Stress is part of life. Everyone, at some point in their lifetime, will experience stress. Stress can be positive, or what is often termed eustress. When we feel like we have the resources and capabilities to overcome stress, it can help us grow and improve our sense of self-efficacy. However, when we are unable to overcome or meet the demands placed on us, this is considered “bad stress”, which can leave us feeling distressed and overwhelmed.
What is Stress?
Stress is broadly defined as an imbalance in physiological systems that triggers psychological and behavioral responses to restore equilibrium.
Hans Selye, an early researcher, proposed a three-stage stress response model. The initial stage or “alarm reaction stage,” is where the individual reacts to a stressor with the fight-or-flight response. The second stage is the “resistance stage,” in which the individual adapts to the stressor. During this stage, an attempt is made to re-establish the equilibrium, while focusing resources against the stressor. If a stressor continues beyond the individual’s capacity to cope, resources can be exhausted, making it susceptible to diseases. This “exhaustion stage” is reached when the acquired adaptation or resistance is lost5.
According to the American Psychological Association, 22 percent of individuals surveyed in 2011 reported experiencing extreme stress over the past 12 months6. Chronic stress elevates the risk for both diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, autoimmune, etc.) and mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.)7,8. It is important to check and evaluate how you are handling and managing stress. In the next section, we provide some helpful coping skills for stress.
It is essential to develop healthy coping skills for the management of stress early in life. Many of the skills you develop during your college experience will stay with you throughout your lifetime. Below is a list of ways that can help you cope with your hectic life.
Avoid all or none, fatalistic, and catastrophic thinking
All or none thinking is characterized by viewing situations in extremes, or a binary manner. You are either perfect or a failure. This type of thinking might look like “I must get an A in this class, or this class was a waste of my time.”. A lack of autonomy describes fatalistic thinking; viewing things in your life as though they will happen due to fate or destiny regardless of the efforts you put forth. Fatalistic thinking may look like “No matter how much I study, I am going to fail this test”. Finally, catastrophic thinking is demonstrated by ruminating about irrational, worst-case outcomes. “If I can’t study for my test this week, I will fail my test, then I won’t pass my class, and no medical school will accept me!” These thought patterns will only make you more stressed. Challenging these extreme thought patterns can help decrease self-inflicted stress.
Prioritize and be realistic with expectations
When expectations for ourselves and reality are incongruent, we are more likely to experience stress. It is important to have realistic expectations for your goals for the semester. Considering the time requirements of your classes, activities, and social engagements, what is possible for you to achieve? At the start of each semester, consider the most important goals for you to accomplish that semester. Write your goals down in order of most to least important then write down how you expect to achieve those goals. Look at your goals and expectations, are they feasible considering all the things going on in your life? Realistic expectations can help you succeed and decrease the likelihood of becoming burnt out.
Using some form of planner/calendar can help you keep track of upcoming deadlines for assignments and exams. Setting reminders in your phone or calendar to work on assignments or studying for upcoming exams enables you to stay on top of your academic requirements. Make sure to set aside time for yourself; scheduling self-care throughout the month can help you stay balanced.
Writing a daily or weekly list of things that need to be accomplished can help avoid putting off assignments until the last minute, which can increase your stress. Try to address every situation and when you can, just take it one step at a time.
Get enough sleep
While it can be tempting to decrease the amount of sleep you get in order to have more time for studying, sleep deprivation may worsen stressful situations. Sleep is vital for consolidating information to memory. When limiting your sleep or pulling all-nighters, the time spent studying will be less effective. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least seven or more hours of sleep per night. There will likely be nights when it is impossible to obtain at least 7 hours of sleep; when this occurs, try a short 20-minute nap the next day. Napping for less than 30 minutes can help improve your mood and cognitive function.
Exercise regularly and eat healthily
Both exercise and a healthy balanced diet can help reduce stress levels by improving your mood and providing your body with the resources to thrive.
Remember, there are things outside of your control. Throughout your life, there will be unexpected challenges that you face. Remember to have grace and compassion for yourself. It is vital to have a flexible mindset and to be realistic and acknowledge that you may not achieve everything within the intended time frame. Try to relax and have alternative plans just in case. Keep in mind the big picture; while the path may take different twists and turns, remember it’s okay to readjust your goals.
Exercise for Stress
Based on the definition used above, exercise can be a physical “stressor”. However, regular exercise can help decrease feelings of distress and improve feelings of well-being. First and foremost, find a mode of physical activity that you enjoy! Lighter intensity activities such as yoga, tai chi, and qui quang have been shown to decrease feelings of distress and incorporate mindful practice. Higher intensity activities will help improve your fitness level quickly. Set aside time for physical activity. If you are feeling overwhelmed by all the things going on, take 10-20 minutes and perform one of these two videos.