Self-Help for Stress

Stress is the physiological and psychological response of the body to some sort of threat to our safety, self-esteem, or well-being. Stressors can be physical (e.g., illness), social (e.g., a relationship breakup or other loss), circumstantial (e.g., a poor exam grade or moving), or psychological (e.g., low self-esteem or worry). Often, changes such as a new semester or new job can bring on stress.

We are all under stress every day. A certain amount of stress helps us all function better, keep ourselves safe from threatening things, and get things done during the day. Too much stress, however, leads to feeling physically ill and difficulty concentrating.

Symptoms of Stress

Everyone responds to stress in different ways. What might be stressful for one person may be another person’s hobby. In a similar way, everyone reacts differently to stress. Some common stress reactions include:

  • muscle tension, soreness in the back, shoulders;
  • stomach troubles or digestive distress;
  • difficulty falling asleep, waking early;
  • increased heart rate or difficulty breathing;
  • fatigue or exhaustion;
  • lack of interest, boredom;
  • engaging in destructive behaviors (e.g., drinking too much, overeating);
  • inability to concentrate; and
  • avoidance or fear of people, places, or certain tasks.

These symptoms may also be caused by conditions other than stress. In addition, stress can lead to more serious problems, including depression, anxiety, hypertension, and other illnesses. If symptoms persist or if stress becomes too much for you to manage on your own, it is important to see a qualified health-care provider.

Managing Stress

  • Think about possible causes of your stress and be active in reducing it. Small shifts in your thinking, behaviors, or breathing can make a very big difference.
  • Reduce time in stress-producing situations. Consider reducing the number of commitments you have. Try to look for places where you can avoid inviting stress.
  • Engaging in some regular exercise has been shown to alleviate the impacts of stress. Choose an assortment of tension-building and tension-releasing exercises, even small doses help.
  • Examine if the way you are thinking about your life (e.g., perfectionist thinking) is adding to or decreasing your stress. Are there other ways to think about the situation that are less stress-inducing?
  • Engage in activities you enjoy and give you an outlet for thinking about other things.
  • Find your own optimal stress-relievers. Is it changing your thoughts? A physical activity? A social occasion? Look for healthy ways that help you to feel less stressed and do them!
  • Find other people who can relate to your experience. Do stress-busting activities together!
  • Take good care of your body. Eat well, get enough sleep, and avoid alcohol and drugs, which can increase stress.
  • Use self-relaxation techniques like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualizing relaxing places (see below).
  • Chronic stress can have long-term effects on health and well-being, so if symptoms are prolonged or severe, it is important to get outside support.

Some effective relaxation techniques to get you started:

  • Try deep breathing exercises. Lay or sit in a comfortable position with your muscles relaxed and take a few deep breaths. Work towards breathing in to a slow count to five. Exhale slowly. Rely on this technique when you start to feel stressed.  If you get distracted by your thoughts, return your attention to your breath and the counting.
  • When your body feels tense, take three minutes to sit or lay quietly and focus on calming all of the muscles in your body. Begin with the muscles in your feet and slowly work your way up the body, relaxing all of the major muscle groups until your whole body feels at ease.  Sometimes it can help to imagine each muscle becoming heavy and limp.
  • After doing some breathing and muscle relaxation, or just taking time to rest, take a moment to calm your thoughts and visualize a peaceful place in your mind, either a place you have been or would like to go. Allow your body to relax more and your mind to become more calm. Recognize that you can go to that peaceful place in your mind and feel relaxed.
  • Listening to relaxing music while doing these techniques can help.  Just search for ‘relaxation music’ or ‘meditation music’ on YouTube.

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