As a university student, I am quite familiar with the pattern of moving from one stressful situation into the next. This, I believe, is something that is unavoidable when leading a normal life in the world we live in. The NHS website defines stress in the following way: “stress is the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure”. If you are struggling to cope with the demands of everyday life and feel quite overwhelmed by things that are required of you, there is a good chance that you are experiencing stress. Stress is common in an environment full of deadlines and demands. It is a normal and biological reaction of the body when a person feels upset or threatened in any way.
Stress can be identified by a set of “feelings”, “physical symptoms”, “thoughts” and “behaviour patterns”. Stress related “feelings” include feeling tense, irritable and anxious. Some of the physical symptoms are exhaustion, poor concentration, disturbed sleep and nausea often leading you to think thoughts like “I can’t cope with this”. Behaviour patterns related to stress include being constantly busy, finding it hard to concentrate (do not confuse with ADHD/ADD) and most importantly, procrastinating.
The physical feelings one experiences when stressed is directly related to a biological mechanism that the body carries out when it detects “threat”. For instance, our heart beats faster in order to supply more oxygen to our muscles. This biological reaction is similar to when, right after watching a horror film, one hears a clattering window or steps on a creaky part of the floor. It stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.
There may be many causes for stress, including:-
- Health problems
- The pressure of University life
- Losing a job / starting a new job / financial problems
- Getting married / getting divorced
- Having a baby
Some people are more susceptible to stress than others – the stress hormone “cortisol” may cause this. Unfortunately, cortisol can weaken your immune system over time. As stated on the BBC’s website, too much stress can cause “headaches, stomach upsets, high blood pressure and even stroke or heart disease”. It can also cause feelings of “distrust, anger, anxiety and fear”. This is not something to immediately start fearing, as stress levels can be managed. There are good and bad ways of dealing with stress. “Bad” stress busters are methods of stress-management that induce temporary relief. This includes binge eating, taking drugs, drinking excessively, or smoking cigarettes. Bad stress busters should be avoided as only release stress temporarily. Additionally, alcohol is a depressant and cigarette smoking, contrary to popular belief, does not relieve stress. However, there are good ways to manage stress. Although stress-management is an individual process and is about “finding what works for you”, some “good” stress busters are:-
- Getting a massage
- Going for a walk or jog
- Doing some yoga / taking up a martial arts class
- Listening to self-hypnosis tracks and meditating
- Taking a break, watching some stand-up comedy
- Speaking to friends and / or family about your stress, for support
- Being confident of your ability to cope
- Looking after yourself: healthy meals, hot baths, reasonable bedtimes etc
There are a few important thought processes that you can try and control when experiencing stress. One of these is avoiding the “what if?” thought process: instead of trying to predict a catastrophe, trying to focus on the present and doing your best is better than blowing things out of proportion. Jumping to conclusions and “mind reading” can also be avoided to avoided stress –an example of this is the “he hasn’t called me back, he mustn’t like me” typical romantic fear most women face. This is “mind reading” and an unnecessary cause for stress. The most important thought process that affects stress levels is the focus on negative rather than positive thinking. For instance, when tackling an assignment, it is very easy to think, “I still have so much left”, rather than thinking, “look at how much I have already finished”. It may be helpful to make a list of all your unhelpful thoughts and try and challenge them. Jot down evidence that contradicts this negative thinking. When you are thinking, “I’ll never finish this assignment on time” challenge this by, “I’ve always handed assignments in on time in the past”. Challenging your negative thinking helps you admit you are dealing with a stress problem and also helps you reach a “balanced” thought rather than focusing on a negative extreme.
The basics to good stress busting includes maintaining good relationships with friends and family. Friends and family help us cope better and are our “support system”. Having a solid support system is very important when tackling stress. Healthy eating can impact your mood, sleep cycle and physical health. In addition to healthy eating, keeping oneself hydrated is extremely important. Unhealthy food with lots of grease or sugar is better avoided. Exercising helps you stay physically fit and gets rid of all the adrenaline that stress causes – it helps put things into perspective. Exercise makes you think more clearly about the problems you have as your excessive adrenaline is being subdued; additionally, exercising releases endorphins. Different forms of physical exercise may work for you. Some people may find that a relaxation technique like yoga helps release stressful feelings and thoughts whereas other individuals might need a more strenuous way of releasing stress – going out for a jog or taking up a martial arts lesson. Finally, routine is very important when dealing with stress problems. A consistent routine helps give structure to your life. This structure helps the body relax as it knows what to expect.
Stress-management is about gaining control. Stress is usually felt when an individual feels like they are not in control of their current situation. The worst thing you can do is think that you can avoid or ignore your stress problems. Self-help is the first step to treating stress problems. However, if this does not work for you, it is extremely important for you to realize that contacting your GP and seeking help is normal and crucial. Your GP may help you get counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (in slightly more potent cases), point you in the direction of support groups, and / or help you out with appropriate meditation and breathing techniques. Tackling and managing stress is the first step to achieving your maximum potential.