We all feel stressed sometimes. Maybe you’ve noticed your stress level rising as a homework deadline or exam week approaches. Or maybe you have just begun studies and are wondering if you’ll find your place at the school with new friends in your first year. Possibly you’ve felt pulled for some time now in conflicting directions between studies, work and human relationships
Stress is a part of life, and few if any get through university studies without feeling stressed out at some point. Moderate stress, in the best cases, can help us to accomplish things and achieve our goals. When the level of stress is in balance, one can usually the amount of sleep and free time needed in order to recover. For some students, however, stress may be prolonged or almost never-ending.
It is important to recognise your own state of stress and find ways to recover from stress that work for you. Long-term (or chronic) stress can undermine our well-being in many ways. Stress can also impact our performance in studies, and continual levels of high stress is associated with a poor success rate in studies. This self-study material is meant to provide you with tools for becoming aware of your own stress and help you unwind and recover from it.
The self-study material consists of two main sections and one supplementary section:
Section 1. ‘Stress: How to recognise it’. In this part, we go through what stress actually is and how it can be identified. The section tells how stress affects the body, mind, emotions and behaviour. The section gives you a chance to reflect on what warning signs apply to you in particular to let you know when your stress level is high. The section also talks about the connection between stress and alertness and how to listen for and perceive your own state of alertness. Supplementary material is also available; it tells about how stress affects brain functioning and the processing of information.
Section 2. ‘Recovery and resources’ uses exercises to look into your own stress, recovery and resources in more detail. To start off, you make an inventory of what kinds of demands may be factors behind your stress. Then you explore further the kinds of emotions that stress causes, and whether a background factor is that you are living a life that perhaps does not correspond to your own values. The exercises include opportunities to think about your strengths and resources as well as the kinds of methods you use in daily life to recover.
The final section contains questions to help you draw together what you have learned about your own stress, recovery and resources over this course of self-study. The questions will help you to see whether you should go through some parts of the material again and what aspects of managing stress you should pay particular attention to in the future.
Stress management is an art that improves with practice. Stress management can give you skills that you can use after graduation in your working life. So why not learn about your own stress and get training in this highly important life skill.
Stress is the experience of one who faces challenges and demands that seem exceed the resources they possess. The person feels it very difficult to rise to all the challenges and demands put upon him or her. The demands may be set by others, but often we create them ourselves. Stress always relates to an interpretation in one’s own mind of the given situation, and and different situations are stressful for different people. Our prior experiences may affect how perceive situations as threatening or what situations trigger in us a stress response. Have you felt stressed out by a coming math test, for example, while a friend in the same situation felt confident and relaxed? Agreeable things may also cause stress if they involve change, as situations of change often test our resources and ability to adapt. Moving to a new place to study may induce stress, even if you are looking forward to it.
Stress is associated with changes in the body, thoughts, feelings and, often, how we conduct ourselves. The ability to recognise stress is important as detecting the signs of mental and bodily stress are key to managing it. Let’s begin with an exercise.
Task: Where do you notice stress?
Stress has many universal effects and most of the people can recognize them. However, some effects of the stress are very variable and personal. That's why it is important to reflect and wonder which signs tell you that your stress level is up. What kind of signs of stress can you notice:
1. In your body
2. In your thoughts
3. In your emotions4. In you behaviour
You can now take a pen, divide a paper into four sections and write down the signs of the stress you just thought of. Or even draw a mind map of the signs of your stress. Visualization usually helps us to see the big picture better.
Fight or flight or freeze
Stress occurs when we interpret some thing or situation as a threat. The amygdala is a part of the brain that turns on when stress hormones enter the circulation and activate the sympathetic nervous system. Changes occur in our bodily system prepare us to fight or to flee a threatening situation, including shallow breathing, increased heart rate, sharpened senses and sweaty palms. This reaction is called the fight-or-flight response, and it is a natural animal response to danger. Fight-or-flight has evolved as a response to ensure survival. It serves us well at moments when a rapid response is needed. It was a very valuable mechanism for our remote ancestors as it prepared the body to give its best when, for example, a lion was near. More recently, ‘freezing up’ has been added to the fight-or-flight model.
Fight-or-flight affects our brain: the mind becomes acute so it can make fast decisions and direct our actions to be very direct and straightforward. For the new student, an impending deadline or an email delivery sound in the middle of studying for a test may trigger a stress reaction. At times, stress may give the student the final boost of energy needed to get an essay done in time. Alertness related to a fight-or-flight reaction is not, however, conductive to deep reflection. The feeling of urgency related to stress is no help at all in situations like having to study for an exam, memorise new information and connect it with previously learning, or weigh the significance of some new knowledge.
