At just over halfway through fall semester, students are probably well-acquainted with stress by now. It is a feeling a lot of people experience on a university campus. But what exactly is stress? Stress is the body’s way of responding to change. Whether that change is positive (a first date) or negative (an illness), the body experience stress.
Most often, a little bit of pressure or stress can act as a motivator to do well, a helpful boost to our ability to perform in academics, in sports or on the job. But sometimes stress becomes too intense and the body’s sympathetic nervous system goes into fight-flight-or-freeze mode.
Stress response evolved to keep humans safe in life threatening situations. As stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, flood the body to maximize power and speed, the heart pumps faster and harder, breath comes more rapidly, perspiration begins and the digestive processes are put on hold. This is not a thinking process, but an instinctive, automatic, and reactive process.
What is the best way to manage stress? First, make sure there is no life-threatening danger. Then breathe. It sounds simple, but breathing fully and deeply is essential to calm our bodies so that our brains can do their job. Breathing deeply helps engage our parasympathetic nervous system to return to a calm state. Inhale deeply from the diaphragm, completely filling the lungs. Let the neck and shoulders relax and slowly exhale as long as possible. Try to breathe deeply like this at least four times each day.
Stress often comes when people have long and cumbersome to-do list to complete. Rather than a mental list, it can be helpful to write down each item (on paper or in a note on your phone). Prioritize the most important time-sensitive items and do those right now. While not everything needs to be accomplished today, notice that each day items do get done. Some items may be too big and need to be broken into smaller chunks. For example, studying for an exam might involve reading, reviewing class notes, creating study guides, and meeting with a study group to quiz each other. If the struggles persist, reach out for support to a professor, classmate, or the Center for Learning and Student Success (CLASS).
One of the most important things to manage spikes in stress is to make sure basic needs are met on a regular basis. As simple as they sound, these needs are incredibly important: get enough sleep (7-8 hours/night), eat regular well-balanced meals, move your body (aka exercise), connect with friends and family, limit caffeine and substance intake and literally laugh out loud. Start by using regular study breaks (10 minutes out of every hour of studying) to take a walk, chat with a friend, or eat a healthy snack. Giving the brain a break allows time for rest and consolidation of information. Work smarter, not harder.
Burning out will not help academic performance or your health. The stress response is a biological process that is meant for a life-threatening moment or a one-off event not an entire semester. The body’s stress response is helpful and life-saving in small amounts, but in large amounts our body begins to shut down. Living in a state of constant stress, may cause difficulty focusing, trouble remembering things, problems sleeping, increased irritability, avoidance of important assignments and meetings, and fatigue. No one can be perfectly balanced at all times. Everyone recalibrates throughout every day and every week as they attune to their needs (academic, physical, mental, social, emotional) and decide how best to meet them.
Need some extra help to de-stress? Visit the Campus Wellness page for more tips on stress relief and a relaxation meditation: https://www.pacificu.edu/life-at-pacific/support-safety/campus-wellness/stress/stress-relief. Check out a Mindful Coping group at the Student Counseling Center! Mindful Coping is a psychoeducational group, which meets for three sessions (over three weeks) to build skills, enhance flexibility, and develop insights about how you respond to distress in life. The Mindful Coping groups are offered throughout the semester in Forest Grove and Hillsboro. Our next group starts on Friday, November 2nd; call 503-352-2191 or email email@example.com to sign up.