Stress

Stress is the body's response to environmental demands. In general, when environmental demands exceed your ability to cope, it creates stress. Being in college can be extremely stressful, because there are constant demands on students to adjust and change. You may be on your own for the first time, you are balancing the demands of your course work with an increased number of day-to-day responsibilities. You're meeting new people, adjusting to a different living environment, perhaps juggling a job and trying to determine your life course all at the same time. You might also experience other stressors including roommate problems, test anxiety, deadlines, midterms, finals, relationships, and your parents.

Some stressors are sudden and severe, some are chronic and serious, some are positive changes that place pressure or demands on you, and still others are expectable life problems. But stress isn't always negative. Positive stress adds anticipation and excitement to life. Insufficient positive stress may leave us feeling bored. On the other hand, too much negative stress can leave us feeling overwhelmed.

The art of stress management is to keep yourself at a level of stimulation that is healthy and enjoyable - to create a balance of positive and negative stress that will motivate but not overwhelm you.

What is stress?

Stress generally refers to two different things: situations that trigger physical and emotional reactions (stressors) and the reactions themselves (stress response). A stressor could be taking a final exam, going on a date, having a confrontation with your roommate, and interviewing for a job. The stress response for any of these stressors could be that you feel nervous, anxious, tense, sweat profusely, or experience other physical reactions.

The body responds to stress by what is called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). The GAS occurs in three stages - alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. The fight or flight response is the most common type of alarm stage. This is when the sympathetic nervous system releases the chemicals epinephrine and norepinephrine, which prepare the body for action by increasing heart rate, breathing, alertness, and muscle response, and the hormone cortisol, which speeds up the body's metabolism. These actions get the body ready to confront a threat such as an alarming sound (fight) or escape from it (flight). The body usually adapts to a prolonged stressor, such as an upcoming final, by entering the stage of resistance. During resistance, the body's systems return to normal, but remain alert. Following resistance, the body enters exhaustion, at which point it can no longer resist the stressor. Repeated exposure to this response can cause mental and physical damage.

How do I know when I'm stressed?

Here's a quick test - place your hand on the back of your neck. If it feels cold against your skin, you're probably stressed out. Blood rushes to your muscles when you're under stress, leaving your hands cold. Other warning signs of stress include:

  • Out-of-proportion anxiety
  • Excessive moodiness
  • Withdrawal from responsibility
  • Constant insomnia
  • Poor emotional control
  • Marked change in appetite or sex drive
  • Chronic fatigue

These short-term physical symptoms mainly occur as your body adapts to perceived physical threats, and are caused by the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) during the alarm stage of the GAS. Long-term physical symptoms occur when your body has been exposed to adrenaline over a long period. Adrenaline works by diverting resources from the areas of the body which carry out body maintenance (such as your liver, kidneys and other organs) to the muscles. An example of prolonged stress might be that for the entire semester you and your roommate have not gotten along and you experience feelings of anxiety whenever you go back to your room. This stress may cause your health to deteriorate and it is common to experience frequent colds and infections, sexual disorders, aches and pains, feelings of intense and long-term tiredness, or a change in appetite.

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How do diet and exercise relate to stress?

A healthy lifestyle is an essential companion to any stress-reduction program. General health and stress resistance can be enhanced by regular exercise, a diet rich in a variety of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and by avoiding excessive alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco.

Exercise has been shown in studies to reduce feelings of anxiety, helplessness, hostility and depression, and to decrease muscle tension. Stretching and flexing the muscles of the neck, arms, shoulders, back, thighs, and midsection reduce the chance that these muscles will tighten up and produce common indicators of stress - headache, neckache, and backache.

The chemicals in coffee, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes can contribute to increased stress. Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and may promote even more nervousness and tension. Use of alcohol and drugs, a common way to deal with stress, can be addictive and tends to deal only with the symptoms of the problems. They mask the causes of stress without eliminating them. Smokers often report that cigarettes help relieve feelings of stress - however, the stress levels of adult smokers are slightly higher than those of nonsmokers, and smoking cessation leads to reduced stress. The apparent relaxant effect of smoking only reflects the reversal of the tension and irritability that develop during nicotine depletion.

How can I cope with stress?

There are many ways to reduce unwanted stress or manage it productively including:

Managing your physical and psychological well being

  • Have a positive attitude! Reversing negative ideas and learning to focus on positive outcomes helps reduce tension and achieve goals. If you catch yourself thinking negative criticisms like -- "I'll never get this assignment done! I'm a failure!" -- change your inner dialogue. Tell yourself "I'm intelligent and fully capable of getting this assignment done. I will schedule more time tomorrow to work on the assignment and complete it."
  • If you've had a serious illness or have had an emergency to respond to, remember that you can get an extension on a paper or other project. Don't be afraid to ask -- your professors and advisors are there to support you.
  • Tap into your support network. It can be a relief to realize others have had similar experiences - it helps us feel understood, capable, and nurtured. Friends, family, adult mentors (supervisors or professors), and Brown support providers (first-year unit counselors, faculty advisors or favorite instructors, chaplains, deans from the Dean of the College or the Student Life Office, staff from Psychological Services) are all good sources of emotional support. Sometimes just expressing our feelings, or venting, helps lower our stress.
  • If you can't discuss your feelings with your support network, express them some other way - write in a journal, write a poem, or compose a letter that is never mailed.

