Stress Adversely Affects College Students’ Minds and Bodies

With the passing of spring break, FRCC students are more than halfway through the semester. A lot of work is already behind us and more is waiting. For me personally, this is a stressful time of year in a stressful period of my life. Stress feels like a wet blanket that envelops you; its weight feels suffocating and makes it feel as though we are navigating life in concrete boots. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case, as there are many highly effective methods for managing and reducing stress.

According to the University Health Center (UHC), which “exists to advance the well-being of students and other members of the University community in a way that supports academic success and student retention,” stress is defined as a response to a demand that is placed upon you.

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The website Everydayhealth.com, adds that stress occurs when your tension level exceeds your energy level, resulting in an overloaded feeling. In the article, J. David Forbes, MD, wrote, “As long as our available energy exceeds our tension level, then we’re in an okay state, but if energy is low and tensions are higher, then that can result in a state of anxiety, depression, and feeling overwhelmed.”

Stress is a physiological reaction that our bodies undergo when we are exposed to stimuli that alter our natural balance. When we find ourselves under stress, our body tries to correct this imbalance. According to Campusmindworks.org, an extension of the University of Michigan that provides information and resources about mental health issues for students, the body attempts to counteract the stress by releasing hormones. The energy the body requires to combat the effects of stress could otherwise be used for more beneficial purposes, such as to concentrate or fight off illness more efficiently. So, essentially, stress is a physical reaction within the body to a particular circumstance or demand.

Stress can be caused by either external or internal stimuli. As college students, we are exposed regularly to both of these forms of stress. External stress can look like a big paper or test on the horizon, struggling to meet your financial obligations or changes in your social life. Internal stress can be harder to recognize, as it is often a result of unmet expectations that we place on ourselves or others, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame. It’s important to recognize that stress can be caused by an accumulation of little things or by big events.

All people react to stress differently, some more efficiently than others, and all people have different levels of stress that they are able to handle healthily. The University of Michigan lists some of the many ways that stress manifests itself in students specifically. Common indicators include: difficulty concentrating, increased worrying, trouble completing assignments on time, not going to class, short temper or increased agitation, tension, headaches, tight muscles, changes in eating habits or changes in sleeping habits.

Many of these symptoms have short-term impacts on our lives. However, there can be more consequences to stress that affect us later in life. According to UHC, “The changes in your body (increased heart rate, higher blood pressure and muscle tension) start to take their toll, often leading to mental and physical exhaustion and illness. Too much stress can cause problems and affect our health, productivity and relationships.”

The Mayo Clinic reported that stress can cause health aliments, including heart disease, weight gain/obesity, digestive problems and even cancer.

While most stress should be avoided, some forms of stress can be beneficial, and the negative effects can be counteracted and kept in check.

Our bodies’ reaction to stress is actually an evolutionary response that has likely allowed our species to survive. Think of the stress that you may feel when a fire-alarm goes off, or you hear the bark of a menacing dog. The burst of adrenaline and cortisol that we receive as a result is a part of the response of our sympathetic nervous system, which is a phenomenon more commonly known as fight-or-flight.

Stress can also be used as a catalyst to finish papers or meet deadlines. “That extra burst of adrenaline that helps you finish your final paper, perform well in sports, or meet any challenge is positive stress. It is a short-term physiological tension and added mental alertness that subsides when the challenge has been met, enabling you to relax and carry on,” UHC wrote.

While there are countless causes of stress, there are also ample ways to reduce the feelings and effects, and, unlike some other health issues, many of them can be practiced on our own time and for little to no monetary investment. A lot of stress can be mitigated or eliminated through life-style changes and practices.

First, staying active can have many benefits besides just reducing stress, but even as little as 20 minutes of exercise a few times a week can help to offset some of the health concerns associated with stress mentioned above. Many forms of exercise take place outside, which is another tool for dealing with stress.

Spending time outside has so many benefits to our overall well-being, reducing stress included. A lot of research has emerged over the past few decades pointing to human’s biological need to be in natural environments. Many of us spend the vast majority of life, especially as students, in rooms that often don’t have windows and are artificially lit. Richard Louv, a psychologist studying the benefits of nature, stated, “A growing body of research links more time in nature — or in home, work or hospital environments enhanced through nature-based design — with reduction of stress and depression, faster healing time and less need for pain medication.”

Next, mindfulness and meditation are definitely buzz-words in our society today, but the practices have existed for thousands of years. The Mayo Clinic said, “Meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. Meditation produces a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. When you meditate, you clear away the information overload that builds up every day and contributes to your stress.”

Lack of sleep and poor nutrition, which is the reality of many college students’ lives, have adverse affects on our ability to handle stress, among many other detrimental health effects. Much of this can be attributed to lack of energy and nutrition, which lowers the resources we have to deal with things such as stress or illness. The over-consumption of caffeine can exaggerate both of these issues, as caffeine is a stimulant and an appetite suppressor. One of the biggest things we can do as students to reduce our stress and just generally perform better in school is to make sure we get enough sleep and provide our body with the nutrients it needs, both of which help fuel us.

Taking care of our body is also a way we can take care of our mind, as there is a correlation between the physical state of our body and the emotional state of our mind. I find that writing is a key tool that I use to deal with, and work through, stress. Talking to a trusted friend or family member can have similar benefits to writing as talking through your stress gets the problem out of your mind and allows you to see a problem in a different way as the other person can offer suggestions. Stopping the “analysis paralysis” that can occur when we are stressed and have events play over and over in our minds can go a long way to reducing stress.

Finally, ensuring that we build time in our busy lives for social events, activities that we enjoy and even just laughing can help offset some of the effects of stress.

Stress is a big and very real topic that is often under or un-addressed in our daily lives. Between school, work and often families, community college students likely have more demands placed on our time than the average citizen and this can lead to an increase in stress. Employ some of the stress-reducing methods to tackle the rest of the semester ahead.

Written by Alex Liethen

Photo from Mayo Clinic

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