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Stress is commonly understood as the body’s physical response to a perceived demand or threat. If a situation arises and your appraisal is that your coping ability or resources are lacking, you may perceive that situation as stressful, which sets off a variety of physical, emotional, mental, and behavioral reactions.

Your reaction to stress can be healthy and life saving in situations involving real stressors: for example, a speeding car racing towards you sets off a series of reactions that alerts your brain (danger!) and mobilizes your body (blood pumps faster) to get out of the way. However, if you simply think about an upcoming test or all of the things you need to do and your perceptions are “I can’t handle it”, the same physiological stress reaction is triggered. Your body does not distinguish between real (speeding car) and perceived (worry about deadline) stressors, and while our nervous systems have evolved to manage acute stressors (sympathetic system fires followed by parasympathetic activation when the stressor is removed), our bodies are not designed to manage chronic stress.

What are the signs of ineffectively managed stress?

The signs of stress often go unnoticed because they can also be signs of physical illness. While symptoms may vary, following is a list of the most common signs of stress:

  • Physical: increased heart rate, increased respiration rate, muscle aches and pains not caused by exercise, headaches, stomach problems, fatigue, frequent colds or flu, exacerbation of an existing illness
  • Behavioral: tensing muscles (facial grimacing, jaw clenching), shallow breathing, changes in eating or sleeping habits, changes in bowel or bladder habits, increased smoking, drinking or drug use, and increased yelling, swearing, or hitting
  • Mental: difficulty concentrating, decreased memory, indecisiveness, confusion, loss of sense of humor, distorted thinking (see list of Ten Forms of Twisted Thinking below)
  • Emotional: increased irritability, anxiety, anger, frustration, worry, fear, and nervousness

How can you take care of yourself?

Effectively managing stress starts with recognizing unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, and then trying a new, more effective approaches. Because your reaction to stress includes both your perceptions and your reactions, stress management includes strategies aimed at improving both your perceptions and your responses. 

Altering your perceptions

  • Consider your options: Is there only one way to perceive the situation? Most likely not. The more alternatives you can think of, the less stressed you may feel. The goal of this strategy is to try and generate as many possible alternative options for perceiving the situation, without evaluating their feasibility. Once you’ve exhausted your options, you can go back and determine which interpretation will help reduce your feelings of anxiety.
    This same technique can be applied to your physical and behavioral responses to stress. Consider all of the ways you might react, even those that seem absurd (run screaming from the building) and you may begin to feel like you have choices, instead of feeling doomed or helpless.
  • Practice time management: Often perceptions such of “not having enough time” or “time is running out” can increase your feelings of stress. Rather than trying to obsessively schedule every detail of your life, it makes more sense to be strategic in how you spend your time. Do what matters first. Pick the hardest or most complicated or otherwise challenging task and do it when your energy resources are the highest, rather than waiting until the end of the day when you are exhausted.
  • Learn to communicate effectively: If you find yourself constantly stressed out by other people, step back and evaluate if there is room for improving your own perceptions and communication skills. For your perceptions, ask yourself if you are taking things too personally. If your roommate turns on loud music after you’ve gone to bed, did she do it intentionally to ruin your life? Could she be unaware that it bothers you? Or is she just selfish and inconsiderate? Whatever the case, if you can think about the situation more objectively, you’ll likely feel less stressed than if you remain committed to feeling “wronged.”

Communicating effectively with the other person about the situation can also greatly reduce your stress. If you are talking to your roommate about the music, remember to:

    • Stick to the facts by saying “I have trouble falling back to sleep when loud music is playing.”
    • Avoid accusatory language such as “you are so inconsiderate.” Also avoid “why” questioning that will put someone on the defensive (“why did you…?” or “why do you always…?” or “why can’t you just…?”).
    • Express your feelings about the situation and don’t assume that your roommate can read your mind.
    • Consider what your goals are before you speak, in order to keep your communication focused on the situation at hand.
  • Check your thinking: Your way of thinking about a situation can sometimes become exaggerated. While we all engage in negative thinking patterns from time to time, doing it on a regular basis can have emotional consequences of guilt, frustration, anxiety, anger, or sadness—emotions that often are associated with feeling “stressed.” Check out the list below of some common forms of thought distortions, to see if you recognize the pattern in your thoughts and then practice the strategies for being more accurate.

Distorted Thinking Style

More Accurate Thinking Style

“All or Nothing”: You see things in black or white categories. If a situation falls short of perfect, you see it as a total failure.