Monitoring your stress levels.

  • A helpful way of monitoring your stress level and identifying sources of stress is to keep a daily stress log. Note activities that put a strain on energy and time, trigger anger or anxiety, or precipitate a negative physical response. Also note your reactions to these stressful events. Review the log and identify 2 or 3 stressful events or activities that you can modify or eliminate.

Avoiding extremely stressful situations

  • Stress results when you feel overwhelmed by many things that need to be done at the same time. Plan around the things you find stressful to lessen the effects of stress. Managing your time effectively will even out your workload.
  • When working, focus on one thing at a time. Switching from one task to another without fully completing the first task allows for variety, but usually wastes time and causes confusion. Make a list and prioritize the things you need to get done. Start a new homework assignment only after you've completed an earlier assignment.
  • Don't be afraid to take a break when you are studying or writing a paper. Schedule it in! A 20-minute power nap can re-energize you for hours.
  • Know and accept your limits. Don't over-commit - learn to say no. If you really don't want to go to a performance Friday night with your roommate don't be afraid to say you're not interested this time. It is better to disappoint a person up front than with a last minute cancellation because you find yourself short of time.

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What are some simple relaxation techniques?

Relaxation is the natural unwinding of the stress response. Relaxation lowers blood pressure, respiration, and pulse rates. Combining several techniques, for example deep breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, meditation, and massage therapy can significantly lower stress levels. Yoga or tai chi can be very effective, combining many of the benefits of breathing, muscle relaxation, and meditation while toning and stretching the muscles. They also elevate mood and improve concentration and ability to focus.

Visualization involves the imagining of scenes that are relaxing and peaceful - this can help the body relax. Imagine yourself in a setting that is pleasantly relaxing. Guided relaxation (listening to relaxation tapes or having someone read a relaxation exercise to you) can be a pleasant way to relax. The Canyon Ranch site offers a series of guided meditations that you can try right now as you sit in front of your computer!

For more ideas about guided relaxation, you can go to the WebMD pages on stress management. 

What are warning signs I should get help to deal with my stress?

Signals that you are experiencing an overload of stress can range from a general feeling of the "blahs" to serious physical pain. Although most stress can be managed, it is important to obtain professional help before the situation is completely out of control. If you experience the following situations or feelings, you should seek out one of the many professional support resources on campus.

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Overreacting to minor problems
  • Inappropriate anger or impatience
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
  • Unable to relax
  • Constantly feeling anxious
  • Experiencing long periods of boredom
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Problems with sexual activity
  • Decreased school or work performance
  • Diminished ability to set priorities and make decisions
  • Prone to make errors or be accident prone

Physical symptoms:

  • Increased headaches
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Indigestion
  • Aching neck or back
  • Ulcers
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Teeth grinding
  • Muscle spasms
  • Skin conditions like acne and psoriasis

Stress can be a factor in a variety of physical and emotional illnesses, which should be professionally treated. You should consult your medical provider if you experience physical symptoms in the above list. Brown students can also consult a therapist from Psychological Services for unmanageable acute stress, high levels of anxiety, or depression.

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Campus Resources

Physical Education Classes 401.863-2211
The OMAC offers over 64 physical education courses are in the areas of aerobics & fitness, aquatics, martial arts & self-defense, dance, leisure sports, and yoga.

Brown Meditation Community
Weekly group meeting and almost daily group meditation sessions are offered in Manning Chapel. All are welcome.

Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Psychological Services offers one-on-one counseling and various groups and workshops.

Health Services 401.863-3953
Call to make an appointment with your medical provider if you are experiencing physical symptoms you believe are stress related.

Links You Can Use

Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA
Mindfulness meditation has been found to improve concentration, decrease anxiety and stress and increase creativity and flexibility in thinking. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA has several brief meditations you can download or listen to on the web.

Stretch at Your Desk
Princeton has developed a set of short videos on stretches that can increase flexibility and decrease stress, especially after studying for long periods of time. The videos include a timer to help you hold a stretch and they encourage deep breathing.

Sheridan Center Study Skills Page
The Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning maintains a list of resources and links to help improve study skills.

Dartmouth Academic Skills Center 

Stress Reduction Techniques
Learn the top 13 ways to reduce your stress, including breathing exercises, visualization and using a journal.

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Disclaimer: Health Education is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Education maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Education offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.