What Stresses Us Out + How We Deal with It

Research Roadmap

Design for the Pursuit of Happiness is a design research and data visualization project led by Yvette Shen and Elizabeth Sanders. Students research assistants include: Anne Knellinger, Deanna Sagaris, and Shasha Yu of the Design Department at The Ohio State University.

This is phase one of an ongoing research project aiming to design a supportive community that promotes positive thinking and positive behaviors on the university campus. In this part of the project, we are exploring the problems students face in their everyday lives that elicit stress and anxiety, as well as their experiences and strategies of dealing with these problems.

About Co-Design

Co-design brings the people who will be served by design directly into the process as participants. In Design for the Pursuit of Happiness, OSU students and mental health providers will be the co-designers. Co-design acknowledges that everyone who is impacted by what is designed should play a central role in the design process.

We conducted three co-design sessions with a total of 23 participants at the end of 2019. These participants were undergraduate students of different levels (freshmen to seniors) and different majors (Biology, Business, Design, Economics, Engineering, English, Neuroscience, etc.) at The Ohio State University. Then we organized and analyzed the different types of data from the sessions in order to identify the emerging patterns ⇉.

In the co-design process, designers create toolkits for non-designers to use to express themselves creatively. In our co-design session with students, we designed toolkits ⇊ based on quantifiable charts and diagrams for the purpose of answering these research questions: What stresses us out and how do we deal with it?

Toolkits and Fill-in Samples

Research Roadmap

⇓ Co-design Activities ⇓

⇑ Research Questions ⇑

Data Results

1 What are the patterns of students’ daily stress experiences?

Based on the results from the Daily Wellbeing Journey toolkit (Toolkit A), the research team identified different patterns of the ups and downs of the stress level in a day. These patterns lead to four types of personas as described in the graph below. Personas are fictional characters created based on research data that represent different user types in a design process. Personas help designers to recognize that different people have different needs and expectations.

Type I/High Stress: The High Stress persona is stressed almost all the time both day and night. Their stress level spikes up right after waking up, and only drops down at the end of their day.

Type II/Early Peak: The stress level of the Early Peak type reaches the highest in the middle of the day, then it starts to drop down in the late afternoon. Eventually they “collapse” at bed time.

Type III/Late Peak: The stress level of the Late Peak type builds up as the day goes on. It gets higher and higher towards the end of the day and doesn’t go down.

Type IV/Low Stress: The Low Stress type is generally more relaxed. There are no significant changes or high peaks of stress level during anytime of the day or night.

2 What are the stress levels students experienced with different academic components?

Based on the completed Toolkit B- Students’ Academic Stress, the graph below displays students’ responses to various academic stressors. We provided the following components:presentations, homework, projects, quizzes, mid-terms/finals in the toolkit. The empty boxes in the toolkit invited participants to write in additional academic stressors.

In the chart below, items with * are write-ins by the participants.

Additional Insights:

High Stress students do not find the academic components to be more stressful than the other types of students as was expected. However, the one type of academic component that stresses them out the most is Group Projects.

Low Stress students show the biggest range of stress responses across the academic components.

Late Peak students are more stressed out by Projects than by Quizzes and Tests.

As expected, midterms and finals are generally quite stressful for students across all the persona types.

"High expectations of myself" and "heavily weighted" were mentioned by multiple people when explaining why mid-term and finals are extremely stressful events.

"Procrastination" was mentioned by serveral people across all persona types.

The write-in responses were often about relationships to other people.

3 What are the intensity and frequency levels of different stressors?

Based on the completed Toolkit C - Stress Intensity + Frequency, the graphs below shows both how intense and how frequent different stressors are for the students. We used 9 quads to collect clusters of students' inputs and coded them based on their positions on the coordinate axis.

Additional Insights:

Overall, the highest intensity/highest frequency stressor that affects most students is thinking about the future. Health follows closely. The "health" category concerns both physical health and mental health.

Midterms and finals create high intensity stress but they do not occur often.

Homework creates a low intensity stress but it occurs quite frequently.

Students were also asked to rank the severity of the stressors using color-coding dot stickers. The stressors that students seek professional help for include the ones related to academic, social relationships, physical and mental health, and concerns for future.

4 What are the most popular coping strategies that students consider to be effective? Not effective? Interested in trying?

Toolkit D asks students how they cope with stress. A packet of pre-printed labels with some common strategies was provided. Students were also asked to write-in their own coping strategies. This activity was designed to understand the effectiveness of coping strategies that help college students to deal with stress, as well as to learn about additinal coping strategies they might try.

Additional Insights:

The "Strategies that work for me" are similar across the four student personas

The "Strategies that don't work for me" are also similar across the four personas.

Type I: high stress students have more "strategies I want to try" than do the other types of students.

From students' annotations, we also learn that some strategies work occasionally but not all the time. For example: "Talking to friends", "planning", "sleeping", and "crying".

Some strategies they don't do is because they don't like what the activity involves regardless its potential to beneift their wellbeing. For example: running, meditation, and going to the gym.

Moms are the most popular family members to talk to.

Some additional strategies provided by students include:

  • Being active
  • Self-compassion
  • Writing music
  • Working in outdoor spaces
  • Working in public spaces
  • Hammocking
  • Taking showers or bath
  • Joining study groups
  • Going to office hours
  • Petting animals