In the spring of 2012, according to a survey conducted by the American College Health Association, about 30 percent of college students reported that stress had negatively affected either an exam grade or a course grade,1 an increase of 5 percent since a 2010 survey. When you are stressed, your body undergoes rapid physiological, behavioral, and emotional changes. Your rate of breathing can become more rapid and shallow. Your heart rate begins to speed up, and the muscles in your shoulders and forehead, at the back of your neck, and perhaps across your chest begin to tighten. Your hands might become cold or sweaty. You might experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as an upset stomach. Your mouth and lips might feel dry and hot, and you might notice that your hands and knees begin to shake or tremble. Your voice might quiver or even go up an octave.
A number of psychological changes also occur when you are under stress. You might experience changes in your ability to think, such as confusion, trouble concentrating, an inability to remember things, and poor problem solving. Emotions such as fear, anxiety, depression, irritability, anger, or frustration are common, and you might have trouble getting to sleep at night or might wake up too early and not be able to go back to sleep.
Stress has many sources, but two seem to be prominent: life events and daily hassles. Life events are those that represent major adversity, such as the death of a parent, spouse, partner, or friend. Researchers believe that an accumulation of stress from life events, especially if many events occur over a short period of time, can cause physical and mental health problems. Daily hassles are the minor irritants that we experience every day, such as losing your keys, having three tests on the same day, quarreling with your roommate, or worrying about money.
The best starting point for handling stress is to be in good physical and mental shape. When your body and mind are healthy, it’s like inoculating yourself against stress. In other words, you need to pay attention to your diet, exercise, sleep, and mental health.
There is a clear connection between what you eat and drink, your overall health and well-being, and stress. Eating a lot of junk food will add pounds to your body and reduce your energy level. In addition, when you can’t keep up with your work because you’re sluggish or tired, you might experience more stress. One dietary substance that can be directly linked to higher stress levels is caffeine.
In moderate amounts (50 to 200 milligrams per day), caffeine increases alertness and reduces feelings of fatigue, but even at this low dosage it can make you perkier during part of the day and more tired later. Consumed in larger quantities, caffeine can cause nervousness, headaches, irritability, stomach irritation, and insomnia, which are all symptoms of stress. Many people who have heart conditions have been told to avoid caffeine because it tends to speed up heart rates. How much caffeine do you consume?
If the amount of caffeine that you consume is excessive (which will vary with individuals, so monitor such things as inability to sleep and when you are most alert and most tired), consider drinking water in place of caffeinated drinks. You can also choose decaffeinated coffee or a caffeine-free soft drink.
Exercise is an excellent stress-management technique, the best way to stay fit, and a critical element of any worthwhile weight loss program. Although any kind of recreation benefits your body and spirit, aerobic exercise is the best for stress management as well as weight management. In aerobic exercise you work until your pulse is in a “target zone” and keep it in this zone for at least 30 minutes. You can reach your target heart rate through a variety of exercises: walking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, or using a stair climber. What makes the exercise aerobic is the intensity of your activity. Choose activities that you enjoy so you will look forward to your exercise time. That way, it’s more likely to become a regular part of your routine.
Besides doing wonders for your body, aerobic exercise keeps your mind healthy. When you do aerobic exercise, your body produces hormones called beta-endorphins. These natural narcotics cause feelings of contentment and happiness and help manage anxiety and depression. Your mood and general sense of competence improve with regular aerobic exercise. In fact, people who undertake aerobic exercise report more energy, less stress, better sleep, weight loss, and an improved self-image.
Think about ways to combine activities and use your time efficiently. Maybe you could leave the car at home and jog to class. Try going to the gym with a friend and asking each other study questions as you work out on treadmills. Park at the far end of the lot and walk to classes. Take the stairs whenever possible. Remember that exercise does not have to be a chore. Find something that you enjoy doing, and make it part of your daily schedule. Many campuses have recreation departments that offer activities such as intramural sports, rock climbing, aerobics classes, and much more. The most important things about exercise are to stay active and make it part of your day-to-day life. A wealth of online fitness resources are available, as well as resources for nutrition and general health and wellness.
Getting adequate sleep is another way to protect yourself from stress. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 63 percent of American adults do not get the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. Lack of sleep can lead to anxiety, depression, and academic struggles. Researchers at Trent University in Ontario found that students who studied all week but then stayed up late partying on the weekends forgot as much as 30 percent of the material that they had learned during the prior week. Try the following suggestions to establish better sleep habits:
Avoid long daytime naps.
Try reading or listening to a relaxation DVD or audio download before going to bed.
Get exercise during the day.
Get your clothes and school materials together before you go to bed.
Sleep in the same room and bed every night.
Set a regular schedule for going to bed and getting up.
Modifying your lifestyle is yet another approach to stress management. You have the power to change your life so that it is less stressful. Teachers, supervisors, parents, friends, and even your children influence you, but ultimately, you control how you run your life. Lifestyle modification involves identifying the parts of your life that do not serve you well, making plans for change, and then carrying out the plans. For instance, if you are stressed because you are always late for classes, get up 10 minutes earlier. If you get nervous before a test when you talk to a certain pessimistic classmate, avoid that person before a test. Learn test-taking skills so that you can manage test anxiety better.
Relaxation techniques such as visualization and deep breathing can help you reduce stress. Learning these skills is just like learning any new skill. It takes knowledge and practice. Check your course catalog, college counseling center, health clinic, student newspaper, or fitness center for classes that teach relaxation. You’ll find books as well as audio downloads and CDs that guide you through relaxation techniques.
Your stress level plays a key role in your overall mental health. Here are several additional things you can do to improve your level of stress and your mental health:
Reward yourself on a regular basis when you achieve small goals.
Remember that a college degree is worth some temporary stress. Keep the payoff in mind.
Laugh. A good laugh will almost always make you feel better. Get—or give—a hug.
Pray or meditate.
Practice a hobby.
Get a massage.
Practice deep breathing.