor, Health Systems Division,
Department of Community Health Sciences, Aga Khan University, Stadium Road, PO Box 3500,
Karachi, Pakistan. Tel: + 92 214930051 Ext: 4899, 4811; Direct: +92 2148594899. Fax: +92
2149342944932095. E-mail: email@example.com
Education for Health, Vol. 17, No. 3, November 2004, 346–353
Education for Health ISSN 1357–6283 print/ISSN 1469–5804 online # 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
Medical education is inherently stressful and demanding. Overwhelming
burden of information leaves a minimal opportunity to relax and recreate and
sometimes leads to serious sleep deprivation (Lee & Graham, 2001; Firth-
Cozens, 2001). It constitutes various stressors which may cause impaired
judgment, reduced concentration, loss of self-esteem, increased anxiety and
depression (Gisele, 2002). Forces from the outside world impinging on the
individual could be counted as ‘stress’. Stress can be defined as ‘‘a state of
mental or emotional strain or suspense’’ and also as ‘‘a number of normal
reactions of the body (mental, emotional, and physiological) designed for self-
preservation’’ (Princeton University, 2001). Despite its diffuse perception,
most of the well-known definitions emphasize stress as ‘‘any factor that
threatens the health of an individual or has an adverse effect on the
functioning of the body’’ (Oxford Medical Publications, 1985). As such, stress
is a normal, desirable, and beneficial part of our lives that can help one learn
and grow. Most people are more active, invigorated, creative, and productive
because of stress. Conversely, stress can cause significant problems.
Prolonged, uninterrupted, unexpected and unmanageable stress is damaging.
Coping with the help of drugs, analgesics, alcohol, smoking and eating
actually are counterproductive and may worsen the stress. Stress can be best
managed by regular exercise, meditation or other relaxation techniques,
structured time outs and learning new coping strategies to create predict-
ability in our lives (Carter et al., 2003). The management of stress depends
mainly on the willingness of a person to make the changes necessary for a
A student’s life is subjected to different kinds of stressors, such as the
pressure of academics with an obligation of success, uncertain future and
difficulties envisaged for integration into the system. These students face
social, emotional and physical and family problems which may affect their
learning ability and academic performance (Fish & Nies, 1996; Chew-
Graham, Rogers & Yassin, 2003). Some of them find it hard to cope with the
stress and lag behind, while others see the pressure as challenge to work
harder. Medical students particularly perceive themselves more likely to
become ill than others (Raj, Simpson, Hopman & Singer, 2000). Stress can
lead to disruptions in both physical and mental health. Stress reduction and
adopting a healthier life style have been major concerns of the students
(Mundt, 1996). Students revert to different coping strategies, harmful as well
as constructive. There have been very few studies done so far to assess the
perceptions of stress among students, and still fewer are those done on
medical student population (Vaz et al., 1998; Stewart et al., 1999; Xiang,
2000). However, this study not only explores the different perceptions of
‘stress’ amongst the medical students community but also looks into the
coping strategies adopted to deal with the problem.
Stress among medical students 347
Methodology and Subjects
A cross sectional study was conducted on the undergraduate medical students
of all five years in a medical college in Karachi to get a snapshot view of the
prevalence of stress in medical students, and to assess the different perceptions,
reasons and coping methods of stress. A total of 264 students participated in the
study. The study sample was stratified according to sex, residence (day-scholar/
hostellites), year of study and status of financial assistance from the college.
After an in-depth literature review, a semi-structured questionnaire was
designed as a tool for data collection. This was pilot tested with a sample of 20
students, modified and finally administered by the researchers for final survey.
Confidentiality and anonymity were ensured. Data collection took one week.
Data was entered and analyzed with SPSS 10 and Epi Calc 2000. As most of
the questions were of multiple choice type, chi square and p values have only
been quoted where applicable. Qualitative data was analyzed separately.
The response rate was 88% (264 out of 300), out of which 138 (52.3%) were
males, and 126 (47.7%) were females. Mean age of respondents was 21 years
with a range of 17–25 years. There were 136 day scholars (51.5%), while 128
(48.5%) were hostellites. Those on college’s financial assistance were 41.3%.
