What Is Stress?
Typically, people view stress negatively. But what is it really? Stress is simply a demand on the organism to work. It is our subjective and/or physiological response to perceived threats or stressors. Stress is part of an evolutionary advantage to dealing with threatening situations. It is an important, normal part of living. It revs us up, protects us, and makes us creative and motivated. We cannot eliminate stress, but we can manage it.
When you are stressed or anxious, your body goes into an automatic response. It is often called the “fight, flight or freeze response.” In this response, you are preparing yourself for the enemy. The enemy may be physical or psychological but the body cannot distinguish that. Your body’s automatic primitive response is something like this:
Your heart rate increases and you begin to breathe faster so that more blood can get pumped to your extremities. Your digestion stops so that all functions flow to the primary systems that get you out of the emergency, out of danger. You may also have other physiological responses. You may begin to sweat to regulate your body temperature, and sometimes your limbs may tingle because energy is directed towards your limbs to be activated in response to the crisis. All of this happens automatically and all you need to do to change that, in a stress situation, is take a deep breath (see below).
Internal stress comes from within an individual and includes:
- Feelings (i.e. anger, worry, fear)
- Nutrition/Eating Habits
- Physical Health/Well-being
- Mental Health/Well-being
- Quantity and Quality of Sleep
External stress is produced from events, situations, or environments outside of an individual. Examples include:
- School (i.e. degree of difficulty of classes, amount of coursework, academic performance)
- Work (i.e. workload, relationship with one’s employer, relationship with co-workers, pressure and demands placed on an individual, poor work conditions)
- Trauma (i.e. physical/sexual/emotional abuse, significant accidents or injury, witnessing the abuse of others)
- Foreign Organisms (i.e. bacteria, viruses, fungi)
- Relationships with others (i.e. parents, peers, professors, friends, roommates)
- Home Environment
- Poor Living Conditions
While often associated with negative events and experiences, stress can be a product of positive experiences. For example, attending college is considered to be a positive life experience. It provides individuals an opportunity to further their education and allow them access to pursue various career goals. Nonetheless, such positive experiences can also come with stress.
Symptoms of Stress
- Muscle Tension
- Clenching/Grinding Teeth
- Rapid Heartbeat
- Stomach/Intestinal Upset
- Sleep Disturbances
Stress may manifest in a variety of ways, including:
- Poor Job Performance
- Relationship Problems
- Reduced Productivity
- Problems with Professor/Boss
- Burnout—exhaustion, loss of passion, apathy, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, self-destructive behavior, slow recovery from illness
How to Manage Stress
It is important to identify your own early signs of stress. Every person varies in what they find stressful and how they respond to stress. Start to observe yourself. When you start to feel some signs of stress, ask yourself: “What’s going on?” You might hear an internal voice that tells you “This looks threatening”… “I don’t think I can handle this”… or some other important message along with the physical signs.
Managing stress … it is as simple as taking a deep breath.
Our bodies come equipped with a natural stress-reliever, breathing. Believe it or not, taking a slow, deep breath can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Slowing down your breathing and taking deep breaths allow your body to calm its stress responses. Slow and deep breathing slows one’s heart rate, brings more oxygen to the brain, and essentially works to maintain equilibrium and allow the body to regulate itself. There are many breathing techniques and two of these are below:
- 4-3-5. This breathing technique allows you to slow down your breathing by taking measured breaths. Breathe in for FOUR counts through your nose…… hold that breath for THREE counts….. and exhale for FIVE counts through your mouth. Repeat this pattern for a few minutes and observe how much more relaxed you can feel.
- Belly Balloon. Imagine your stomach is like a balloon. Place your hands on your belly. Breathe in slowly through your nose, filling your lungs all the way to the top, as you feel your belly and chest rising and expanding like a balloon. Now, open your mouth and slowly release the air out of your lungs, imagining that belly balloon slowly deflating. Continue this exercise for a few minutes, noticing how much calmer your body can feel.
In addition to the power of using your breath, stress management targets three key areas: