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Stress Management

Sources of Stress
Adjusting to the many changes that accompany college life can add extra stress into our lives. There are so many activities, decisions, expenses, expectations, and new roles involved. Many people do not realize how great an impact this stress can have on their happiness and sense of well-being. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of attending college is the balance between its stressfulness, on one hand, and, on the other hand the expectations that it will be a time of joy and fulfillment. Remember, too that other sources of stress (not related to college) don't go away because you are attending college. In fact, these additional stressors compound college stress. Keep in mind that all change is stressful, including good change.

How we handle stress
Stress will help or hinder us depending on how we react to it. A major difference between those who feel overwhelmed by stress and those who do not is not the presence or absence of stress, but the ability to recognize stress when it occurs and to manage it. Positive stress adds anticipation and excitement to life, and we all thrive under a certain amount of stress. Deadlines, competitions, confrontations, and even our frustrations and sorrows add depth and enrichment to our lives. Our goal is not to eliminate stress but to learn how to manage it and how to use it to help us. Insufficient stress acts as a depressant and may leave us feeling bored or dejected; on the other hand, excessive stress may leave us feeling "tied up in knots." What we need to do is find the optimal level of stress which will individually motivate but not overwhelm each of us.

What are the signs of too much Stress?
Over-stress reactions include a wide range of symptoms, including physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive (thought process) signs.

  1. Physical symptoms:

    • Stomach ache, headache, dizziness, eye strain
    • Sleep problems (too little or too much)
    • Problems concentrating
  2. Feelings:

    • Moodiness (Feeling low or depressed)
    • Anxiety (Tense, nervous, jumpy, unable to relax)
    • Irritable or hostile (Getting angry over minor things)
    • Fearfulness (Afraid to make decisions)
  3. Behaviors:

    • Exaggerating normal behavior (hard workers turn into workaholics; quiet people become isolated)
    • Withdrawing (from friends, family, and coworkers)
    • Blaming others (finding fault, being critical or hard to please)
    • Having fewer stress-free conversations with family and friends
    • Having fights (about everything and nothing)
    • Sharing fewer satisfactions with family and friends
    • Pretending that nothing is wrong (denial)
  4. Thoughts:

    • This is horrible/unbearable. I'm not good enough.
    • I'm going to go crazy.

It's important to recognize that these are all signs of stress overload, probably not of more a more serious condition.

How Can I Manage Stress Better?
Identifying unrelieved stress and being aware of its effect on our lives is not sufficient for reducing its harmful effects. Just as there are many sources of stress, there are many possibilities for its management. However, all require effort toward change: changing the source of stress and/or changing your reaction to it.

How do you proceed?

  1. Become aware of your stressors and your emotional and physical reactions.
    • Notice your distress. Don't ignore it. Don't gloss over your problems.
    • Determine what events distress you. What are you telling yourself about meaning of these events?
    • Determine how your body responds to the stress. Do you become nervous or physically upset? If so, in what specific ways?
  2. Recognize what you can change.
    • Can you change your stressors by avoiding or eliminating them completely?
    • Can you reduce their intensity (manage them over a period of time instead of on a daily or weekly basis)?
    • Can you shorten your exposure to stress (take a break, leave the physical premises)?
    • Can you devote the time and energy necessary to making a change (goal setting, time management techniques, and delayed gratification strategies may be helpful here)?
  3. Reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions to stress.
    • The stress reaction is triggered by your perception of danger...physical danger and/or emotional danger. Are you viewing your stressors in exaggerated terms and/or taking a difficult situation and making it a disaster?
    • Are you expecting to please everyone?
    • Are you overreacting and viewing things as absolutely critical and urgent? Do you feel you must always prevail in every situation?
    • Work at adopting more moderate views; try to see the stress as something you can cope with rather than something that overpowers you.
    • Try to temper your excess emotions. Put the situation in perspective. Do not labor on the negative aspects and the "what if's."
  4. Learn to moderate your physical reactions to stress.
    • Slow, deep breathing and relaxation techniques can reduce muscle tension and will bring your heart rate and respiration back to normal. (* See relaxation techniques below)
  5. Build your physical reserves.
    • Exercise for cardiovascular fitness three to four times a week (moderate, prolonged rythmic exercise is best, such as walking, swimming, cycling, or jogging).
    • Eat well-balanced, nutritious meals.
    • Maintain your ideal weight.
    • Avoid nicotine, excessive caffeine, and other stimulants.
    • Mix leisure with work. Take breaks and get away when you can.
    • Get enough sleep. Be as consistent with your sleep schedule as possible.
  6. Maintain your emotional reserves.
    • Develop some mutually supportive friendships/relationships.
    • Pursue realistic goals which are meaningful to you, rather than goals others have for you that you do not share.
    • Expect some frustrations, failures, and sorrows.
    • Always be kind and gentle with yourself--be a friend to yourself.

Relaxation Techniques: Like any skill, relaxation techniques for lowering stress and anxiety are more powerful the more often you practice them. This is especially true when you are first learning the technique. If you only make use of a strategy when you are feeling extremely distressed, its effectiveness may be reduced.

  • Deep Breathing: When we are anxious, our breathing tends to be shallow and fast. In contrast, deep and slow breathing tends to relax us at a physiological level. Begin this practice by lying down or sitting in a comfortable chair. Place your hand on your stomach area. Now, as you slowly breathe in, draw the air all the way down into your diaphragm. Feel your hand rise as the breath comes in. You can gently count 1,2,3, 4 as you breathe in. Breathe out to a count of 1,2,3, 4 and hold on the out breath for another 4 seconds. Repeat this practice for 3 – 5 minutes.
  • Breath Meditation: One simple and effective meditation is to choose a word or two that evoke qualities of experience that you would like to cultivate. For instance, words like courage, trust, peace, well-being, love, equanimity. Choose whatever words seem most appropriate at this time. Let’s say the words you select happen to be openness and trust, now as you slowly breathe in, imagine breathing in openness, opening up your mind and heart, opening to your feelings, opening to goodness, opening to love, etc. Then, as you breathe out, imagine yourself deeply trusting, letting the sense of trust wash through you, bathing your muscles and tendons, your bones and internal organs all the way down to the cellular level.
  • Body Scanning: Find a quiet room and lie down on a sofa or bed. Take a few deep breaths, letting your attention withdraw from the outer world and to focus in on your body. Now bring your full attention down to your feet. First, allow your toes to relax, then the ball of your feet, then the soul and heel. Very gradually move your mind’s eye up through your body, allowing each part to relax completely, until you reach the top of your head. You can cultivate feelings of relaxation by gently saying to yourself, My feet are knees are relaxing, and so on. It’s very important to bring and keep as much of your attention as you can on what your body is actually experiencing. For instance, you may notice sensations of tingling, heaviness or warmth. Whatever sensations arise, just allow them to be as you continue to move up through your body. To the extent that you can relax your body in this way, then your mind also will become relaxed

NNU Counseling Center: For appointments dial (208)467-8466