You’ve probably heard it said already today or thought it to yourself: “I’m so stressed out.” Stress is that all-consuming feeling of being anxious, tired, overwhelmed, emotionally run-down, and physically tense. It’s not pleasant, and yet a lot of us live with stress on a daily basis. Especially as students, with constant assignments and deadlines, it’s easy to feel stressed out. So if this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. In fact, at Carolina stress is one of the most common health concerns reported. So let’s talk about it! By learning about what happens to the body as it reacts to stress, we can identify some helpful ways to cope with stress and mitigate some of the negative consequences of carrying around too much day-to-day stress.
What is Stress?
What we often call “stress” is an automatic response from our body kicking into high gear. This automatic response stems from our ancient ancestors as a way to protect themselves from predators and harm. You might have heard this called the “fight or flight” response in Psych 101. Faced with danger the body releases hormones that may elevate heart rate, increase blood pressure, and boost energy in order to prepare you to deal with the situation. While we have little fear of getting attacked by animals on a daily basis now, this reaction still occurs when we are faced with every day challenges, such as meeting an assignment deadline, taking a test, or going on an audition or try out. This is what we call stress.
While some stress is good and can actually be motivating, remember everything in moderation. Ongoing or chronic stress can be harmful to your wellbeing.
Why does Stress Hurt?
It’s exhausting to have your body on high alert. You may have noticed physical symptoms of stress such as fatigue, stomach aches, headaches, or muscle tension. Other symptoms may include catching a cold often, eating too much or too little, or being nauseous or dizzy. And you may have also felt more emotional, easier to anger, or unhappy. These are all signs of the body trying to tell you that you are thinking too much. While it is a natural response to get amped up about an upcoming event that you are nervous or unsure about, once that event is over (your paper submitted or you make the team) your body expects to return to its normal state. However, when we are constantly overloaded with “flight or fight” situations the body remains in a continuous elevated state. This produces unpleasant symptoms in the short run, but can also produce harmful effects long term.
Chronic stress, or when stress starts interfering with your ability to live a productive life, can have long-term health implications. People with chronic stress are more likely to develop certain diseases later in life such as coronary disease; they tend to have persistent sleep problems; are more likely to be depressed; and tend to have a shorter lifespan. Ok, wait a minute, let’s not stress about this yet!
What Can I Do?
So now we know what our body is trying to tell us and how we can better recognize the symptoms. But a lot of us already know constant stress is just down right not fun. So if we are feeling too stressed we need to change some things in order to help our bodies and minds better respond to the situations around us.
• Identify the Cause. This may be harder than you think and it may be a combination of things. But if you can pinpoint why you are feeling stressed you can make a plan to better address it. Making a plan may include setting reasonable expectations about the outcome, breaking down an assignment into smaller tasks, or better prioritizing items with looming deadlines.
• Lean on Supportive Relationships. While some relationships may be a source of stress, reach out to people who will listen and who care about you. You may want to talk through your stress trigger and have your friend help you through some options to feeling less overwhelmed. Or you may just need to call mom and talk about anything else besides what is stressing you out.
• Rest Your Mind. When you are tired you are more likely to get stressed because your brain loses the capability to think clearly and function with good judgment. As we know, it’s easier said than done, but 7-8 hours of sleep may just be the best thing you can do for your body. Check out this blog post for ways to get more rest.
• Get Creative. Color (yes even in a coloring book), write just for yourself, put on music you enjoy and haven’t listened to in a while, dance, or hang out with a furry friend. These are all fun and unique ways to relieve stress and help put life back in perspective. For more ways to get creative about managing stress, check this out.
• Get Help. If you are feeling overwhelmed and need someone to talk to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is a great resource. They can help you assess what is causing your stress and work with you to find a plan to manage it. They see hundreds of students each year with stress related concerns. All first-time appointments may walk in during 9-12 and 1-4 Monday through Friday. More information about CAPS.
Information compiled from the American Psychological Association and helpguide.org. Images: zengardner.com and huffingtonpost.com.