Are cute animals the solution to stress?

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Most of us probably don’t do enough to tackle our stress levels. So when Bath Spa University as part of its “Stamp Out Stress” campaign decided to introduce a petting zoo onto campus, students everywhere looked wistfully at the news footage and turned to cat memes on the internet in an effort to procrastinate. The campaign also provided other services including a free and professional neck and head massage, a financial health check with money advisors, and blood pressure and cholesterol tests.

Superficially this appears to be a great idea to get students out of the library, into the sun, and holding cute and fluffy ducklings. Bath Spa University’s Student Union Welfare Officer, Emma Weskin, said: “We were keen to be able to provide opportunities for students to take some time away from their revision and the library and spend some time de-stressing and enjoying themselves.” As we all know far too well, being one of the most examined nations in the world means that that students’ stress levels are ever on the increase. The importance of regular breaks, a balanced and healthy diet, and a good night’s sleep has never been more apt for today’s students, from secondary school right through to university. The question is, however, won’t petting zoos be a constant distraction rather than a means of stress relief?

Susceptible to fluffy animals as I am, if there was a petting zoo on my doorstep for any length of time, the probability of me getting any work done would be almost nil. I’d also be encouraged to spend my time watching silly cat videos on YouTube, in turn making me feel more stressed out when I realise I haven’t done as much work as I should have. Regular breaks are important – but petting zoos are too distracting (at least for someone like me).

Bath Spa University’s campaign, as well as Lancaster’s continued efforts to raise awareness about mental health issues, should without doubt be praised. However, it would be naïve to think that providing the odd petting zoo or roll of bubble-wrap will improve students’ stress levels in the long run. The causes of stress need to be examined more deeply and, if possible, reduced. There is no doubt that exam periods will necessarily involve some level of stress, but my experience at university, as well as those of my friends, has led me to think that exam timetables are not as conducive to reducing pressure as they should be. Last year, if you took English Literature, English Language, and Linguistics as a first year, you would be facing exams on three consecutive days. Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely that combination of subjects is going to be incredibly popular. Equally, current second year Physics students face exams mere days after finishing lectures and in which they are required to memorise around 100 equations as a minimum. Is it any wonder that students are suffering from unusually high stress levels?

Having ways of encouraging students to take breaks is all well and good, but unless something fundamental changes about the exam period and students’ experience during that period, having petting zoos and the like is nothing more than a stunt. Temporarily students may feel better, but surely time should be spent helping people to deal with exams and revision. Equally, not everyone would benefit from such publicity measures. People with allergies, or people who generally do not like animals, would not get much of a break. I don’t know about anyone else, but I would not want to be told that my blood pressure or cholesterol levels are too high just before the exam period because it would just be another worry to add to the list.

Ultimately, the causes of high stress levels are not going to go away, and whilst Bath Spa’s “Stamp Out Stress” campaign is good on a short term basis, cute animals are not going to reduce stress levels in the end. The most effective ways of reducing stress still remain the same as ever: plenty of rest, a good diet, and lots of breaks including regular exercise. It’s fantastic that we’re becoming more and more aware of our mental health, but we’re a long way from realistically combating stress during exam periods, cute animals or not.

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