A large majority of students perceive stress as mental tension, external
pressure affecting work, psychological burden, helplessness, inability to cope,
increased workload and high expectations. For some, it is a break in the normal
routine, lack of concentration, hopelessness, reaction to unpleasant environ-
ment, loss of interest, inferiority complex, depression etc. Few express it as an
excess of functioning of one’s physical, mental or spiritual being leading to
partial or complete exhaustion of that individual. More than 90% of the
students maintained that they have had episodes of stress while in college at
one time or more. This includes 94.1% males and 91.1% females (w2=0.85,
p=0.36, CI=95%). Among the day scholars, 93.2% feel stressed while 92.1%
of the hostellites are stressed in a way (w2=0.14, p=0.71, CI=95%). Those on
financial assistance (90.7%) have felt stressed as compared to 93.8% of students
who are not on financial assistance (w2=0.65, p=0.42, CI=95%).
Females felt more fatigue, headaches and short-temper than males. Day-
scholars are more fatigued (60%) than hostellites (40%) (w2=11.03, p50.001,
CI=95%). Those on financial assistance reported more frequent headache
(63%) as compared to non-assisted students (37%) (w2=17.68, p50.001,
CI=95%). The residence does not show any remarkable difference in citation
of symptoms of stress (Table 1).
The most common reasons quoted are listed in Table 2. Financial problems
and travelling between campus and home are other reasons quoted. Students
348B. T. Shaikh et al.
who did not know the reason for their stress comprise 6.8%. For 41.4% of the
hostellites, homesickness was a reason for stress (w2=8.69, p=0.003, CI=95%).
Various coping strategies practised by the medical students are listed in
Tables 3 and 4. Offering prayers, meditation, visiting relatives, changing eating
habits, watching movies and online chatting were also mentioned.
Amongst the total sample population, 76% were satisfied with their coping
strategies. Males were more content (78%) with their coping mechanisms as
compared to females (73%). Day-scholars were more satisfied with their coping
mechanisms (78%) as compared to the hostellites (73%) (w2=0.99, p=0.32,
Although 80.7% of the students preferred solitude at times (males 82% and
females 80%; w2=0.13, p=0.72, CI=95%) but in a stressed situation, 71.6%
would like to talk to somebody (male: 68%, female: 76%; w2=2.13, p=0.144,
CI=95%). The 1st and 2nd year students (80%) showed eagerness to talk to
somebody and but in the 4th and final year only 67% showed the desire.
Talking to a peer would be the approach for a majority (46.2%), where males
have greater tendency to do so (70%) as compared to females (57%) (w2=4.94,
p=0.03, CI=95%). Hostellites have a higher preference for a friend to consult
(67%) as compared to those residing with the families (60%) (w2=1.35, p=0.24,
CI=95%). For 22.7% who will consult a family member, girls show more
Table 1. Symptoms of stress and % of respondents (n=264)
Symptoms% of students
Inability to concentrate
Change in sleep pattern
Difficulty in making decisions
Difficulty in communicating with people
Table 2. Various reasons for stress quoted by male and female respondents (%)
Reasons for stressMales (n=138)Females (n=126)Mean
Stress among medical students 349
inclination to do so (39%) as compared to boys (21%) (w2=10.11, p=0.001,
CI=95%). Hostellites consult their family less (25%) as compared to those
living at their homes (35%) (w2=3.13, p=0.07, CI=95%). Those who don’t
know whom to talk to comprise 27.3% and less than 1% would consult a
psychiatrist or the students’ advisor.
The young student population has always been vulnerable to stressful life
conditions especially in pursuit of higher professional education in a highly
competitive environment (World Health Organization, 1994; Saipanis, 2003). A
large majority perceives itself stressed in the college at one time or another, but
boys show more inclination towards stress. Residence or the factor of financial
assistance do not have any major effect, although it was hypothesized that these
factors might contribute towards the level of stress.
