Managing stress… And not just during finals

If you asked 100 people to define stress and explain what creates stress, you would get 100 different responses. Stress is a general term that has different meanings for everyone. On a basic level, stress is the body’s response to any type of physical or emotional change, including things like meeting new people, a new job, family issues and school work. Challenges with a new roommate, test anxiety, difficult course work, finals, relationships and parents can all be contributing factors to stress.

What is stress?

Stress refers to two different things: stressors and stress responses. A stressor is something that triggers an emotional or physical reaction; a stress response is the reaction itself. Taking an exam, going on a date or interviewing for a job would be examples of stressors, while stress responses could include feelings of anxiety, nervousness or tension — or all three.

How do you know when you’re stressed?

Following are a few physical and mental signs of stress:

  • Excessive moodiness
  • Withdrawal from responsibility
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor emotional control
  • Change in appetite or sex drive
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping

How do diet and exercise affect stress?

A healthy lifestyle is a smart way to combat stress. Regular exercise and a diet full of whole grains, fruits and vegetables are essential in stress resistance. Studies show that exercise can reduce anxiety and feelings of hostility and depression. Exercise also decreases muscle tension, which is a common indicator of stress.

Alcohol and caffeine only contribute to increased stress. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and produces nervousness and tension. Alcohol and other addictive drugs mask the symptoms of stress rather than fixing the underlying problems, so when you’re stressed, try exercising or stretching to relieve tension.

How should you deal with stress?

Following are a few ways to manage and reduce unwanted stress:

  • Have a positive attitude. Focus on positive outcomes rather negative self-criticism like “I’ll never get this assignment done.” Instead, think, “I’m fully capable of completing this task, and I will set aside more time for it.”
  • Find a support network. It helps to be understood. Family, friends and mentors are good sources for emotional support.
  • Write down your feelings. If talking with others doesn’t work for you, keep an electronic journal or write your feelings down on paper.
  • Avoiding stressful situations. Stress results from feeling overwhelmed when many things need to be done at the same time. Manage your time to spread out your workload, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  • Focus on one thing at a time. If you have a lengthy task list, prioritize.

What are signs you need help?

Most stress can be managed; however, when stress becomes out of control it’s important to seek professional help. If you experience any of the following situations or symptoms, contact a medical professional immediately.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Increased use of alcohol, drugs or tobacco
  • Constant feeling of anxiety
  • Issues with sexual activity
  • Decreased performance in school
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Inability to relax

Physical symptoms:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Indigestion
  • Ulcers
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Teeth grinding
  • Muscle spasms
  • Aching neck or back