What is Stress?
Stress may be understood as a basic human survival mechanism left over from our primordial roots when we could best respond to perceived dangers by either fighting or fleeing. In the modern world, we may experience stress through academic demands, busy schedules, traffic, bills, relationship conflicts, and changes occurring at home, at school or on the job. Stress can act as a helpful signal to raise our awareness of threat, but over time it may wear us down if we are unable to cope in healthy ways.
How is College Stressful?
During their college years students experience constant challenges and demands for adjustment and change. Along with academic pressures, students are seeking independence from their parents and responsibility for themselves, acceptance from their peers in a world of mixed values, and more intimate relationships.
When we experience stress, most of us rely on our support systems to help us cope with or resolve the situation. Most students attend college away from their family, hometown, friends, local hangouts, etc. Thus, they experience the developmental and academic stressors of college life at a time when they are separated from most of their support systems.
What are the Effects of Stress?
We experience the effects of stress physically, emotionally, behaviorally and mentally. Physically, the body reacts to threat with an increased adrenalin flow. Fatigue may develop, muscles become tensed, and heart rate and respiration are increased. Emotionally, you may experience anxiety, irritability, sadness and depression, or extreme happiness and exhilaration. Behaviorally, you may experience reduced physical coordination and control, sleeplessness, fidgeting, increased substance use or crying. Mentally, you may have a severe reduction in your ability to concentrate, store information in memory and solve problems. For example, "test anxiety" is related to the brain's reduced ability to process information while under severe stress. This can be of particular concern to college students.
Can I Completely Eliminate Stress?
Stress is a natural part of daily living and virtually impossible to eliminate completely. A major difference between more effective and less effective students is not the presence or absence of stress, but the ability to recognize stress when it occurs and to manage it.
Is All Stress Bad?
There are actually two forms of stress. Distress, the more familiar, is the chronic feeling of being overwhelmed, oppressed, and behind in your tasks. It is the pervasive sense of being taxed by life with little opening for relief. Eustress is the alternate form of stress that is actually beneficial. Eustress allows us to engage with the challenges in life that are meaningful and offset boredom. It can entail utilizing that adrenalin surge to lend the necessary energy for maximum productivity. What is perceived as negatively stressful for one person may be perceived as positively stressful for another.
You can't respond to stress if you do not realize that you are experiencing it, so check in with yourself--body, emotions, and mind-- on a regular basis.
Generate a list of current events or situations that produce stress in your life (i.e., moved to new location, work or school demands, balancing priorities, job promotion, relationship conflicts).
Brainstorm how you cope with stressful experiences. Assess if your present coping style is healthy (exercise, downtime for self-care, balancing work and play, time management) or unhealthy (alcohol or drug use, avoidance, procrastination, overeating).
Once you've identified your stressors and coping styles, you can begin to make changes to reduce stress and lower the impact of stressful situations in your life.
Incorporate some "downtime" into your daily routine.
- going for walks
- meeting with friends
- reading for pleasure
- listening to music
- taking a bath
- sitting by the ocean
Begin practicing relaxation techniques
- guided imagery and visualization
- deep breathing exercises
- progressive muscle relaxation
Don't ignore your body
- eat a well-balanced diet
- exercise regularly
- get adequate sleep each night
- reduce caffeine intake
- don't smoke (nicotine is a stimulant and can increase anxiety)
Take positive steps to change what you can
- prioritize your time
- break large demands into small, manageable parts
- identify your needs and articulate them
- prepare yourself when you know a stressful event is coming
- acknowledge your thoughts and feelings concerning the stressors in your life
- develop a support network to rely on in times of need
- get involved in activities and relationships that are meaningful to you
Be Aware of How Your Attitudes Influence Your Stress Level
- Remember to be kind to yourself and not dwell on the "shoulds."
- View stressors as challenges or opportunities for growth rather than threats.
- Challenge catastrophic thinking.
- Don't Sweat the Small Stuff-and It's All Small Stuff New York, NY: Hyperion, 1997. Carson, R.
- The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1988. Davis, M., Eshelman, E., & McCay, M.