Stress

There is no way around it: life as a student is stressful. However, you can learn to successfully navigate the common stresses of college life.

Stress is “the inability to cope with a perceived (real or imagined) threat to one’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptations” (Chopra, 2000; Dossey, 2004).

The body responds to stress by preparing itself to either fight or flee from a perceived threat. This response is hypothesized to have originated to prepare humans to fight or flee from a perceived physical threat, such as a bear attack. While physical threats still exist in today’s culture, the body’s response to stress becomes activated in all types of threats (mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual).

Stress can be good or bad. Good stress, or eustress, arises in situations that people find motivating or inspiring—like falling in love. Bad stress, or distress, typically occurs in short, intense bursts, such as when you’re preparing for an exam, or it can occur over prolonged periods of time.

Emotional

Physical

  • Moodiness
  • Irritability or short temper
  • Agitation or inability to relax
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Sense of loneliness and isolation
  • Depression or general unhappiness
  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of sex drive

Cognitive

Behavioral

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying
  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (nail biting, pacing, etc.)

Stress management starts with identifying the sources of stress in your life. Common stressors that students tend to encounter are academic deadlines, financial obligations, and relationships. Once you identify what your stressor is and how you currently cope, you will have a better chance at addressing it.

Stress management and coping strategies you can implement include:

Change the Situation or Your Reaction

When deciding on a coping strategy, it’s useful to think of the four As: avoid, alter, adapt, and accept.

  • Avoid unnecessary stress. Not all stress can be avoided, and it may be unhealthy to avoid stressful situations that need to be resolved. However, when appropriate, learn how to say no to certain situations, avoid people who may foster a stressful environment, and drop tasks from your to-do list that aren’t truly necessary.
  • Alter the situation. Think about ways you can change the way you communicate and operate in your daily life to minimize stressors. For instance, express your feelings instead of bottling them up, be willing to compromise, be assertive about your needs, and manage your time efficiently.
  • Adapt to the stressor. Sometimes you can adapt to the stressor by changing your attitudes and behaviors. Reframe your problems with a more positive perspective, and set reasonable standards for yourself and others.
  • Accept the things you can’t change. It may be best to accept your circumstances and work with them. Look at these challenges as opportunities for personal growth and learning, and share your feelings with close friends and family members.

Time Management

The human mind naturally breaks time down into smaller parts in order to better comprehend and manage one’s environment. Practicing effective time management techniques assists with this breakdown to help minimize stressors. Time management techniques include:

  • Prioritize your tasks by ranking them in order of their importance. Designate each task as A (high priority), B (medium priority), and C (low priority). Rewrite your to-do list by grouping the letters together.
  • Allocate time for your prioritized responsibilities. Break down your day into morning, afternoon, and evening, and assign one to two specific responsibilities in each timeslot.
  • Break down large projects into smaller tasks, and assign a deadline for each task.
  • Establish healthy boundaries with technology.
  • Schedule personal time every day.
  • Schedule time for interruptions.
  • Change your homepage to a simple search engine to minimize distractions.
  • Clean your workspace/room once per week.

Cognitive Restructuring

An individual’s reaction to a specific stressor will vary based on the person’s perspective. Cognitive restructuring is a stress management technique in which you modify your internal dialogue to focus on assuming responsibility, facing the reality of the situation, and taking a positive attitude to resolve the issues causing stress.

To initiate cognitive restructuring, implement the following steps:

  • Identify the stressor, why the situation/event is stressful, and acknowledge the stressor’s presence.
  • Try to think about the situation objectively.
  • Substitute a positive attitude toward the situation.
  • Identify if the positive attitude you adopted in step 3 is useful. If not, return to step 2 and create a new reappraisal.

The primary purpose of stress relief is to intervene in the body’s response to stress and return it to physiological homeostasis. It is important to note that relaxation techniques alone offer only a temporary solution to chronic stress; the best approach to balancing your stress levels is to regularly practice stress-relief exercises.

Stress-relief exercises and programs you can engage in include:

  • Stress-management/self-care workshops. Health Promotion and Wellness offers stress management and self-care workshops by request for facilitation in your classroom, group organization, or House. Complete the workshop request form to learn more.
  • Mindfulness meditation. Four Mindfulness Meditation sessions are offered per quarter. The UChicago Wellness YouTube channel includes guided meditation videos.
  • Pet Love. Pet Love is a program that brings certified therapy dogs onto the UChicago campus.
  • Stress Kits. Students are able to reserve Stress Kits for study breaks or any stress-relief event.
  • BustMyStress. BustMyStress is a weekly email containing stress management tips and tools as well as weekly events held on campus.
  • Mandala coloring pages
  • Stress-relieving stretches

For more individual help with stress and other related concerns, you may talk to a therapist at the Student Counseling Service.

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