Aunt Agony and Uncle Upset: Reducing Excessive Stress

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By Pan Haotian (24A01B) and Darren Wong (24S03C, Peer Helper)

Your resident Aunties and Uncles are back with our Ask Aunt Agony and Uncle Upset column, this time as a collaboration between Raffles Press and Peer Helpers’ Programme (PHP)! Ever wanted to rant about that someone you just can’t stand? Overwhelmed with too many feelings? Submit your confessions to and we’ll give them our best shot. This column will be published at the end of every month.

What should I do if my stress is making it hard for me to eat and sleep? I don’t know how to reduce the stress because it is how I feel and it is hard to change.

Stressed-Out Sebastian

Dear Stressed-Out Sebastian,

“Stress” may be the 1740th most common word in the English language (thank you, Google), but it’s likely the most common word in any Rafflesian’s vocabulary. For many of us, stress is no longer an exception in an otherwise peaceful school term: it’s the new normal. Yet we need to remember that just because something is common doesn’t mean that it’s normal, and behind the commonplace complaint of stress hides entirely unordinary symptoms. 

There is some credit to the aphorism that stress is inevitable. Once in a while, there’s just a responsibility we can’t shirk, or an event we can’t avoid. The prescription for stress follows the same formula as most other ailments: first solve the root cause, and if that fails, then treat the symptoms. 

Your question fits neatly into this prescription: first you have the symptoms (lack of appetite, insomnia), followed by the purported cause (“it is how I feel”). 

Let’s first take a look at the root cause. It’s well understood that different people react differently to stress, and we can all feel varying amounts of stress even in the same situation. Though there are external causes for your stress, your question is an interesting one because it suggests that the primary factor here is not extrinsic but rather intrinsic, that it is just how you feel when presented with the situation. It may be fruitless to say that while we cannot control external events, we can always control ourselves – rather, your struggle lies mostly with the latter part of that statement. 

To begin with, it’s worth remembering that the belief that our emotions are unmalleable may sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research backs up the fact that if you believe your feelings can be changed, then you’re more likely to consciously reinterpret situations before succumbing to your initial burst of emotion. Curiously, then, it isn’t just our emotions that matter – it’s also about our reaction to those emotions (how we feel about our feelings, if you may). 

Perhaps another solution to consider isn’t to immediately tamp down your emotions by reducing your stress, but to reframe the situation. Instead of comparing yourself to others, take pride in your own improvement; instead of feeling incapacitated by a massive task, break it down into smaller, more manageable fragments; instead of chastising yourself for wasting time, plan your schedule and allow yourself to rest. 

Another approach is to interpret your emotions and listen to what they are telling you to do. If you are anxious about a subject you are relatively weak in, that may be a sign for you to focus on that subject more. This gives you an opportunity to use your anxiety for improvement, and this improvement in turn helps placate your stress. 

Losing appetite and a dysfunctional sleep schedule aren’t uncommon symptoms of stress, and are often results of the physical symptoms of stress. Stress can manifest as physical sensations in the body, such as nausea, tense muscles, or a knot in the stomach, which can make it hard to eat or sleep. A surge of adrenaline brought on by stress can also suppress your appetite and cause insomnia.

Sleep and appetite are deeply interlinked: insufficient sleep can lead to a poor appetite, and improper nutrition dysregulates your sleep cycle, leading to a vicious cycle that exacerbates the issue. Everyone’s body reacts differently to stress, and you shouldn’t feel like it’s unnatural or weird to be feeling the way you are.

Now that we have a better understanding of the reasons behind stress, let’s take a look at how we can manage it in a more healthy manner. 

Practising mindfulness in our busy lives

In the hustle and bustle of our school life, where incoming exams, outstanding lectures, and social pressures abound, mindfulness emerges as a simple and convenient way for us to manage stress. Practising mindfulness doesn’t require hours of meditation; it could be as simple as taking a few mindful breaths before a test or dedicating a few minutes to clear your mind. 

Taking time to breathe can ground you in the present.

When you feel overwhelmed, try focusing on the small things in the present: the breaths you’re taking, the sounds around you, and the things you’re seeing. Be mindful of these observations and take the time to contemplate them – you’ll notice yourself feeling calmer, and your mind “decluttering”. 

Incorporating mindfulness into your eating habits can also help you manage your appetite. Take deep breaths, think through your food choices, and chew your food slowly and thoroughly. They might seem small but these practices can help you enjoy your meal more and improve your digestion.

Scheduling your day

Adhering to a well-structured routine also provides a sense of order, which can help decrease anxiety throughout the day. Planning your day ahead of time reduces the number of things you have to think about on the day itself, and gives you a sense of structure that you can fall back on when you feel overwhelmed. Integrating meals into a predictable schedule can also help the body develop a natural rhythm, helping it signal hunger and fullness more effectively.

And when it all seems too much…

Our final word of advice to you is to focus on the small things that make you happy, and stick to them. Restoring your appetite and sleep cycle isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight, and being consistent in your efforts to manage your stress is key. When everything seems too overwhelming, when nothing seems like it’s going right, when you’re tempted to just give up, remember: breathe. 


Aunt Agony and Uncle Upset

If you need anyone to talk to about any issues you might be facing, do drop by My Rest Space near Marymount gate and talk to one of our peer helpers! We’re open on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 3 – 5 p.m, and Wednesday 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m. If you would like to meet a peer helper on a regular basis, do email us a request at or fill in our request form at our website

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