Many people don't realize it, but stress is a very natural and important part of life. Without stress there would be no life at all!
We need stress (eustress), but not too much stress for too long (distress). Our body is designed to react to both types of stress. Eustress helps keep us alert, motivates us to face challenges and drives us to solve problems. These low levels of stress are manageable and can be thought of as necessary and normal stimulation.
Distress, on the other hand, results when our bodies over-react to events. It leads to what has been called a "fight or flight" reaction. Such reactions may have been useful in times long past when our ancestors were faced with frequent life-or-death matters. Nowadays, such occurrences are not usual. Yet, we react to many college situations as if they were life-or-death issues. Our bodies really don't know the difference between a saber-toothed tiger and a professor asking us to recite a passage in front of a class. It is how we perceive and interpret the events of life that dictates how our bodies will react. If we understand something to be very scary or worrisome, our bodies will react accordingly.
When we view something as manageable, though, our body doesn't go haywire; it remains alert, but not alarmed. The activation of our sympathetic nervous system (a very important part of our general nervous system) mobilizes us for quick action. The more we sense danger, social or physical, the more our body reacts. Have you ever been so worried about giving a speech where your heart pounded so loudly and your mouth was so dry that you thought you just couldn't do it? That's over-reaction. Problems can occur when over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system is really unnecessary. If we react too strongly, or let the small over-reactions (the daily hassles) pile up, we may run into physical, as well as psychological, problems. Gastrointestinal problems (e.g., diarrhea or nausea), depression, or severe headaches can come about from acute distress. Insomnia, heart disease, and distress habits (e.g., drinking, overeating, smoking, and using drugs) can result from the accumulation of the small distresses.
What we all need is to learn to approach matters in more realistic and reasonable ways. Strong reactions are better reserved for serious situations. Manageable reactions are better for the everyday issues that we all have to face.
Are You a Reactor or Over-Reactor?
Below are situations that cause stress in some students and distress in others. Imagine that each one is happening to you right now. How are you reacting?
- Waiting in a registration line
- Doing poorly on an examination
- Breaking off a relationship
- Looking for a parking space
- Giving a speech
- Asking someone for a date
- Returning to college after being away for several years
- Choosing a major
- Writing a term paper
- Preparing for final exams
Here Are Some Healthful Hints
Basically, we need to modify our over-reactions to situations. Rather than seeing situations as psychologically or physically threatening and thereby activating our sympathetic nervous system, we need to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the part which helps to lower physiological arousal. The following suggestions are designed to reduce distress. Try them. They work!
Learn to Relax. Throughout the day, take "minibreaks." Sit down and get comfortable. Slowly take a deep breath in, hold it, and then exhale very slowly. At the same time, let your shoulder muscles droop, smile, and say something positive to yourself like, "I am r-e-l-a-x-e-d." Be sure to get adequate rest at night.
Practice Acceptance. Many people get distressed over things they really can't change, like waiting in registration lines and getting caught in traffic. Make the most of a difficult situation, try to see the other's view, talk with others in line, and listen to calm music in your car.
Talk Rationally to Yourself. Ask yourself what real impact the stressful situation will have on you in a day or a week, and see if you can let the negative thoughts go. Think through whether the situation is your problem or someone else's. If it is yours, approach it calmly, but if it is someone else's there is not much you can do about it. Rather than condemn yourself with hindsight thinking like, "I should have . . . , " think about what you can learn from the error, and plan for the future. And, watch out for perfectionism -- set realistic and attainable goals. Remember, everyone makes errors. Also, be careful of procrastination --breaking tasks into smaller units and prioritizing will help get things done.
Get Organized. Develop a realistic daily schedule, which includes time for classes, study, work, sleep, relationships, and recreation. Use a daily "things to do list." Improve your physical surroundings by cleaning your room or apartment and straightening up your desk. Have study materials (like flash cards) handy just in case you have a few extra minutes to review.
Exercise. Physical activity has always provided relief from stress. Long ago, daily work was largely physical. Now that physical exertion is no longer a requirement for earning a living, we don't get rid of the stress so easily while working. It accumulates very quickly. We need to develop a regular exercise program to help reduce the effects of stress before it becomes distress. Try aerobics, walking, jogging, dancing, swimming, and the like.
Reduce Time Urgency. If you frequently check your watch or worry about what you do with your time, learn to take things a bit slower. Plan your daily schedule so that you get to PCC well before class time to secure a parking space. Recognize that you can only do so much in a given period. Practice the notion of "pace, not race."
Disarm Yourself. Every situation in life does not require you to be competitive. Adjust your approach to an event according to the demands of it. You don't have to yell or raise your voice in a simple discussion. Playing tennis with your friend doesn't have to turn out to be the Olympic Trials. Leave behind your "weapons" of shouting, finger-pointing, having the last word, putting someone else down, and blaming.
Quiet Time. Balance your college, family, and work demands with special private times. Hobbies are good antidotes for daily pressures. Try unwinding by taking a quiet stroll, soaking in a hot bath, watching a sunset or listening to calming music.
Watch Your Habits. Eat sensibly; a balanced diet will provide all the necessary energy you will need throughout the day. Avoid non-prescription drugs, and minimize your alcohol use; you need to be mentally and physically alert to deal with stress. Be mindful of the effects of excessive caffeine and sugar on nervousness. And, put out the cigarettes -- they restrict blood circulation and affect the stress response.
Talk to Friends. Friends can be good medicine. Daily doses of conversation, regular social engagements, and occasional sharing of deep feelings and thoughts can reduce distress quite nicely.