By Connie Colbert
GCU Director of Health Services
Life is full of deadlines, stressors and demands, especially as we near the end of another academic year. For many people, this way of life can cause feelings of anxiety and stress. In addition, these feelings might be exacerbated by the pandemic.
Stress is not always bad. In small doses, it can help motivate you to do your best and perform under pressure. But when you are living in a perpetual state of emergency or constantly worry about the future, your mind and body can pay the price and you can start to feel out of balance.
Stress is cumulative. Your early signs of stress may include headaches, irritability, nervous stomach or disrupted sleep. Once you learn to recognize your own early warning signs, you will know that these symptoms are your body’s way of telling you to slow down and find a way to de-stress.
If you do not listen to your body, your stress and anxiety can continue to build and cause serious disruption emotionally, physically and socially. Stress can impact your relationships and your ability to concentrate, and it can have a negative effect on your immune system, making you more prone to illness.
The good news is that you can protect yourself by recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
When stress becomes anxiety
Stress is the normal physical response that you have when you are faced with a challenge. This challenge might be a deadline coming up, an important meeting or even a family event. Feelings of stress often dissipate after the stressful event or challenge has ended.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a different condition altogether and is more like constant fear. It often occurs for no identifiable reason. For some people, worry and anxiety can become overwhelming and disrupt their quality of life. Excessive and lasting bouts of worry may reflect an anxiety disorder and will require different treatment.
Common effects of stress
Stress affects every aspect of our lives. You may experience mental, behavioral, physical and emotional symptoms. While these symptoms are common during stressful times, people with anxiety disorders may experience them in absence of a stressful experience.
On your body: Headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, stomach upset, sleep problems, frequent illness
On your emotions: Anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger, sadness or depression, forgetfulness, feeling overwhelmed, insecurity
On your behavior: Over- or under-eating, angry outbursts, drug/alcohol use, social withdrawal, sleeping too much or too little, relationship conflicts, crying spells, avoidance/procrastination
What can I do to relieve my stress?
Stress management is an important skill, and it is worth taking the time to figure out what works best for you. Taking care of your mind and body can go a long way toward managing your stress level and helping restore yourself to balance. Here are some suggestions:
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. Sugar and processed foods can make stress worse.
- Exercise regularly. Find movement you enjoy that allows you to release tension.
- Learn deep breathing/relaxation techniques (see below for a simple breathing exercise).
- Pay attention to negative self-talk.
- Practice saying “no” to situations that you aren’t comfortable with and people that add stress to your life.
- Call a friend or someone you trust.
- Limit your caffeine intake.
- Avoid using alcohol, drugs or any other substance or abusive behavior to relieve stress.
- Manage your time and energy – you can prioritize your “to-do” list based not only on time but on your energy for the task.
- Laugh! Watch a funny movie.
- Take time for relaxation, fun and hobbies. Read for pleasure, take up a new hobby or follow along to a yoga video on YouTube.
Many breathing exercises take only a few minutes. When you have more time, you can do them for 10 minutes or more to get even greater benefits.
Most people take short, shallow breaths into their chest. It can make you feel anxious and zap your energy. With this technique, you will learn how to take bigger breaths, all the way into your belly.
- Get comfortable. You can lie on your back in bed or on the floor with a pillow under your head and knees. Or you can sit in a chair with your shoulders, head and neck supported against the back of the chair.
- Breathe in through your nose. Let your belly fill with air.
- Breathe out through your nose.
- Place one hand on your belly. Place the other hand on your chest.
- As you breathe in, feel your belly rise. As you breathe out, feel your belly lower. The hand on your belly should move more than the one that’s on your chest.
- Take three more full, deep breaths. Breathe fully into your belly as it rises and falls with your breath.
Once you feel comfortable with breaths that last five counts, increase how long you breathe in and breathe out. You can work up to breaths that last up to 10 counts.
We often feel as though they should be able to cope with everything. If excessive worry and stress is impacting the quality of your life, it is time to get help.
A mental health clinician or a physician can help you identify a variety of treatment options that can help you find relief. If you need help finding resources, email healthce[email protected] or, to find a local therapist, go to www.psychologytoday.com/us.