All of us are under stress every day. Without it we wouldn't move, think, get out of bed, or care. We need it...but we don't need an excess of it. We must learn to recognize and cope with stress, as well as know when high levels of stress become more than we can handle alone.
Excessive stress can be defined as any influence that is disruptive to a person's functioning. Stressors can be either physical (such as injury, illness, temperature extremes) or psychological (such as anger, tension, or grief). In other words, stress is anything that speeds up, keys up, or tenses our bodies. College students experience their own brand of stress.
However, college students are particularly vulnerable to the following stressors:
- Separation from Family/Friends. Separation is a very positive experience for most students. At the same time, it is a challenge for other students. For many, college is the first extended time away from home, so you have to get your bearings and establish a new support system -- and this doesn't happen overnight.
- Peer Pressure. Especially in a new environment, most of us eagerly seek acceptance. That may make students vulnerable to conforming -- whether it's to friends' attitudes toward alcohol, partying, values, studying, etc.
- Finding a Sense of Belonging. College students are often concerned about how they fit on campus and learning to manage relationships. Many students find that campus groups and other resources are often helpful in making meaningful connections.
- Freedom/Independence. At most colleges, the days of strict residence hall rules, dress codes, and even mandatory class attendance are long gone. While that freedom can be fun, it can create some adjustment problems, because nobody is telling you what to do or how to do it. Probably, one of the most critical issues is learning how to manage time in such a way that there is balance between study and leisure.
- Competition. The ever increasing competition for grades, graduate school admission, and jobs is another adjustment at this stage of life that must be faced. Thus, learning to set priorities and developing a strong social support system become very important.
- Choosing a Major/Career. This stressor is quite common for college students. You'd like to find a major that interests you, but may face an uncertain job market dependent upon your choice. For some, this choice is impacted by family, culture, personal expectations, finances, and time. The Counseling Center can help you address these concerns and alleviate some of the stress associated with making this decision.
Stress Management Techniques:
Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Consider these scenarios:
- You’re about to make a phone call to ask someone out – and your roommate walks into the room. Suddenly, you feel so nervous that your hand shakes as you dial and your voice sounds strange as you say hello.
- You’re about to take a test – the professor is handing out the test sheet, and you feel your heart race and your palms sweat.
- You’re angry with a friend, but you believe your only choices are to blow it off or completely blow up. Your stomach gets tense and you feel slightly nauseous.
Each of these stress-producing situations create feelings of anxiety. Anxiety includes both a cognitive component, such as worrying about being heard while on the phone, and a physiological component, such as the resulting increased muscular tension in your hand and in your larynx. These symptoms indicate that your body is going through the “fight or flight response,” a physiological response rooted in our early beginnings of human survival.
The fight or flight response involves an exquisitely orchestrated set of biochemical changes that ready the body to respond to any perceived threat. The brain sets off an alarm, which turns on the sympathetic nervous system, causing your adrenal glands to secrete a flood of stress hormones. A chain reaction ensues. Your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, your sense of hearing and smell become acute, your diaphragm locks, your breathing and heart rate speed up, your blood clots more quickly, your perspiration increases, your lower priority functions shut down, and your blood flow is redirected away from your extremities into the larger muscles.
Our early ancestors’ survival depended on physical solutions to danger. However, social customs today tend to prevent us from fighting or fleeing, and our stressors are usually more chronic. When our bodies remain in an active state, we are more susceptible to the long-term negative effects of chronic stress. As we overproduce stress hormones we chronically shut down healthy functions such as digestion, growth, tissue repair, and responses of the immune and inflammatory systems. And the typical person usually goes through the fight or flight response from 100 to 250 times per day! It’s no wonder that chronic stress contributes to our susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases and illnesses, such as the common cold, hypertension, migraines, osteoporosis, ulcers, heart disease, diabetes, and even depression.
So how do you cope with and counteract the effects of chronic stress? That depends on the nature of your particular stressors, how you may unintentionally increase your own stress, how you cognitively appraise stress-producing situations, and how your body uniquely reacts to stress. Stress-reduction techniques are as wide-ranging as improving your nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits, learning time management, improving your communication skills, learning how to balance recreation and productivity, learning to cognitively appraise situations in ways that enhance problem solving, decreasing or eliminating your reliance on alcohol or drug use, and getting social support. You may wish to meet with one of our counselors who can help you to analyze your own unique situation and recommend how you can improve your stress management.
In addition, there is one technique that can benefit just about anyone. You can counteract the fight or flight response by harnessing your body’s natural ability to come back to a balanced state of calm by activating your parasympathetic nervous system. This can be done by inducing the Relaxation Response. Herbert Benson, M.D., the director of the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Harvard, has researched the interaction of the mind and body for 30 years. His studies have found that the Relaxation Response creates physiological changes such as decreased metabolism, heart rate, and breathing rate, in addition to distinctively slower brain waves. These changes are associated with feelings of calm and a decrease in anxiety. Interestingly, his research has found that people tend to experience an increased sense of spirituality regardless of whether or not they used a repetitive religious focus; spirituality was also associated with fewer medical symptoms. This has led him to draw from many religious traditions of the world to continue his research on the healing effects of spirituality.
