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What is Stress?

Stress is the body’s reaction to a challenge. Though stress is often perceived as bad, it can actually be good in some respects. The right kind of stress can sharpen the mind and reflexes. It might be able to help the body perform better, or help you escape a dangerous situation.

Stress produces a physiological reaction in your body. Hormones are released, which results in physical manifestations of stress. These can include slowed digestion, shaking, tunnel vision, accelerated breathing and heart rate, dilation of pupils and flushed skin. This process is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. That is just what it sounds like: Our bodies are poised to either run away from the stressor or stick around and fight against it.

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three types of stress: acute, episodic acute and chronic.

Acute stressAcute stress is the most common form and is the result of recent or anticipated stressors. Acute stress can be both positive and negative. For example, the excitement before a fun event is a type of positive acute stress. Getting into a car accident is negative acute stress. As long as the acute stress doesn’t last for extended periods or occur too frequently, there is nothing wrong with suffering from acute stress. It happens to all of us, and it passes with time

Episodic acuteEpisodic acute stress is acute stress that occurs frequently. This is the kind of stress that continuously pops up, sometimes in a pattern. It is accompanied by worry and angst about things that are happening to you or around you. You might be especially prone to this is you have a “type A” personality, as you can have a sense of urgency and a need to get things done that might actually become overwhelming. Episodic acute stress is a recurring type of stress, happening over and over.

Chronic acute stressChronic acute stress can be thought of as never-ending stress that relentlessly wears away at you. If you don’t see an end in sight, if you are facing something that has no way out, then you are likely to begin suffering from chronic stress. This type of stress eventually begins to affect your health, and can lead to heart problems, strokes, or even cancer, among other issues. Chronic stress definitely requires reaching out for help.

Symptoms and Signs

There are four primary types of symptoms of stress: physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioral. Depending on the individual and the cause of the stress, the number of symptoms from each category can vary. The below chart will give an overview of types of symptoms that may be present in someone suffering from stress.

Physical Symptoms
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Involuntary twitching or shaking
  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Getting sick more often than normal
  • Reduced libido
  • Chest pain with or without tachycardia
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Fatigue
  • Flushed skin
  • Clenched teeth
  • Unusual changes in weight
Emotional Symptoms
  • Less than normal patience
  • Feelings of sadness and/or depression
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Restlessness
  • Reduced or eliminated desire for activities once enjoyed or regularly done
  • Irritability
  • Sense of isolation
  • Trouble coping with life’s issues
  • More frequent or extreme pessimistic attitude
Cognitive Symptoms
  • Impaired concentration
  • Trouble with remembering things, such as homework assignments or deadlines
  • Chronic worrying
  • Anxious thoughts or feelings
  • Reduced or impaired judgment
  • Impaired speech (mumbling or stuttering)
  • Repetitive or unwanted thoughts
Behavioral Symptoms
  • Change in eating habits
  • Change in sleeping habits
  • New or increased use of drugs, tobacco or drugs
  • Nail biting
  • Pacing
  • Abnormal failure or delay to complete everyday responsibilities
  • Significant change in school or work performance
  • Unusual desire for social isolation
  • Frequent lying
  • Trouble getting along with peers, such as coworkers, classmates or teachers

Causes of Stress

Living Away From HomeFor many students, college is the first time they have lived away from home or been away from their family for any significant period of time. Besides that, it’s a very unfamiliar environment. Everything is different – the food, the people and the living accommodations. Even though most students eventually get used to these new things without a problem, the first few weeks of college can create a stressful environment. This is true even if you are truly excited about the changes. Remember that even positive changes can induce stress.

There is also a change in the support environment. When there is a big test, bad day or confusing situation, family members and old friends are not readily available for support and if they are, it’s through a telephone or computer rather than in person. This can be tough to adjust to, especially during those first few months.

Academic Demands and Test AnxietyThis may be the most common long-term cause of stress for college students. After all, that’s why students go to college – to learn. When you don’t get the results you think you should get, or you feel pressured to get certain academic results, this can cause a lot of stress. For some students, college is the first time they are academically challenged. If high school was a breeze for you, college may be the first time you get a low grade on a test. Consequently, test anxiety may be experienced for the first time or with increased intensity.

Test anxiety is anxiety that usually comes before or during the taking of tests. The symptoms can be physical and mental and usually inhibit your ability to perform as well as you otherwise could.

Ways to manage or reduce the anxiety include:

STUDY AS MUCH AS YOU CAN. One of the causes of test anxiety is the fear that you didn’t study enough. By studying as much as you can, you can reduce this fear.

TRY TO MIMIC TEST TAKING CONDITIONS. It might be taking practice tests, studying in the same classroom or building where you will be taking the test or doing practice problems under timed conditions. These steps can help familiarize you to otherwise unfamiliar test taking conditions.

LEARN TO STUDY MORE EFFECTIVELY. Maybe it’s getting a tutor to help explain concepts, someone to double check your work or using something as simple as flashcards to study, but finding someone to help you study more effectively can make all the difference.

FIND WAYS TO CALM DOWN. What cools you down? Squeezing a stress ball? Taking deep breaths? Whatever relaxation technique you choose can help reduce the symptoms of text anxiety.

WATCH YOUR DIET. Eat well and eat properly. For example, too much caffeine can exacerbate the physical symptoms of test anxiety.

GET ENOUGH SLEEP. Research is clear that not getting enough sleep can impair one’s memory and reasoning abilities. The more clear-headed you are, the less anxious you will feel.

EXERCISE REGULARLY. Exercise can release tension, and the less tension you feel as you go into the test, the better off you might be.

MAKE SURE YOU HAVE PLENTY OF TIME. You’re worried enough about the test. No need to add more worry about being late and having less time to take the test as a result of unexpected traffic or a test location change.

FinancesIn addition to being on your own physically and maybe even emotionally, you may also be on your own financially. Everything from rent and food to gas and entertainment is now your financial responsibility. You might find that you need to take on a part-time job when you aren’t in class. Even if you have a scholarship or loan, or have a “full ride” that helps you pay for it all, there are still the required phone calls, questions, paperwork and deadlines that have to be met in order to ensure the funds keep coming.

Post-Graduate PlansAfter college is over, then what? That’s a huge question: Figuring out the answer is like laying out blueprints for the rest of your life. There are many stressors that can affect your plans, such as not having a job upon graduation, being forced to settle for a job you don’t really want, or struggling to get into graduate schools. On the other hand, you might land a great job, but the prospect of paying back student loans is now starting to hang over your head. Ultimately, the fear of the unknown can really make a huge difference in how much stress you feel about your post-graduate life.

5 School Stress Busting Tips

No matter where you are in the school journey, these tips can help you cope with and manage the stress that comes along with it.

GET PLENTY OF SLEEP.Not getting enough sleep impairs academic performance and makes it harder to get through the day.

THINK POSITIVE.Research has shown that positive thinking may improve physical well-being, produce lower feelings of depression and produce lower levels of distress.

HAVE A STRESS “OUTLET.”This could be a social activity like going out or participating in intramural sports, finding a hobby or joining a social club.

ENGAGE IN RELAXATION TECHNIQUES.This can include things like slowly counting to ten, meditation, thinking positive thoughts, visualization or playing with a stress ball.

TALK TO SOMEONE.Sometimes just talking about what’s stressful or having someone listen to your problems can drastically reduce stress.