Stress can become detrimental, particularly when prolonged or when one’s fight-or-flight response gets stuck in the ‘on’ position for longer periods. Long-term or chronic stress is associated with a number of physical symptoms, typically neck-shoulder strain, headache, high blood pressure, fast irregular heartbeats, stomach ailments, recurring cold symptoms and back pains. Long-term stress also increases the risk of study burnout, which makes it vitally important to regularly break any cycle of continued stress by getting enough ‘downtime’.
Tunteet, ajatukset ja käyttäytyminen stressitilassa
Often related to stress are negative feelings such as anxiety, irritability, frustration, or feeling low. You may be for example snapping to your friends more than usually or notice how even the smallest misfortunes cause you strong frustration. When stressed, one’s thoughts can turn negative and intrusive, for example, one may be constantly thinking ‘I am never going to get through this exam’. It may be difficult to get your thoughts off studies or work after the workday or study day ends, and you may think constantly even in your free time about the things you have to get done. The cycle of negative thinking may be hard to stop. You might notice this at night if, when going to bed, the things you have to take care of are going around and around in your mind. When that’s the case, it may be hard to fall asleep. Sleep difficulties are a common sign of stress.
When stressed, we often behave in ways different than otherwise. One person my eat unhealthy snacks, another may skip exercise, while another may spend the whole day studying without a break for an examination. At times such times some of the methods that are generally thought to alleviate stress may actually increase it. However, by not using the ways that actually help us to recover and support our well-being, we are sawing the branch we’re sitting on. Therefore, it is important to be aware of how you tend to act when stressed and what you do to alleviate the tension.
Time to reflect: What kind of situations can you remember from this week when you have felt stressed? Have you noticed any situations during this week when stress has been helpful for you?
Stress and alertness
Stress is connected to states of alertness. When stressed out, one’s state of alertness may be too high (hyperalert) or too low (hypoalert). The best help is to find and maintain the optimal state of alertness for studies.
Hyperalertness is a condition that many of us recognise. You feel restless and wound up or it may feel like you’re in overdrive. Concentrating on studying is difficult and you may notice that for all the different tasks you started, you didn’t accomplish a thing in the end. You may have recurring intrusive thoughts when studying for a test; you notice after a moment that others things keep barging in to your thinking and you find yourself doing something completely different. You may spend an inordinate amount of time polishing up a small detail of an essay, so the work doesn’t progress towards its target as it should. People in states of hyperalertness may stop listening to their own needs and forget to eat and take breaks. One may end up paying later for study days when there are no breaks to recover during the day. When studying at university, periods of being busy often come in waves, for example, when deadlines and examinations are near. It is particularly at these times that the risk of hyperalertness increases.
On the other hand, a person in a prolonged state of hyperalertness may drop into a state of underalertness (hypoalertness). A consequence of the chronic tension is that the body and mind just take the rest they demand. Hypoalertness is like the body and mind putting itself into a power saving mode. The individual acts as though on automatic pilot, lacking the energy to make active decisions. Hypoalertness is marked by trouble beginning or get anything accomplished. You feel weary and many times apathetic or distracted. Your mood is low and you lack the energy to interact with others; you just feel like withdrawing, being alone and going home to rest. For example, after finishing a long day being hyperalert at the university, the student may spend the rest of the evening lying down and even the smallest home chores can seem insurmountable tasks. Avoiding prolonged states of hyperalertness is the best way to avoid getting into a state of hypoalertness.
Time to reflect: Can you think of some moments from this week when your level of alertness has been just optimal? Which factors and ways of acting helped you to maintain your alertness in optimal level?
Checking in and listening to your own body, you may learn to better identify and control your own levels of alertness. Let’s continue by doing the following task:
Stress occurs in situations where we feel that our available resources fail to meet the demands put upon them. The section provides opportunities to reflect on ways to find a balance between the demands of a situation and the resources you have available. Can you influence the demands put upon you? Can you increase your resources?.
You have now gone through this self-study material and hopefully learnt something about your stress. What new things did you observe?
In Section 1, we focussed on what stress was and learnt to recognise your ways of reacting to stressful situations. By learning to recognise the first signs of stress, you can prevent it from developing into harmful stress. What does stress mean in your life? How do you know you are stressed? Did you learn some ways to perceive your own stress?
In Section 2, we did some tasks to help identify the demands behind your stress, the resources you have and how you can support your own recovery.
Now you have learned something new or maybe remembered something you already knew about stress and stress management. If you feel that you need more support for stress management, you can contact Aalto psychologists.