Whether you’re an undergrad, upperclassman, or a seasoned student returning for an advanced degree, college is stressful.

No doubt about it.

With papers, presentations, exams, and extracurricular activities – like work and life – all demanding your attention at once sometimes, the stress adds up as the responsibilities pile up.

Even the calmest person is going to find themselves frazzled and in a frenzy, once in a while. It’s to be expected. The trick is to know how to help yourself rather than make things worse. Ideally you will want to learn to work with and manage your stress in healthy and productive ways.

Stress Is Normal

It’s important to understand that stress is normal bodily reaction. To experience absolutely no stress, you would have to be dead.

Seriously.

Stress is your body’s natural and necessary physical reaction to changes in its environment or circumstances where your brain perceives a response is required for your protection.

When your body’s stress response is activated, your heart beats faster, your pupils dilate, your muscles tense, your breathing increases, more blood is pumped to your muscles, and adrenaline and other hormones are secreted into the bloodstream to prepare you to fight for your life or flee. Your breathing increases to oxygenate all that extra blood.

Back when our caveman ancestors were predators and prey, stress was absolutely essential for their survival. It gave them an evolutionary advantage.

Stress Can Even Be a Good Thing

Even though you don’t usually have to run for your life these days, stress can still be useful. Positive stress, called eustress, gives you motivation, energy, and focus, helping you perform at your best, and even increasing productivity. Eustress can give you the extra oomph you need to get a paper finished or show up as the jitters you feel before a first date.

Think about it. Many things in life which are considered good can cause a person lots of stress. Eustress actually helps keep us happy, healthy, and gives life meaning. Without it, life would be dull and flat, but even too much eustress can tax your system.

Stress is a normal bodily response and is neither good nor bad by itself. The problem arises when your body has a stress reaction to everything. When stress becomes an almost constant state and chronic condition, it has negative, lasting consequences for your mind and body.

When Stress Leads to Anxiety

Back when most humans died around middle age, the benefits of stress outweighed the long-term costs. But today, with people living well beyond, the cumulative damage of chronically over stimulating your body’s stress response can lead to brain damage and gastrointestinal, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine problems. The greatest impact is usually seen on psychological well-being as anxiety and depression.

The key word here is chronic.

Anxiety isn’t the same as stress and is one adverse effect of stress. Whereas stress usually comes and goes with identifiable causes, anxiety becomes a persistent feeling of worry, unease, and fear with no real identifiable cause. Anxiety is typically associated with the future where a person is anticipating coping with some upcoming negative events.

In other words, stress can be seen as an emotional reaction to something happening now, while anxiety is a feeling about something that may happen at a future date or may not actually ever happen at all.

Anxiety can turn into phobia, social anxiety, obsessions and compulsions, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Although anxiety starts in the mind, it can manifest with physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, muscle pain, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, and insomnia.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older. It’s not uncommon for someone with an anxiety disorder to also suffer from depression or vice versa.

Ways to Effectively Manage Stress

We’ve already established that stress is a normal part of life. So, it’s not whether you get stressed that matters – everybody does. It’s how you deal with your stress that counts.

If you don’t find healthy ways to cope with or release stress, the stress can lead to anxiety which can lead to depression. This sets up a vicious cycle that’s hard to break out of.

Stressors can be real or perceived. In your body, it doesn’t really matter whether the source of the stress is real or imagined.because when you perceive something as stressful, it creates the same stress response in your body. Real or imagined, the solution is to learn to manage, release, and de-escalate stress before it snowballs into anxiety and depression.

Fortunately, there are plenty of techniques and tools that can help you effectively manage and decrease stress.  Some easy ways to do that are:

Watch What You Eat

Your food choices can really add to your body feeling amped and stressed. The four worst culprits to steer clear of are:

Caffeine 
Maybe you think you can’t live without your Starbucks or soda, but sipping caffeinated drinks all day long can cause stress to escalate. Caffeine stimulates your nervous system, which stress already does. If you can’t eliminate caffeine, reduce it.

Alcohol 
You may think that having a drink will make you feel relaxed, but drinking alcohol can actually exacerbate stress. Alcohol stimulates the production of the same hormones the body produces when stressed, and research shows that stress and alcohol feed each other. One study found that alcohol can prolong feelings of tension brought on by stress and stress can reduce the pleasant effects of alcohol and spike cravings for more.

