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Stress and Anxiety

Stress probably won’t kill you now, but there is lots of evidence that stress does contribute to life-threatening ailments of mid or later life.  Why not now, as you are busy learning so much, learn also to deal constructively with or to overcome stress?  Why not learn habits of stress management, which can contribute to your productivity, health, and peace of mind for the rest of your life?

The basic physiological changes in situations perceived as stressful are based in positive survival instinct: adrenaline increases, hearing improves, eyes dilate, and focus sharpens.  These changes are helpful in immediate danger, but exhausting long term.  A little anxiety can enhance performance; too much is crippling. In neurotic conditions, anxiety can detach from its causative factors and become disproportionate, intense, free-floating, and chronic.

Reactions to stress are personal and vary greatly. They manifest in both physical and psychological symptoms. Stress not dealt with can lead to fatigue, sleeping disorders, eating disorders, migraines, stomach ailments, depression, alcohol abuse, etc.  The list of short-term complaints as well as long-term illnesses induced by stress and anxiety is a lengthy list indeed.

Leaving home and coming to college at an age earlier than the usual college student sets you up in several ways to encounter external and internal stressors.  You have left behind the family and friends who love you, and, if you are lucky, love you unconditionally. You have entered an intense community of peers who are at first complete strangers. You have to share a room with someone you do not know, someone who just might be irritating or incomprehensible.  Your diet and sleeping patterns may have changed suddenly and radically. You are facing intensified academic demands and are separated from the support group that has sustained you thus far.  Your college classes require more extensive reading than did your high school classes, and longer, more frequent papers of a deeper nature.  Your parents are paying a great deal of money for your education and you feel the obligation to do as well as possible, but high school was fairly easy for you and you may never have developed strong study habits.

Of course there are external pressures, challenges, life changes and heartbreak, but essentially stress is internal rather than external.  Everything depends on an individual’s reaction to perceived stressors.   Some people are exhilarated by the very same issues or circumstances which send other people into paroxysms of stuttering, sweating, teeth-grinding, or hysterical crying. Anxiety is a great continuum, most people have an anxiety level which appears somewhere along the spectrum.   At one extreme end of the continuum are people who experience “anxiety attacks” which can be so intense and physiological that the sufferer feels as if he or she is having a heart attack — sweaty palms, racing heart, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or dizziness.  These attacks are incapacitating and unnerving.

People have varying tolerances for pressure and worry.  Some people stay calm by living inside fortresses of denial.  Other people cultivate healthy living habits and very consciously work to overcome stress. Nutrition, sleep and exercise all factor strongly into healthy nerves and stress resistance.

It has been suggested that as a first step in managing your stress you keep a stress journal for a week.  Determine exactly what situations, individuals, types of tasks, or pressures you find most unsettling.  Make a list and rank the seriousness of each stress.  Use numbers or letters in a consistent system that enables you to compare the intensity of your various incidences of stress.  Once you have identified your most serious stressors, ponder them with pen in hand.  Brainstorm possible solutions, for instance: getting a tutor, studying time-management, ending an unhappy relationship, learning to delegate, consolidating some minor tasks, finding a therapist.  After careful consideration it might even be appropriate to drop a class that is beyond your current capabilities. Assess the feasibility of your various ideas and move ahead actively to solve the problems and limit your stress. 

A positive attitude helps minimize stress.  Banish any negative and self-defeating thoughts that sneak into your mind. Do not imagine failure or bash yourself for errors. Be aware that the negative thoughts have visited you, but each time you hear them, consciously banish them; replace them with positive thoughts.  The thought might be as simple as, “I’m going to do my very best on this, and whatever happens will happen and I will cope with that later.”  

Treat the outer voices of negativity just as you do the inner voices.  Avoid those acquaintances that for any reason undermine your forward moving energy and self-esteem.  Banish them or at least confront them asking, “Do you hear the negative message you are sending me?  That is not at all helpful.”

Set aside intervals in which you organize and plan your work.  Other than in these times, do not worry about the past or the future, but keep your focus on the current project to be accomplished.  As Baba Ram Dass would say, “Be here now.”

Beyond the practical and problem-centered solutions, relaxation techniques can be important tools in mastering stress. Meditation, massage, yoga and exercise, all with calming effects on body and mind, serve to keep you healthier generally.  Music, dance, art, tai chi, yoga, swimming, hiking, pleasure reading, and hobbies — all can be relaxing depending on the individual and that individual’s specific stressors.  

Avoid smoking, drinking, and doing drugs.  Some people swear that these activities relax them, but these indulgences are distractions that neither solve the stressor problems nor further realistic coping strategies.  Self-medicating stress very often initiates a downward spiral of wasting time, weakening health, increasing stress, and upping dosages.  Beware of those acquaintances that are floundering around with self-destructive patterns of self-medication.  They often seek company for the tornado of their downward spiral.

If you feel you have chronic stress or stress in combination with depression, it is important that you find a therapist with whom you can sort out causes and chart a way through.  You may need the help of a psychiatrist who can prescribe anxiety medications.  It is far more productive to learn to manage stress than to drug it away, but some people do have bonafide anxiety disorders that need treatment to ensure the individual’s health and safety.  Beware, however, of pharmaceutical company advertising that is designed to make us feel that we have GAD, generalized anxiety disorder, and that all our problems would be solved by paying for pharmaceuticals rather than by learning how to live healthy, balanced adult lives, steering among modern stressors with optimum productivity and good humor. 

“Stress is the trash of modern life - we all generate it but if you don't dispose of it properly, it will pile up and overtake your life.”  ~ Danzae Pace

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.  If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”  ~ Arthur Somers Roche

“Stress is an ignorant state.  It believes that everything is an emergency.”  ~ Natalie Goldberg

“Worry is a complete cycle of inefficient thought revolving about a pivot of fear.”  ~ Author Unknown

“Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weights you down.”  ~ Toni Morrison

“May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and anxiety never linger about you.”  ~ John O’Donohue

References and Resources for further study:  

Managing Your Stress and Anxiety  This website is particularly helpful.

Relaxation techniques: Learn ways to calm your stress.  

Stress and Stress Management.

Stress Management. 

Deep Breathing

Relaxation Techniques for Relief of Anxiety & Stress  Describes a variety of relaxation techniques, though not specifically for students.

Relaxation Techniques

Youtube has many relaxation videos with beautiful nature pictures and calming voices speaking to you.  There is a list of many on this site.  Try them. Real nature is far more calming than youtube nature, but the time investment in the latter is shorter if you are trying to study.

Anxiety Quotation Sources:

The Quote Garden