Too much stress can seriously affect your physical and mental well-being. Recurrent physical and psychological stress can diminish self-esteem, decrease interpersonal and academic effectiveness, and create a cycle of self-blame and self-doubt.
Stress affects each of us in different ways, and it is important to be aware of your unique stress “signals”. Stress signals fall into four categories: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical symptoms. When you are under stress, you may experience any number of the following:
- Feelings: anxiety, irritability, fear, moodiness, embarrassment.
- Thoughts: self-criticism, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, forgetfulness, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure.
- Behaviors: crying, increased or decreased appetite, “snapping” at friends, acting impulsively, alcohol or other drug use (including smoking), nervous laughter, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, stuttering or other speech difficulties, being more accident-prone.
- Physical: sleep disturbances, tight muscles, headaches, fatigue, cold or sweaty hands, back or neck problems, stomach distress, more colds and infections, rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth.
Sources of Stress
Stress is a part of every student’s daily life. Leaving home or commuting daily; managing finances; living with roommates; and juggling work, classes, and relationships all contribute to the normal stress of being a student. In addition, it is not uncommon for students to feel stressed and anxious about wasting time, meeting high standards, or being lonely. Stress can also come from exciting or positive events. Falling in love, preparing to study abroad, or buying a car can be just as stressful as less-happy events. One of the most important things you can do is to recognize when your stress levels are building. The amount of stress that you can tolerate before you become distressed varies with your life situation and your age. A critical first step in coping with stress is taking stock of the stressors in your life. If you are unsure about your sources of stress, complete the Student Stress Checklist.
After you have identified the sources of your stress, review the Tips for Stress Management and identify the ones that may be most helpful to you.
Tips for Stress Management
There are many ways to manage unhealthy stress in your life. The key to stress reduction is identifying strategies that work for you. As you begin to understand more about how stress affects you, you will develop your own ideas to help relieve tension. Because each person is unique, some of these stress management strategies will be more helpful for you than others, and some will be new skills that require practice to be effective. Think about learning to ride a bicycle. There was a time when this was a new skill and felt very unnatural and awkward. You probably needed help at first. With some coaching and practice, stress management, like cycling or any other skill, becomes easier and more effective.
- Take a Deep Breath! Stress often causes us to breathe in a shallow manner, and this in turn almost always causes more stress. Take a moment to mentally scan your body for physical tension. Does your chest feel tight? You may be holding your breath without even knowing it! Shallow breathing puts less oxygen in the bloodstream, which leads to an increase in muscle tension. As a result, you may experience headaches, or you may feel more anxious and uptight. The next time you feel uptight, try taking a minute to slow down and breathe deeply. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Then slowly exhale as you count to 10. The more you practice deep breathing, the more effective a stress-reduction technique it becomes. To help you practice, try listening to our audio guide to deep breathing
- Manage Your Time One of the greatest sources of stress is over-commitment or poor time management. Plan ahead. Make a reasonable schedule for yourself and include time for stress reduction as a regular part of your schedule. Trying to take care of everything at once can seem overwhelming, and, as a result, you may not accomplish anything. Instead, make a list of what tasks you have to do. Then do one at a time, checking them off as they’re completed. Give priority to the most important ones and do those first. If a particularly unpleasant task faces you, tackle it early in the day and get it over with; the rest of your day will be much less stressful.Most importantly, do not overwork yourself. Resist the temptation to schedule things back-to-back. All too often we underestimate how long things will take. Too much studying is actually inefficient and can lead to burnout. Recognize when you are most stressed and allow yourself some reasonable breaks. When things feel especially difficult, take a walk or otherwise change your scenery.
- Connect with Others Being by yourself is fine, but being lonely is different. A good way to combat sadness, boredom, and loneliness is to seek out activities involving others. There are over 900 registered student organizations at UT. Odds are good that one or more will be of interest to you. Or you may choose to get involved with neighborhood or volunteer organizations
- Talk It Out Bottled-up emotions increase frustration and stress. Share your feelings. Perhaps a friend, family member, teacher, clergy person, or counselor can help you see your problem in a different light. Talking with someone else can help clear your mind of confusion so that you can focus on problem solving. Also consider writing down your thoughts and feelings. Putting problems on paper can assist you in clarifying the situation and developing a new perspective.
