banner by Sarah Burns
Tips and Tricks to Help Manage Your Stress
by Ashley Frye
A single word is all it takes to increase a college student’s stress levels. Just thinking about your three exams, the paper you have to write, the club meetings you have to attend and everything else expected of you as a college student can cause your heart to pound, palms to sweat and adrenaline levels to shoot up. Getting stressed out might seem inevitable, but is there a way we can control it?
Stress is a largely physical response to emotional and mental strain as a result of challenging or demanding situations. It is the human ‘fight or flight’ response that causes the release of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, hormones that prepare one to take physical action. For this reason, stress was actually a resourceful tool for our ancestors, as they were prepared to either escape dangerous situations or tackle them head on. However, stress can become a problem for us today. Chronic stress can weaken immune systems, increase blood pressure, elevate the risk of cardiac arrest or stroke and harm the digestive system. A little stress can be good to motivate us to accomplish our goals, but how do we control the line between eustress and distress?
Positive thinking can be a great tool in the face of stress, but according to a study at New York University (NYU) in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, envisioning a productive and successful week ahead of time can actually diminish energy levels and in turn add to your stress. This 2011 study requested students to journal about a stressful week during the weekend prior. The experimental group was asked to envision a prolific week and the control group was asked to simply jot down thoughts or feelings about what the week had in store. Surprisingly, those who envisioned a more successful week actually accomplished less and reported feeling less energized than the control group did. This phenomenon seems perplexing: haven’t we always been told positive thinking can help you accomplish your goals?
It turns out that too much optimistic thinking can trick our minds into believing we’ve already completed the tasks we plan to do. By convincing ourselves what we are going to finish, we actually lower our potential and motivation because a small part of our brain feels like we are already done. This can actually increase stress levels because not only are you accomplishing less than you had hoped, your work begins to pile up as you finish less than expected each consecutive day.
Some researches advocate switching your focus to the difficulties or obstacles that will prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They advocate that the more you focus on what is in your way, the better prepared you are to overcome it. However, recent studies have demonstrated that this doesn’t work much better than overly optimistic thinking. A pessimistic view can be discouraging and lead to diminished productivity as well, so the best strategy for tackling a stressful week is being upfront and ‘real’ with yourself. Known as mental contrasting, researchers advise that envisioning yourself accomplishing what you want and then subsequently examining the challenges that stand in your way can increase productivity and energy levels, as individuals have a realistic view of what needs to be done and what may prevent it from occurring. The study done at NYU demonstrated that those who participated in this idea of mental contrasting actually “recovered from chronic back pain better, behaved more constructively in relationships, got better grades in school and even managed stress better in the workplace.”
Stop Checking Twitter and Don’t Respond to Your Texts
Smartphones. Everyone has one, and virtually every student keeps theirs on the desk next to them while they attempt to study. Many utilize their phones as a break or way to relieve stress for a couple minutes when they have exams, papers and projects to worry about. Dr. Richard Balding of the University of Worchester, however, maintains that our dependency on our cellphones and social media actually raises stress levels rather than decreasing them. Balding’s team of researchers directed a study that demonstrated that the more an individual checks their phone, the more their stress levels rise. Another study, done by Pew Research Center, found that those who check social media are 14% more likely to report experiencing stress, while those who do not check social media are 28% more likely to report they are not experiencing stress.
Additionally, those who view social media as a way of ‘improving their self-image’ or are concerned with how other people perceive them via social media are more than 4.5 times more likely to feel continuous stress. Research suggests that social media can cause individuals stress, however, that is not to suggest you do away with your Twitter and Instagram accounts altogether. Simply not checking them while you’re trying to study can boost productivity and lead to a less stressful week.
Change your Diet
The Harvard School of Public Health reported that greater than a third of participants in their 2014 study altered their eating habits when they were stressed or overworked. Does what we eat when we are stressed actually effect our stress levels in the immediate future? It turns out, it does. Foods with high concentration of either sugar or carbohydrates causes our blood sugar and hormone levels to fluctuate cyclically. Consequently, we feel better after eating these foods, yet proceed to crash and repeat. This poses the question of what should we eat when experiencing stress.
Dr. Joe Hibbeln, of the National Institutes of Health studies the connection between mood and omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids reduce the inflammatory response in our bodies, which essentially elevates the body’s readiness to respond to stress. They also cause the neurons in your brain to become more resistant to degradation. Seafood, flaxseed and chia seeds are all great sources of omega-3s. Additionally, Dr. Drew Ramsey of Columbia University promotes pumpkin seeds as a stress-reducing snack. They contain magnesium and zinc, which have been linked to strengthening the immune system and lowering anxiety. So next time you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try and reach for something more nutritious and use those comfort foods as a reward after your stress is gone!