Do you have difficulty concentrating or controlling your thoughts?
Do you feel tired or groggy most of the day, yet often have trouble sleeping at night?
Do you get frequent headaches, stomach aches or backaches that don't have a medical explanation?
The following guide defines stress, helps you recognize its main symptoms, and identifies some of the best strategies you can use to control it. Remember that stress management is one of the best things you can do for yourself, your body and your long-term health, especially as you wrestle daily with the often daunting demands of university studies.
- What is stress?
- What are the symptoms of stress?
- How can I protect myself from chronic or maladaptive stress?
- What strategies can I use to manage my stress levels?
1. What is stress?
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, stress is not an illness. It's a normal reaction to a significant change or event, either expected or unexpected, that gives you a heightened sense of tension or pressure or excitability. Stress can be scary, unless you know how to manage it.
When you experience a significant change or event, your mind automatically evaluates the situation. This helps you decide not only if the situation is threatening or not, but also how you will react to it and, consequently, manage it.
If you feel that the demands of the situation are more than you can handle, a "stress response" is triggered.
2. What are the symptoms of stress?
Stress affects both your physical and mental health. Some people experience only physical symptoms, others only psychological symptoms, and yet others a combination of both. That said, stress shows itself in a variety of ways:
- inattentiveness, memory lapses;
- fatigue, low energy;
- blurred vision;
- depression, anxiety;
- mood swings, anger;
- accelerated heartbeat, stomach aches, backaches;
- loss of appetite;
- over-consumption of alcohol, tobacco, coffee or drugs.
Remember, though, that some symptoms can come from underlying physical illness and not solely from stress. If you have any of these symptoms, or if you have trouble identifying or understanding your symptoms, make an appointment with a professional at Health Services or at the Counselling and Coaching Service.
3. How can I protect myself from chronic or maladaptive stress?
The best way to cope with stress is to eliminate, or at least reduce, its causes. These are known as stressors. Here are a few tips to reduce potentially stressful situations:
- Give yourself realistic and attainable objectives.
- Create a good study and work environment.
- Think positively.
- Organize your time.
- Make time for relaxation and leisure activities.
- Talk to a friend or to a professional (Counselling and Coaching Service, Health Services, Academic Accommodation).
Another way of limiting stress is by adopting a healthy and active lifestyle; for instance:
- Get eight hours of sleep every night.
- Avoid or reduce caffeine.
- Avoid drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.
- Eat vitamin- and mineral-rich foods.
- Limit fat and sugar.
- Exercise regularly (at least 30 minutes, three times a week).
4. What strategies can I use to manage my stress levels?
To manage stress, you first need to identify its causes. Remember that not everyone gets stressed by the same things or events. You probably have your own combination of stressors based on your experiences, your brain's pre-programmed response patterns and the environment you're in when the stressors strike. Take a few moments to think about the activities or circumstances that stress you out or overwhelm you. For example, are you stressed:
- when you have to speak in front of the class?
- when you're studying or reviewing for exams?
- when you're writing an examination or attending an interview?
- when you face a family or personal conflict?
- while you work in a group or with a team?
For many students, exam periods represent the ultimate in stress. If that's true for you, below are some tips to help overcome test-time anxiety.
If you get stressed while revising course material:
- Create a calm, well-lit and comfortable workplace. This can mean eliminating certain distractions, re-arranging workspace so it's cleaner or more organized, placing a picture of family or friends nearby to glance at, etc.
- Take a break from the subject you're studying. For example, go for a walk or a run, watch part of a movie or T.V. show, call a friend or relative, review other subjects that you find easier or more enjoyable, take a series of deep breaths, play your favourite song while doing some stretches, write your thoughts in a journal.
- Perform relaxation exercises or get a massage.
- Try crying - believe it or not, your body will produce a chemical that can help relax you.
If you stress out during an exam:
- Take a minute or two to repeat positive and confident thoughts in your head. Try taking another perspective, such as "It's only an exam."
- Think of something pleasant (a favourite childhood memory, a vacation you hope to take some day, a family member or friend who always supported you no matter what, your dog or cat, a good joke you've heard or read, etc.)
- Take deep breaths.
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