“Shades of Gray”: Move your thinking away from the extreme end of the spectrum a little closer towards the “gray area.”

“Overgeneralization”: You see a single negative event, such as a romantic rejection or a career reversal, as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using words such as “always” or “never” when you think about it.

“Note Exceptions”: If you are an “always or never” thinker, practice adding the phrase “except for when I’m not” (i.e., “I always get stuck doing the dirty work…except for when I don’t”).

“Mental filter”: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively, so that your vision of all of reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors a beaker of water.

“What Else is True?”: Broaden your vision by asking “what else is true?” You are simply inviting alternative explanations to the one (hideous one) you may be focused on.

“Mind-reading”: Without checking it out, you automatically assume you know what others are thinking of you.

“Examine the Evidence”: Instead of jumping to conclusions, think like a scientist and ask “where’s the evidence that my belief is true?”

“Catastrophizing”: You exaggerate the importance of your problems or shortcomings, or use superlatives in your descriptions such as “this is the worst!” or “the most horrible…”

“De-catastrophizing”: Think of the possible outcomes as existing on a spectrum with “Best-Case” and “Worst-Case” scenarios at either end. Then be honest and answer “What is the most probable outcome of this situation?” Once you have that, you can then ask “What’s one thing I can do about it now?”

“Emotional Reasoning”: You assume because you feel a certain way, things must really be that way (i.e., If I’m feeling hopeless, things must really be hopeless. Or if I’m terrified to fly, it must be dangerous to fly).

“Just Notice”: Practice the mindfulness skill of simply observing and labeling your emotions. See them as clouds passing across the sky, or leaves floating on a stream. Notice “Oh, look, anxiety is here.” By just noticing and labeling the emotion, you create a little distance that allows you to step back from it and not be consumed by it.

“Shoulding on Yourself”: You tell yourself things “should” be a certain way. When you “should on yourself you immediately feel guilty, regretful, shameful. When you “should” on someone else you feel frustrated or angry

“Word Choice Matters”: Replace “shoulds” with “would be nice”—it’s less severe, less judgmental, and a little more accurate. Practice catching yourself “shoulding” and notice the consequences of changing your word choice.

Adapted from David D. Burns (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook. NY: Plume

Have you perfected the art of thinking in exaggerated ways? If so, see if there is room to be more accurate in how you’re thinking about the situation. This can be hard to do on your own, so if you’ve tried some of the strategies above and are still struggling, consider talking it out with a friend to get a new perspective or schedule an appointment with a counselor in Mental Health Services by calling 5-6695.

Often times we have no control over the external stressors in our lives, but we always have control in how we think about them. If you’re thinking that stress is a “new” problem, consider this advice from over 2000 years ago:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

--Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Altering your responses

  • Learn to breathe correctly: “Deep” or diaphragmatic breathing can immediately impact your physical responses to stress. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes every day (when you are not feeling stressed) can increase your ability to gain control over symptoms when you are feeling stressed.
  • Practice meditation: There is much research to support the stress-relieving benefits of this ancient practice. Stress generally propels the mind into the future with anxious thoughts of “what if” and can keep you from being mindful of “what is.” Meditation is a way to experience present-mindedness. Incorporating meditation into your daily routine can help to prevent stress from building in your life, much the way brushing your teeth every day can help to prevent tooth decay. Here are links to mindfulness centers with a variety of free guided meditation downloads:
  • guided meditation
  • Sleep: Chronic sleep deprivation can easily impact your ability to manage stress. Schedule in sleep the same way you schedule other things (sleep isn’t just what happens in whatever leftover time you have in the day). If you have trouble falling asleep, try listening to the “Body Scan for Sleep
  • Exercise: Exercise is a healthy emotional and physical outlet for stress, but a habit that is hard to fit in your schedule on a regular basis. Consider taking it when you can get it:
    • when you walk to and from class walk at a faster pace until your heart rate increases
    • run up and down the stairs in your building for 5 minutes before you sit down to study
    • hold the “plank” position for 60 seconds when you first get back to your room
    • sign up for a yoga or workout class with a friend

    It doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you do it.

  • Eat right: Certain foods can affect your mood. Keeping your body well nourished with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains can improve your feeling of well-being and, in turn, your ability to cope with stress (when you feel better, you do better). Consider reducing or eliminating caffeine, tobacco, and other substances from your diet as they can often increase feelings of anxiety and stress. If what you’re eating (or not eating) is stressing you out, consider making an appointment with the director of University Nutrition, Connie Diekman.