- Take a “One-Minute Vacation” When you have the opportunity, take a moment to close your eyes and imagine a place where you feel relaxed and comfortable. Notice all the details of this place, including pleasant sounds, smells, and temperature. Imagining a quiet scene can take you out of the turmoil of a stressful situation. If you find yourself having difficulty imagining a scene on your own, try listening to one of our guided imagery exercises. On this website, you can access a guided imagery of walking through a peaceful forest or taking a relaxing tropical cruise. You can also access other guided imagery exercises by visiting CMHC’s MindBody Lab.
- Monitor Your Physical Comfort Be as physically comfortable as the situation will allow. Wear comfortable clothing. If it’s too hot, go somewhere where it’s not. If your chair is uncomfortable, change it. If your computer screen causes eye-strain or backaches, change that, too. Don’t wait until your discomfort turns into a real problem. Taking five minutes to arrange back support can save you several days of back pain!
- Get Physical Physical activity plays a key role in both reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Academic life is often sedentary, and sitting around can mean letting stress accumulate in your body. When you feel nervous, angry or upset, exercise or physical activity can relieve tension, relax you, and often will actually energize you! Try to find something you enjoy and make regular time for it. Running, walking or swimming are good options for some people, while others prefer dance or martial arts – all are available through Recreational Sports and UT’s Informal Classes.
- Take Care of Your Body Healthy eating and adequate sleep fuel your mind as well as your body. Avoid consuming too much caffeine and sugar. In excess, the temporary burst they provide leads to fatigue or a crash later. Take time to eat breakfast in the morning. It really will help keep you going through the day! Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Like a car running low on gas, if you are irritable and tense from lack of sleep or not eating right, you will be less able to go the distance in dealing with stressful situations.
- Laugh Maintain your sense of humor, including the ability to laugh at yourself. Give yourself a break by reading or watching something humorous. Laughter is good for you!
- Know Your Limits A major source of stress is people’s efforts to control events or other people over which they have little or no power. When confronted with a stressful situation, ask yourself: is this my problem? If it isn’t, leave it alone. If it is, identify what you can do to address it now. Once the problem is settled, leave it alone. Don’t agonize over the decision, and try to accept situations you cannot change. There are many circumstances in life beyond your control (the weather and the behavior of others being just two examples).
- Seek Out Compromise Do other people upset you – particularly when they don’t do things your way? Consider cooperation or compromise rather than confrontation. A little give and take on both sides may reduce the strain and help you both feel more comfortable.
- Have a Good Cry A good cry during periods of stress can be a healthy way to bring relief to your anxiety, and it might prevent a headache or other physical consequences of bottling things up. However, if you are crying daily, seek a consultation with a counselor or a physician, as this can be a sign of depression.
- Avoid Self Medicating While alcohol or other drugs may seem to offer temporary relief from stress, these substances only mask problems. In the long run, behavior while under the influence increases rather than decreases stress. Take prescription medications only on the advice of your doctor.
- Look for the Positive It is easy to fall into a rut of seeing only the negative when you are stressed. Your thoughts can become like a pair of very dark glasses, allowing little light or joy into your life. What would happen if you committed yourself to actively noticing the positive moments throughout your day? These moments may seem like small events, but they can often raise your energy and spirits and help you begin to see things in a new, more balanced way.
Examples of positive moments:
- Someone you met yesterday remembering your name
- A driver who stops to let you through traffic
- A dog catching a frisbee
- A sweet piece of fruit
- A bird singing
- A discount, a bargain, a coin found in the street
- The way the light comes through the trees
- A call from a friend
- A glorious sunset
- A cool evening breeze
- A sense of well being