Stress is ubiquitous; we all experience it, we all suffer from its consequences, and we can all do a better job managing our physiologic, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses to stressful situations.  The Counseling Service is available to work with students to more effectively identify sources of stress, better manage those things that they can affect, and impact their sympathetic nervous system to support engagement in valued activities (even in the presence of stressors).  Below we offer a brief explanation of the stress response, its short and long term effects on your functioning, techniques to induce the restorative relaxation response, and adaptive cognitive and behavioral responses to stress.

The Stress Response

Our sympathetic nervous system, and the stress response in particular, evolved because they allow us to respond to physical danger in a reflexive, immediate, and predictable way.  When we perceive a threatening situation, the stress response, also know as the “fight or flight” response, is triggered.  Neurochemicals are released that quicken our breath, increase our heart rate, stop all nonessential processes (such as digestion and fighting off disease), dilate our pupils (so we can see better), activate our sweat glands (to make us slippery), and constrict our arteries (to shunt blood to large muscle groups). Our muscles tense, readying us to either fight or flee, and the scope of both our perceptual and conceptual attention grows more narrow and rigid to help us focus on the object of threat and rote responses for dealing with it.

Thanks to this series of incredibly well-designed electrochemical responses, we are well prepared for threats of physical danger such as a grizzly bear crashing through the woods.  However, none of these responses help us when faced with the social and mental “threats” that are more often the source of contemporary stress (such as public speaking, relationship conflict, and test performance).  The stress response can in fact hurt our performance on these tasks which would benefit from a relaxed physical state and open, flexible attention. 

Short and Long Term Effects of Stress

Our bodies are highly resilient tools, but they are not designed to be in a chronic state of arousal.  Unlike the grizzly bear who ambles on his way, contemporary stressors tend to remain around for longer periods of time.  After one exam there looms another; after one date there is the next; after one argument with your roommate there will doubtless be more.  For many Americans, the prolonged state of heightened arousal, otherwise known as stress, causes hypertension, suppresses immune responses, provokes gastric distress, and leads to muscle deterioration. 

Whether or not you suffer the physical consequences of prolonged stress it likely interferes with your ability to function, damages your relationships, and may even lead to destructive behaviors.  Over time, chronic stress accumulates, not only in the form of overlearned mental responses, but in the neurochemical disequilibrium of our cells.   Even minor stressors come to trigger the fight or flight response with all of its physical, cognitive, and emotional correlates.  It is difficult to study, be a good friend, or take good care of yourself when your body and mind are so disregulated.

The Relaxation Response

The relaxation response was first described in the 1970's at Harvard Medical School as a way to “quiet the body's responses to stress.”  Unlike the automatic stress response, the relaxation response is voluntary and can be developed with practice.  The quickest and most reliable method of inducing the relaxation response is to change your autonomic functioning with your breath.  Deep, slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic nostril breathing slows your heart rate and stimulates the parasympathetic system.  It also oxygenates your cells and carries away lactic acid so your muscles can resume their normal tone. You can learn diaphragmatic breathing in yoga or meditation classes offered at the Wellness Center, from a counselor at the Counseling Service, or by practicing on your own.  Other techniques for inducing the relaxation response include progressive muscle relaxation, autogenics, and visual imagery.  To learn more about these techniques, contact the Counseling Service.

Cognitive and Behavioral Responses to Stress

In addition to mindfully affecting our physiologic state, you can also learn to identify and change how you relate to your thoughts and behaviors.  The first step is to recognize your tendencies, how you typically appraise situations as stressful, and, in turn, how you cope with them. 

Our appraisals, or thoughts about a situation, can arouse our nervous system, affect our emotions, and inform subsequent behavior.  Take time to notice your appraisals, to recognize them as mental constructs not objective reality, and to engage in valued activity despite these thoughts.  Notice also your coping behaviors and whether or not they are effective in a given situation.  Examples of some coping responses include discounting, numbing, avoiding, blaming yourself or others, distraction, and sublimation. Obviously, there are some coping responses that are considered more adaptive than others, but most healthy people use a range of coping skills every day. The amount of stress you generate for yourself depends on how many different coping skills you have, and how appropriately you use them in any given situation. For example, emotional numbing might not be such a great coping response if you are trying to maintain a relationship, but in an emergency, when you must act quickly and can't afford to get caught up in emotions, it is an adaptive coping skill. 

In general, action-based coping strategies work better than emotion-based strategies.  Some examples of helpful coping strategies follow.  One of the best forms of distraction is physical exercise since it also provides rapid, positive changes to your autonomic system. Social strategies often involve finding support from friends, family, or a mental health professional. Sublimation refers in part to your ability to learn from your mistakes, which helps you to feel competent and in turn alleviates stress.  One coping skill that almost never works is that of blaming, either yourself or others. While blaming may help you feel better in the short-term, it usually backfires and causes more stress later.

A Helpful List: Things to Notice

Perhaps the best way to prevent stress in your life is to live a healthy lifestyle. Good nutrition, moderate exercise, adequate sleep, meaningful work, sufficient leisure time, and satisfying connections with other people will almost always reduce stress. And if you practice breathing and noticing your appraisal and coping styles, you are much less likely to feel out of control next time you find yourself in a stressful situation.

Listed below are some of the causes and effects of stress, as well as the best predictors of good stress prevention.  When you take the time to notice both the sources of stress in your life and your typical responses to it, you create the opportunity to engage in new behaviors that both alleviate stress and support healthful physical and mental well being.  For more information about stress or to speak with a counselor about stress management, please call the Counseling Service at 725-3145.

Causes of Stress

  • Lack of sleep
  • Competition
  • Doubt or not knowing
  • Transitioning
  • Lack of role clarity
  • Perceived over-responsibility
  • Poor interpersonal skills

Effects of Stress

  • Poor health
  • Lack of self-care
  • Disconnection from others
  • Unclear thinking and poor decision making
  • Irritability
  • Burnout
  • Substance abuse
  • Depression and anxiety

Preventive measures

  • Good health
  • Activities over which you have conscious control
  • Exercise
  • Skillful emotion management and expression
  • Support from others
  • Role clarity
  • Flexibility and curiosity
  • Realistic appraisal of others, especially superiors
  • Spirituality
  • A sense of community or belonging
  • Connection to nature