By Donovan Makus
In the last issue, we looked at what causes stress, the various theories behind stress response, and the biopsychosocial aspects of stress; however, we neglected one key element of stress–how to deal with it. This may not seem too urgent right now with reading week fast approaching, but for those of us who have midterms and work due right after the upcoming break, the stress is on. Stress is inevitable, but suffering from its negative effects is not. Through the application of our own personal experiences and academic research, we can learn to manage and work through our stressful life experiences.
As we saw the last issue, stress is subjective, varying in interpretation from person to person. To an extent, so do our management techniques. We all have different backgrounds, experiences, and biological makeup, and this means that while one stress management method may not work all that well for you, others may be a better fit, experimentation being necessary in order to find what works best for you. Thankfully for this process (though unfortunately for us in general), life tends to provide numerous stressors which we can use to test some of the following stress management techniques.
“No man is an island.” This statement, famously uttered by Englishman John Donne, is something to bear in mind when dealing with stress. We may experience stress on a personal level, but social supports are key to managing and working through stress. It’s difficult to say exactly why this is the case; however, there are two supporting ideas that may explain why. The first consists of the constant positives of social networks (in forms of mental and material support), and the second is the buffering perspective, which emphasizes the importance of social networks in easing stress. While the exact mechanism may be unclear, the importance of maintaining social networks is clear. It’s important to make time for friends and family even while under intense stress; I can personally say that the times of highest stress I’ve experienced occurred when my family went on vacation during an exam preparation period, with a new job limiting my opportunities to socialize with friends. If we’re far from our own family and in a new setting away from existing friendships, it can be difficult to build social networks. Thankfully, this does not have to be the case. Through programs such as the CSA’s Peer Support team and campus-wide social events, we can all take advantage of opportunities to build our social networks and, with time, our social support.
It seems like the first thing to suffer when obligations pile up is a healthy diet and exercise. On some level it makes sense–why wake up early for a morning run and spend time meal planning when you could use that time to work on what’s causing your stress? Yet the research is clear: reducing exercise and allowing unhealthy diet changes is not a good idea and does not help with stress. Regular exercise, in particular, has been shown to reduce stress levels and is associated with better overall physical and mental health, helping to buffer stressors. This may work through the release of exercise-related endorphins or through a form of sublimation; it’s a lot better to pound out frustration at the weight rack or on the treadmill than to let it simmer. Also falling under the rubric of health is ensuring your sleep levels are adequate. This is, of course, good advice to hear, but the application is a bit difficult, and I’ll confess I don’t always live what I write; my fitness tracker’s “sleep” graph regularly falls short of 100%, and when it’s 1:00 pm on a Friday and I’m on my 3rd cup of coffee and finishing off a Diet Coke, the caffeine buzz that’s held me up thus far starts to fade. Time management, another key part of stress management, can seem difficult to insurmountable depending on our level of busyness, but careful scheduling and planning can help us effectively manage our stress (and time) by providing us with a course of action.
While external measures such as exercise and diet play key roles in stress management, our internal processes also matter. Journaling and visualization can be worthwhile in helping us examine our own headspace and make beneficial changes if needed. After all, understanding why we feel stressed is the first part of responding to stress effectively. Reframing stressors is a key part of learning to manage them because, as we noted last issue, it’s our perception that matters for stress. While reframing a test as a challenge to be overcome rather than an impossible task may seem difficult, it is definitely helpful. While it may seem cheesy (and reminiscent of the lyrics of a thousand songs), the simple mantra of “just breathe” also helps. Taking deep breaths or practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation, have been shown to be related to stress relief. Changing our internal headspace isn’t limited to cerebral activities either as music can also play a key role in relaxation; research has shown music at around 60 bpm syncs with our brain activity and helps us relax. This is especially true for folk-style music, particularly Aboriginal and Celtic, as studies indicate that these genres provides a soothing effect. Given the amazing breadth of music out there, you can easily find a genre of relaxing music that suits you.
Active decisions and activities can also help with stress relief and management. Sometimes the key may be simply distracting ourselves from the pressures we feel, if just for a moment. It’s easy to feel guilty and tell yourself that it would actually be more effective to spend time working your way down your to-do list. However, rewards are huge for working through stress, so don’t forget to take some time for a break or to reward your efforts. One stressor may have passed, but new ones will appear sooner or later, and developing resilience is key to keeping your head up and feet moving.
Sometimes, what it may take is a complete retreat and rebuilding effort. General adaptive theory holds that, if stress persists for too long, we all may eventually reach a phase of exhaustion, where we are physically and physiologically incapable of continuing. It is in this moment that it becomes important to reach out for support and reevaluate why we’re on our current path and what motivates us. We all have life goals and plans for where we’re headed, and sometimes these plans have to change. This might mean saying “no” to opportunities, as difficult as that may feel. It can be easy to fall into a rat-race mentality where every moment not spent studying, working, or volunteering is a wasted moment–after all, good jobs are competitive, and someone out there wants the same thing you do, so why rest? But this attitude leads to constant pressure and stress, and we would be better served by remembering the importance of rest. Just because you could theoretically spend Thursday night volunteering doesn’t mean that you’ll be in the mental shape by Thursday to actively participate. Know your physical and mental limits, both short-term and long-term.
Finally, it’s important to emphasize that everyone is different, and while these strategies have been shown to work, they are not the be all and end all of stress management. There are some universal constants–alcohol and unprescribed drug use represent suboptimal coping mechanisms and should be avoided, but on the whole, it’s up to you to experiment and find what works for you. Also, it’s important to understand that when the techniques are not working, it is time to seek outside help. We may put on a facade of normality, but it’s not a sign of weakness to go visit a counselor or talk to someone about your stressors. Stress management requires experimentation because no one has all the answers. Having sat through my share of motivational conferences, I’ve heard a lot of “ship in a storm” and “iron in the fire” analogies, but in the end, there is some truth to these comparisons. Stress is inevitable, but suffering from stress does not need to be.