Stress Management

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College can be an exciting, but stressful, time. Typically, stress is viewed as a negative thing to avoid, but it’s important to remember that stress can be beneficial if we use it to motivate us. Stress is good when it pushes us to accomplish tasks that get us closer to achieving our goals. However, most people view stress as a negative thing because more commonly, we allow stress to cause feelings of doubt, exhaustion, anger, and depression. The key is to effectively manage stress so that it moves us forward rather than holds us back.

What is Stress?

Stress is a person’s response to any kind of change in life. Events that are viewed as positive—starting college, getting a new job, or beginning a new relationship—can cause stress just as much  as events that are typically viewed as negative—such as job loss or the death of a close family member. Stress can affect you physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally. Some common symptoms that stress may be negatively affecting you are:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate and more frequent, shallow breaths
  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Depression
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering
  • Inability to solve problems as usual
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irrational behavior
  • Loss of physical coordination and control

While some stress in life is necessary and even advisable, too much stress can lead to health concerns, relationship difficulties, and poor school or work performance. The key is to determine what stressors you are comfortable with and to develop stress management skills for when things get to be too much.

How Can I Better Manage Stress?

By developing stress management strategies, you can better cope with the challenges that come your way.  Here are some suggestions of what to try to determine what works best for you.

Physical Strategies

Recognize how you react to stress. Pay attention to what parts of your body react to stress. Do you tense your shoulders? Clench your jaw? Recognize your reactions to stress and take steps to reduce the severity of these reactions by taking a few deep breaths, pausing to relax your body, and closing your eyes to focus inward for a few minutes. There are many guided meditations on sites such as YouTube that can help you recognize the physical effects stress has on your body and how to reduce those effects.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. When you’re sleep deprived, problems tend to feel bigger than they are. Getting enough sleep ensures you’re at your best to handle the challenges life throws at you.

Aim to exercise regularly. Exercising is a healthy outlet for energy. Aiming for 30 minutes three times a week is a good initial goal if you don’t currently exercise.

Eat balanced, nutritious meals. Some people have the tendency to eat foods that are high in simple carbohydrates and saturated fats to cope with stress, and over time, this can lead to fatigue, weight gain, and inability to focus. Work toward eating a balanced diet with lots of green, leafy vegetables, fiber-packed fruits, and lean proteins.

Avoid alcohol and other substances as a way to cope with stress. Much like food, others find themselves relying on nicotine, alcohol, or other substances as a way to comfort themselves when they’re feeling stressed. However, these substances don’t prevent the causes of your stress and simply dull discomfort temporarily.

Consider medication as an option. When prescribed by a physician, certain behavioral medications can help you moderate your anxiety while you train yourself to better manage life’s stresses. However, medications alone are not the long term answer. Talk to a physician or counselor to determine if this step makes sense for you and how it may fit into your broader stress management strategy.

Cognitive Strategies

Become aware of  your stressors. Is it a particular person? A certain issue? Why is this person or issue causes stress? Determine what you can change about the external situation.What can you change about your stressors to make it easier to cope with them? If a specific person causes you stress, is it realistic to see this person less or not at all? What are the consequences of that? If it’s a specific situation such as a job, can you make it a goal to find a new job that doesn’t cause as much stress?

Determine what you can change about the way you react to the situation. Sometimes, we can work to change the way we feel about a stressful situation to make it more bearable. For example, some people tend to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable. Rather than not attending or studying for a class that causes stress, going to speak to the professor about resources that are available to assist you learn the material may be a more productive way to approach your stress and lessen it over time as you become more comfortable with the material.

Talk about your problems with trusted friends, family, or a counselor. This can provide you with another point of view that may be able to help you see your situation differently and allow you to better cope with it. 

Behavioral Strategies

Develop effective time management skills. In college, you have a lot more say over how you spend your time, and this can be overwhelming for some people in the beginning. Make sure you’re taking steps to manage your time effectively. There are many resources available to assist you with this, but in general, it’s a good idea to list all of your class deadlines and any other commitments on a calendar and then determine each day what 3-5 things you need to focus on so that you are able to meet the deadlines that are approaching. Some people say they work best under pressure, but this can often be a stress-inducing approach. Aim to give yourself plenty of time to finish tasks so that you aren’t struggling to meet a deadline at the last minute.

Build time in for relaxation and friends. While focusing on your academics is certainly important, you also need to have balance in your life. Working all the time can lead to burnout. Every day, try to incorporate something that brings you enjoyment such as watching a favorite show or having dinner with some friends. Many students find it useful to reward themselves with something enjoyable for completing the tasks they need to get done in a day.

Be realistic about what you can accomplish. It’s important to realize how long tasks take to complete, and that it will likely take several days to complete an assignment. Rather than expecting that you can sit down and complete an assignment from beginning to end, it may be more realistic to break the assignment into several smaller tasks spread out over several days. Some students have very high expectations for themselves and what they can accomplish, and when they don’t meet those expectations, they feel discouraged and stressed.

Want to Know More?

There are many resources at your college or university that are there to help you develop stress management techniques. Counseling services, health centers, and wellness promotion offices are all good places to start. Additionally, the following sources offer tips on coping with stress.

Greenberg, M. (2017). The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Schwartz, E. (2012). The Time Diet: Time Management for College Survival.Tempe, AZ: Time Diet.

Zolli, A. and Healy, A.M. (2013) Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back. New York: Simon & Schuster.

British Broadcasting Corporation (2010). “Managing Stress.” youtube.com/watch?v=hnpQrMqDoqE.

Levitan, D. (2015). “How to Stay Calm When You Know You’ll Be Stressed.” youtube.com/watch?v=8jPQjjsBbIc

McGonical, K. (2013). “Ted Talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend.” youtube.com/watch?v=hnpQrMqDoqE

All of the apps listed below are available on both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

Breathe

Mindfulness Daily

StressScan

Calm

Tide

Get help ASAP

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at1-800-273-TALK (8255). They also offer a chat option through their website, suicidepreventionhotline.org/chat/.

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