The Relaxation Response
The instructions for inducing the Relaxation Response are very simple. You’ll receive the full benefits if you practice for 20 minutes per day or at least several times per week.
- Find a quiet spot: Choose a quiet room, outdoor setting, or wherever you can be alone and free from distractions.
- Assume a comfortable position: You may sit straight in a chair or cross-legged on the floor. It’s best not to lie down because you may fall asleep.
- Choose a point of focus: Select a word or sound that elicits a sense of tranquility, such as Calm, Peace, or Relax, or, if you wish, one that is rooted in your personal religious belief system. The purpose of this mental device is to break the chain of distracting thoughts and direct your focus internally. Close your eyes, relax your muscles, and breathe normally. Repeat your word or sound silently as you exhale.
- Develop a passive attitude: When distracting thoughts come, just allow them to float away while you return to your point of focus.
Another way to cope with stress is to improve your time management skills. The best way to use your time effectively is to create a formal time management plan. It makes it easy to see what must be done and when. You’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment when you check items off. You might even find you have more free time and less stress.
Making a Time Management Plan
Here's how it's done. Get out a piece of paper, a pencil or pen, and a calendar, along with your class schedules.
- List all your major tasks and goals for a particular time frame.
- Assign priority rankings to your tasks and goals. This can be difficult. Start by breaking them into three categories (high, medium, low priority), then ranking each item within those categories from most to least important.
- Begin plugging the most important items into your calendar. Make sure your deadlines are realistic. Don’t take too little or too much time to finish. For large or overwhelming tasks, try breaking them into smaller sub-tasks. Sometimes it can be easier to do a lot of little things over time than one large thing all at once.
- Repeat the process with medium priority items.
- Throw out your low-priority items. They’re either unnecessary or will take care of themselves.
- Get to work. Tackle highest priority items first when possible. Guard yourself, because only you know if you’re cheating.
- Post your plan where you can see it daily.
Choosing a Time Frame
Start with your college career. Lay out the courses you will be taking, and when you will take them. Remember to be realistic.
Next, map out a semester. Take the course outlines you receive at the beginning of classes and plug in your reading assignments, papers, tests, and social activities. Most assignments will be good examples of large tasks that should be broken into smaller sub-tasks.
Last, depending on how organized you want to be, you can make a Time Management Plan for each week, and from there for each day. Be careful not to overplan. Vary your workload so that it does not become boring and regimented. Tasks will be easier to do that way.
The key to a good Time Management Plan is personal commitment. Since it is a plan that you alone have made, with your abilities, desires, and goals in mind, you should have no trouble following it. If you don't feel a high degree of commitment, then you have probably not given an honest appraisal of yourself and your goals.
Where to Find More Time
- Don’t budget more time for a task than it requires.
- A few hours of concentrated work when you feel good is worth more than twice the time spent when you don’t.
- Schedule tasks when you function best.
- Allow time for the unexpected. One unanticipated problem can cause others if your schedule is too rigid.
- Don’t forget to relax.
- Don’t waste time feeling guilty about what you didn’t do. Just push ahead.
The Counseling Center can also assist you in keeping your stress level in check by providing therapy (group or individual) in a relaxed, confidential, and safe atmosphere. Some of the most appropriate interventions to cope with stress include developing relaxation techniques, taking time for oneself, managing time effectively, and asking others for help.
In summary, everyone is under some form of stress every day. We need a certain amount of it to motivate us, but too much stress in too short a time can be harmful. If we can understand and recognize stress, we are better equipped to cope with it. In some situations, too much stress can build up, and then we must consider the need for outside help.
Here are some additional resources that may help you understand and manage your stress:
- TED Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend (Kelly McGonigal)
TED Talk: All it Takes 10 Mindful Minutes (https://www.ted.com/playlists/315/talks_to_help_you_manage_stres)
TED Talk: How To Stay Calm When You Know You’ll Be Stressed (https://www.ted.com/playlists/315/talks_to_help_you_manage_stres)
TED Talk: The Art of Stillness (https://www.ted.com/playlists/315/talks_to_help_you_manage_stres)
- VIDEO: Managing Stress - Brainsmart - BBC
- Stress Information and Management Techniques (http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-management.htm)
- Search YouTube for “Guided Imagery,” “Progressive Muscles Relaxation,” “Nature Sounds,” or other related terms
- Take a walk outside, sit in the sun, exercise
- Get enough sleep
- Ask for help from others
- Eat well
- Decrease caffeine, alcohol, or other drug use
- Tell a joke, laugh, giggle
- Arts and crafts, color, draw, write
- Write down 3 things you’re grateful for each day