Refined Sugar 
Not only are sugary foods typically stripped of nutrients, but the fluctuations they cause in blood sugar and insulin levels can lead to anxiety, depression, and learning and memory problems. Who needs that?

High-Sodium Foods 
Sodium attracts liquid in your body like a magnet, so when you take in lots of salt, you’ll retain more fluid. This excess fluid makes your heart work harder, raises your blood pressure, and leads to bloating and water retention. Besides just feeling bad, these side effects can drain your energy and increase the effects of stress.

The good news is that some foods can take the edge off. You can help reduce stress in your body by cleaning up your diet. By eating more fruits and vegetables, reducing processed foods, artificial sweeteners, additives, and coloring.

Work with Your Mind

Remember that stress originates in your brain and can be greatly reduced by working with your mind. By consciously directing your mind, you can calm your amygdala, the emotional/fear center of the brain, and engage your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS, often called “rest and digest,” puts the brakes on your brain’s stress response.

There are several ways to calm your brain and body:

Practice Calming Breathing

Focusing on and slowing your breath is the fastest way to calm your brain and body. At any moment, you can take control and change how you breathe which immediately alters your emotions and nervous system. Controlled deep breathing is a sure and quick way to combat stress on-the-spot. You can find instructional breathing exercises here.

Come into the Present Moment

Bring your attention into the here and now — a practice called mindfulness. Become aware of your thoughts and reframe them to decrease stress. Work with your thoughts to encourage and support you – not stress you out more. Scan your body for tension and consciously relax tense areas.

Meditate

Research shows that daily meditation alters the brain’s neural pathways making you more resilient to stress, strengthens your immune system, and increases serotonin, the happy neurochemical, production.  If you already have a practice, great!  If not, you can find tips for starting one here.

Visualize

Use your mind to calm your body by imaging yourself in any setting in which you feel calm and relaxed. Visualize your body and mind letting go of tension. You can also use guided imagery exercises to help you.

Connect with others

When you feel stressed, it helps to lean on others. Just socializing and being around other people, like in a coffee shop, book store, or restaurant, increases serotonin levels in your brain. You don’t even have to interact to benefit, just being in the same physical space can do the trick.

 Talk to friends

Talk to your friends and share what you’re stressing about. You can get a fresh perspective, support, and tactical suggestions. If you don’t feel like talking, try doing an activity with a friend where you won’t feel forced to talk. Social interaction also causes your brain to secrete oxytocin, which supports the serotonin system, giving you get the benefit of both feel good neurochemicals.

Laugh Out Loud

A good belly laugh doesn’t just feel good, It actually lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, and boosts brain chemicals called endorphins, which brighten your mood. Watch your favorite comedy, read a funny book, or spend time with someone who makes you smile.

Move Your Body

All forms of exercise, including yoga and walking, can ease stress by helping the brain release feel-good chemicals and by giving your body a chance to release stressful energy. Even everyday activities such as housecleaning or yard work can reduce stress. Just move your body!

Other Ideas

Turn on the Tunes 

Research shows that listening to soothing music can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress. You can create a soothing playlist or blow off steam by rocking out to more upbeat tunes.

 Get a Massage

Treat yourself to a professional massage or use a tennis ball or foam roller to massage away stress. You can also take a soothing bath using essential oils for aromatherapy relaxation.

Get More Sleep 

Lack of sleep increases stress hormones. One study saw changes in men’s brains after not sleeping for just one night. Getting sufficient sleep helps focus and improves memory and productivity.  Naps also have brain benefits that can help you handle stress.

Limit Social Media and Electronics

There is no way to avoid all media, and you don’t want to, but you don’t want it to be a source of negativity and extra stress. Research has determined that levels of anxiety, depression, and stress-related problems are increasing among college students, in large part due to social media.  Learn and practice healthy social media use and take a break from electronics totally occasionally.

Debbie Hampton
Debbie Hampton
Debbie Hampton recovered from a suicide attempt and resulting brain injury to become an inspirational and educational writer. She is the author of Beat Depression And Anxiety By Changing Your Brain and Sex, Suicide and Serotonin: How These Things Almost Killed and Healed Me and writes for The Huffington Post, MindBodyGreen, and more. On her website, The Best Brain Possible.com, she shares information on how to better your brain and life.

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