The frequency of stress seems considerable with little difference between
males and females. It was interesting to note that day scholars appear more
stressed than the hostellites. This has been attributed primarily to the
commuting between college and their residences. A feeling of inadequacy in
fulfilling family commitments can also be attributed to the higher stress levels in
day scholars. A third factor could be lack of control over management of their
Table 4. Coping strategies and % of hostellites and day-scholars
Coping mechanismDay scholars Hostellites
Spend time with friends
Table 3. Coping strategies and % of males and females respondents
Coping strategiesMales % Females % Mean
Spending time with
350 B. T. Shaikh et al.
The symptoms of the bouts of stress, low moods, inability to concentrate,
short temper, changed sleep patterns and loneliness were more frequently cited
as compared to others such as fatigue, headaches and stomachaches. While
cross tabulations of the results in different categories of students considering
sex, year of study and lieu of residence, no considerable variation in the results
was observed. The most common reasons highlighted were exams and
academics, followed by relationship problems in the college or family and
homesickness. Like other studies have shown (Steenberger et al., 1993; Ronald,
1993), girls have reported exams, family and relationship problems more
frequently as the reason for their stress than their male colleagues.
By and large, 75% of the medical students were satisfied with their
individual coping mechanisms. The most frequently reported were spending
time with friends, followed by sleep, music, sports and isolation. It was
observed that females preferred to study and sleep while their male counter-
parts were inclined to hang out with their friends, play sports or isolate
themselves. Both day scholars and hostellites preferred spending time with
friends and playing sports. A striking difference was seen in smoking being used
as a coping mechanism in hostellites, double the frequency of day scholars. The
development of such an unhealthy habit was attributed to the peer pressure and
being away from the families.
As for recommendations, a majority asks for a more encouraging,
interactive and friendly relationship between faculty and students. The need
for more effective student advisors was clearly highlighted. They want more
entertainment activities such as movie shows, reading clubs, dramatics and
debates, musical and cultural events, sports, free Internet facilities and more
college-sponsored excursion tours. Hostellites recommended better hostel
facilities, especially a cafeteria exclusively for the medical students, and
lowering the hostel rent. Day scholars would like commuting facilities provided
by the college. Quite a few have accepted the way things are and recommended
coping strategies rather than changing the present system. Going out of
campus, change of one’s environment, tea, coffee and smoking seem to be
popular solutions to cope with the stress amongst this group.
Student life is exciting but it can also be very pressured and stressful as it is a
transitional period. It also involves many challenges at a practical level. A high
stress level may affect not only academic performances but also all aspects of
student health. The psychological make up of medical students developed
during five years of medical schooling is likely to continue in their professional
lives too (Firth-Cozens, 2001). Medical students should be offered more
opportunities for recreational and leisure time activities, such as weekly movie
shows, event celebrations, excursion tours and musical concerts (Aktekin,
Stress among medical students351
2001). Physical activities, sports and socialization are indispensable for
individual growth and to foster personal development (Azariah & Reichen-
back, 2001; Durkin et al., 2003). Sports, music and arts could be made a part of
the optional curriculum.
Besides more approachable and functional student advisors, peer education
and counselling would be an ideal solution for this problem. This approach in
pedagogy has been found successful for centuries (Baudier et al., 1997). The
teaching faculty can also be of help, just being more interactive and convivial.
Faculty can help students in improving studying habits, managing time wisely,
learning positive self-talk and learning how to relax.
Different stress management techniques such as meditation, support groups,
games etc., help in better adoption of coping skills, improved knowledge of
stress and enhanced ability to resolve conflicts (Shapiro et al., 2000). ‘Stress
management’ and ‘Time management’ taught along with first and second year
curricula may assist students in dealing with stress due to study loads (Lee &
Graham, 2001). Health education programs, mentorship and extracurricular
activities can be important strategies to enable undergraduates cope better with
the demands of this tertiary level of education.
Medical students are one important segment of our young population which
constitutes almost 40% of our total population today (Government of Pakistan,
2000). It is heartening to know that health problems of the young population
are underlined and addressed to some extent in the government’s policy for
youth (Government of Pakistan, 2001). There is a definite need for regular
surveys to be undertaken to monitor the levels of health among youth,
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