Stress & Coping
Of course, life is filled with many additional challenges beyond those incurred in college or the workplace. We might have concerns with financial security, difficulties with friends or neighbors, family responsibilities, and we may not have enough time to do the things we want to do. Even minor hassles—losing things, traffic jams, and loss of internet service—all involve pressure and demands that can make life seem like a struggle and that can compromise our sense of well-being. That is, all can be stressful in some way.
Scientific interest in stress, including how we adapt and cope, has been longstanding in psychology; indeed, after nearly a century of research on the topic, much has been learned and many insights have been developed. This chapter examines stress and highlights our current understanding of the phenomenon, including its psychological and physiological natures, its causes and consequences, and the steps we can take to master stress rather than become its victim.
What Is Stress and How Does It Affect Wellness?
Stress is defined as the body’s physical, mental, and emotional response to a particular stimulus, called a stressor This adaption/coping-response helps the body prepare for challenging situations. It is the level of a person’s response to a stressor that determines whether the experience is positive or negative. As a hardworking college student, you may feel as if you know the meaning of stress all too well. You may dream of a future where the demands on your time are diminished, so you can escape the high levels of stress you are feeling now. Unfortunately, regardless of their situation, everyone experiences stress on a regular basis. The good news is, not all stress is bad! Small levels of stress can enhance cognitive brain function. Eustress is defined as good stress where as distress is defined as bad stress. Stress may provide the motivation and concentration you need to write an essay, practice a speech, or prepare for a job interview. For most people, these types of stressors are manageable and not harmful. Stressors that have the potential for harm include the sudden loss of a loved one, the unexpected ending of a romantic relationship, or the unfair demands of an unreasonable boss.
Stress, then, is more than simply the tension and apprehension generated by problems, obstacles, or traumatic events. Stress is the body’s automatic response (physical, mental, and emotional) to any stressor. It is a natural and unavoidable part of life, and it can be empowering and motivating, or harmful and potentially dangerous.
Effects of Stress on Wellness
As stated previously, not all stress is bad. In fact, the stress associated with riding a roller coaster, watching a scary movie, or scaling a cliff can enhance these experiences. Regardless of whether the stress experienced is negative or positive, the effects on the body are identical.
When a person senses that a situation demands action, the body responds by releasing chemicals into the blood. The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones that include adrenaline and cortisol. The physiological effects of those chemicals—enhanced focus, quicker reaction time, and increased heart rate, energy, and strength—are quite beneficial when faced with a potentially dangerous situation that is temporary.
Unfortunately, most of the stressors people face—work, school, finances, relationships—are a part of everyday life, and thus, inescapable. Experiencing ongoing, unavoidable stress can result in some very unpleasant and harmful effects, both mental and physical. Chronic stress can cause upset stomach, headaches, sleep problems, and heart disease. It can also cause depression, anxiety, and even memory loss.
What Are the Strategies for Managing Stress?
Although stress in everyday life is unavoidable, there are ways to cope with it that will minimize or eliminate its harmful effects.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) provides a list of effective strategies for coping with stress.
When you are feeling anxious or stressed, these strategies will help you cope:
- Take a time-out: Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head.
- Eat well-balanced meals: Do not skip any meals. Do keep healthful, energy-boosting snacks on hand.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine: These can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
- Get enough sleep: When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
- Exercise daily: Daily exercise can help you feel good and maintain your health. Check out the fitness tips below.
- Take deep breaths: Inhale and exhale slowly.
- Count to 10 slowly: Repeat, and count to 20 if necessary.
- Do your best: Instead of aiming for perfection, which isn’t possible, be proud of however close you get.
- Accept that you cannot control everything: Put your stress in perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
- Welcome humor: A good laugh goes a long way.
- Maintain a positive attitude: Make an effort to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Get involved: Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, which creates a support network and gives you a break from everyday stress.
- Learn what triggers your anxiety: Is it work, family, school, or something else you can identify? Write in a journal when you’re feeling stressed or anxious and look for a pattern.
- Talk to someone: Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed, and let them know how they can help you. Talk to a physician or therapist for professional help.
- Get help online: Anxiety Canada has a tool for developing “My Anxiety Plan“.
Fitness Tips: Stay Healthy, Manage Stress
To receive the greatest benefits from exercising, try to include at least 2 1⁄2 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g. brisk walking) each week, 1 1⁄4 hours of a vigorous-intensity activity (such as jogging or swimming laps), or a combination of the two.
- 5 × 30: Jog, walk, bike, or dance three to five times a week for 30 minutes.
- Set small daily goals: Aim for daily consistency rather than perfect workouts. It is better to walk every day for 15–20 minutes than to wait until the weekend for a three-hour fitness marathon. Lots of scientific data suggests that frequency is most important.
- Find forms of exercise that are fun or enjoyable: Extroverted people often like classes and group activities. People who are more introverted often prefer solo pursuits.
- Distract yourself: Use an iPod or other portable media player to download audiobooks, podcasts, or music. Many people find it is more fun to exercise while listening to material they enjoy.
- Recruit an “exercise buddy”: It is often easier to stick to your exercise routine when you have to stay committed to a friend, partner, or colleague.
- Be patient when you start a new exercise program: Most sedentary people require about four to eight weeks to feel coordinated and sufficiently in shape so that exercise feels easier.