According to many recent research articles, the most common reason that people seek medical or psychological attention is due to stress. Some studies estimate that up to 90% of doctor's visits are for symptoms that are at least partially stress related! As a psychologist in the UMD counseling center, it is certainly my experience that many college students struggle to manage stress effectively and seek help in ameliorating the negative effects of stress on their minds and bodies. Because of this, I have put together this brief article on stress: some health problems that can be caused by it, some things that increase it, some ways to decrease it, and even some ways that small amounts of it can be helpful.
One of the ways that people realize they have too much stress in their lives is by noticing physical or mental health problems. Because chronic stress leads to an over activated autonomic nervous system, a variety of these issues can ensue. The first symptoms of chronic stress tend to be relatively mild and include tight muscles, nausea, chronic headaches, and increased susceptibility to colds. Further exposure to chronic stress has been linked to more serious health problems including (but not limited to): depression, diabetes, hair loss, heart disease, hyperthyroidism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder, sexual dysfunction, and ulcers.
Given this profoundly unpleasant set of symptoms, it seems natural to ask, what causes all of this stress to begin with? While it is certainly true that stress can be caused by external events (such as moving, changing jobs, changes in relationships, loss, etc. ), it is also caused to some degree by our thoughts and attitudes. (It is certainly made worse by negative thoughts and attitudes. ) Some of the thoughts/attitudes that contribute to stress include: having a Type A personality (i.e. being hostile, controlling, perfectionistic), negative self-talk (i.e. mentally telling oneself, "You can't do this", "You never do anything right", "No one will ever love you", etc. ), poor conflict resolution skills (which leads to increased relationship difficulties), general pessimism, and the tendency to over commit.
So how do we reduce our stress? While it may sound simple, changing the thoughts and attitudes that we've developed over a lifetime isn't easy and sometimes requires professional help. But there are things that you can do on your own to reduce your stress level as well. First, you can pay attention to the way you talk to yourself internally. Are you being negative? Assuming the worst? Try changing these self-messages to something more positive. In addition to changing thought patterns, if you're finding yourself very stressed and overwhelmed you can interrupt your stress response by doing things like: taking a walk, taking a few long, slow, deep breaths, taking a mental break (shifting your mental focus to something other than what's stressing you), reframing your situation (i.e. "Even though I feel awful about this break-up right now, maybe it's better that we're apart since there are some ways that we weren't right for each other. "), or using some kind of relaxation exercise like guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation. If you don't know how to do these relaxation exercises, ask for help from a professional.
And taking care of yourself and reducing your stress isn't just something that you do in the moment that you're stressed; you can actually create a low-stress lifestyle for yourself. This includes things like regular exercise, regular "down-time", paying attention to your body and what it's telling you, eating well, setting boundaries in relationships, maintaining social support, finding fun distractions, keeping a positive perspective, and getting professional help if you need it.
One thing to remember is that not all stress is bad. Small amounts of acute stress (like the kind of stress you might feel just prior to an exam) can actually help you focus and motivate you to study more. The kind of stress you might feel when starting a new relationship can help you be more attentive to your partner and more excited to see him/her. There is also the kind of stress that helps us get away from dangerous situations. This stress activates the fight or flight response and actually saves our lives. So while chronic stress can be unhealthy, acute stress can be helpful.