Counseling and Psychological Services

Managing Stress

Not all difficulties you will encounter during your college years require the assistance of a therapist. Some experiences, such as stress, sleep disturbance, or mild anxiety can be managed successfully without treatment. Below are a few of the more common challenges that college-aged people face, along with suggestions for coping with them. Remember, any time a problem becomes too overwhelming or distressing to handle on your own, call CAPS at 860.685.2910 and make an appointment to talk with one of our therapists.

What is Stress?

"Stress" is a word that is used a great deal in our day-to-day lives, yet a clear definition of it remains elusive. The term was first used in 1936 by Hans Selye, who defined it as "the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change." College students experience multiple competing demands from both internal and external sources. Stressors can be positive or beneficial when they motivate growth and accomplishment. Excessive stress, however, produces significant anxiety, distress, and health problems. People experiencing an overload of stress report irritability, poor concentration and focus, low energy, emotional reactivity, and physical problems such as headaches, muscle pain, insomnia, and frequent colds.  Some people experiencing chronic stress turn increasingly to alcohol or other substances in order to temporarily unplug themselves from their worries. Unfortunately, this particular coping method does not address the real issue and over time can become a problem in and of itself.   Below are some suggestions for managing stress in a more healthful way.

  • Nutrition
    • Chronic stress weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to a variety of physical and medical problems. A balanced diet will help your body remain strong during stressful times. Daily multivitamins can be particularly helpful as well. Avoid large quantities of caffeine or foods that are high in refined sugar.

  • Physical Activity
    • Regular physical activity can work wonders for the body and mind. It can soothe anxiety, improve sleep, boost energy, and increase positive mood. Because it can be challenging to build regular exercise into a busy student schedule, it is important to find an activity you enjoy doing. If you can find an exercise partner, even better. After you get through the initial challenge of building exercise into your routine, you will find it much easier to keep it up.

  • Relaxation
    • There are many different ways to relax the body and mind. It's probably a good idea to experiment with several different techniques until you find one that works well for you. No matter which technique you use, find a quiet space to practice and stick with it even if you do not notice a major improvement right away. You may need to practice daily for a few weeks before you start to feel better.

      Breathing Exercises

      Focusing on your breath is a good way to clear your mind and ease anxiety. Wear comfortable clothing, and sit in a relaxed position. Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Keep your attention and focus on your breath.If you notice your mind wandering, simply return your attention to your breathing. Practice once or twice daily for at least five minutes per session.

      Visualization Exercises

      Visualization utilizes the imagination as a calming or healing force. Visual images, sounds, tastes, textures, and smells can all be integrated into a visualization exercise aimed at soothing anxiety and managing stress. Wear comfortable clothing and sit in a relaxed position. Close your eyes. Inhale and exhale slowly. Focus on breathing for a few minutes in order to clear your mind. When your mind is clear, imagine a scene in which you feel at peace. It may be a setting from your life, or a scene you have only imagined. Be certain to utilize all your senses as you imagine the setting. Some people find it helpful to play background music that matches their visualization scene. Mentally walk through your visualization, noting all of the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes. If you notice your mind wandering, simply refocus upon your scene. After 15-20 minutes, open your eyes and return to the present.

      Mindfulness Practice

      Mindfulness practice helps people focus on their experience in the moment, both internal and external, and observe it without judgment. The ability to let go of rumination about the past and worry thoughts about the future can significantly ameliorate stress and anxiety. Mindfulness exercises focus on the present moment, and they can be tailored to many different daily activities. The aim of any mindfulness technique is to achieve alert, focused relaxation by maintaining a nonjudgmental awareness of sensations and thoughts in the present moment. A basic mindfulness practice is a focus on breathing, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Observe thoughts and feelings that enter your consciousness during this time, and let go of them without judgment and return to your breath. Mindfulness practice allows us to be fully present in the moment, actively participating in our relationships and activities. If you find it difficult at first, you're not alone. Stick with it! Over time you will become more adept at being in the moment, and you will enhance the quality of your life.

  • Sleep
    • Sufficient sleep plays a critical role in managing stress. Poor sleep increases stress, impairs mood, and compromises health. Maintaining healthy sleep habits can be extremely challenging in a college environment, yet it can make all the difference in one's ability to cope with stress. Following are tips for maintaining healthy sleep habits:

      • Try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This will help your body and mind get into a solid sleep/wake schedule.
      • Develop a relaxing bedtime routine and stick to it.
      • Avoid caffeine in the latter hours of the day.
      • Like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant. Avoid use in the hours before bedtime.
      • While alcohol may cause sleepiness in the short term, it also disrupts REM sleep and can cause awakening during the night. Avoid using alcohol as a sleep aide.
      • Use your bed for sleep and sex only.
      • Avoid eating large meals close to bedtime.
      • Minimize fluid intake in the last few hours before going to bed.
      • Exercise regularly. Strive to complete workout at least two hours before bedtime.
      • Keep your bedroom cool. A warm room will disrupt your sleep.

      Learn more about sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.