By Mooney Niu, Mental Health Counselor
with Alison Fung, Marketing Coordinator

Understanding Stress

If you’ve felt the familiar sensation of your heart pounding, breath quickening, muscles tensing and sweating, you’ll know these are common reactions to stress, and are collectively also known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

This response evolved as a survival mechanism, and allows humans and animals to react quickly in dangerous situations. These reactions and changes in the body occur so quickly that the brain doesn’t get a chance to process what is happening, which is why people can jump out of the way of a speeding car without consciously processing their actions. However, our bodies can also overreact to non-life-threatening situations, such as urgent deadlines, a heavy workload, or an argument with friends or family.

According to research, chronic stress is a contributing factor to high blood pressure, clogged arteries, and mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and addiction. More recent research suggests that chronic stress may give rise to obesity, both directly (causing people to eat more) and indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).1

 

Identifying the Sources of Stress

Sources of stress might be categorized into four groups:

What Does Stress Look Like?

There are three main ways stress can manifest itself:

Behavioral:

  • You might feel irritable or have angry outbursts. You may find you’re regularly getting into conflicts with others.
  • You might withdraw socially, not wanting to be near other people.
  • Your appetite may change – you may either over- or under-eat.
  • Your memory may worsen, concentration may be difficult, and your grades may start to suffer.

Emotional:

  • Anger or frustration may be frequent emotions.
  • Sadness and crying can also be common when you’re stressed.

Physical:

  • Mental stress can manifest in your body! High blood pressure, heart palpitations, headaches, stomachache, and nausea may arise due to stress.
  • Stress can also cause sleep problems; you might have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or you might sleep too much.

9 Tips to Manage Stress

Mental health counselor Mooney Niu recommends the following tips to help deal with stress.

In a moment of stress

1. Breathe!

Take deep breaths into your belly, not your chest. Start with two seconds per inhale and exhale, and add one second for each round of breaths until you reach six seconds. Continue to breathe with six second inhales and exhales until you can feel able to refocus.

2. Be mindful

Try a mindfulness exercise. It only takes a minute or two! Grab a snack or even a glass of water. Focus on the texture and taste. Direct your mind to be in the moment, taking you away from the stressful situation and pulling you into a completely unrelated sensory experience. Once you’ve taken this break, you can find some clarity and space from whatever situation has stressed you out.

3. Focus on reality

It can be easy to spiral into negative self-criticism or fatalistic thoughts when things don’t go your way. For example, you may think, “I did poorly on this presentation…that means I’ll never be able to be an entrepreneur because I’m a terrible public speaker who fails every time she gets in front of a crowd.” Pull yourself out of the spiral and get real with yourself! Look at the facts and don’t let pessimistic extrapolations cause you to feel stressed. Think about what you can control and what actually happened, not what could happen.

In the public speaking example, you can remind yourself that yes, you didn’t do you best. Maybe this means you’ll need to work harder to get an acceptable grade on future assignments or tests. Maybe this means you’ll need to do more preparation or come up with new strategies to rehearse before your next speaking opportunity. These are the practical, logical thoughts you should focus towards, not getting down on yourself or getting worked up about things that haven’t yet happened.

Planning to avoid stress

4. Create routines for yourself

Having clear, daily routines reduces anxieties associated with the new and unexpected. Of course, you should still allow for some flexibility, but sticking to a simple routine requires less mental energy, provides a sense of stability, and produces less stress caused by the unknown. Include things like setting our your clothes and packing your bag the night ahead to give yourself an easier start to the day.

5. Break down tasks to become more manageable

Instead of feeling overwhelmed and pulling an all-nighter last-minute to write an entire term paper or revise in one sitting, break down the essay or studying into smaller, more manageable pieces, and tackle each one by one.

6. Recognize the role your own thoughts can play in causing you distress

We often set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, or have those expectations placed on us by external pressures. By setting unattainable goals for ourselves, we set ourselves up to fail and cause unnecessary stress. Recognize when goals are unrealistic, and stop holding yourself to standards that cause you stress!

7. Focus on the goal

Related to the above tip, setting realistic, achievable goals can help to motivate and energize you. Write them down and make plans towards them. Having many vague thoughts of things you want to achieve without the steps laid out can cause you stress!

Good anti-stress habits

8. Avoid words like “never” or “always” when talking about yourself or others

Take for example the following: “I’m never going to pass this exam!” or “You always leave the dishes in the sink!” Speaking in absolutes implies there is no room for change or improvement. And using these kinds of generalizations when talking to other people immediately puts them on the defensive, encouraging more of the anger and conflicts associated with stress. Don’t make your stress contagious!

9. Translate expectations into desires

Expectations come with a certain sense of entitlement (e.g. “I expect to get a scholarship to this program”), with only one outcome in mind, and when something you expect to happen doesn’t, you are disappointed and feel let down. Desires and hopes, on the other hand (“I hope I get a scholarship to this program!”), are more open-ended, and come with the knowledge that an event may or may not happen. When you are hoping something will happen, and it does, it feels like a gift. When it doesn’t happen, you are less disappointed, because you have mentally prepared for that eventuality.

By understanding stress and learning some coping techniques, you can feel more in control and improve your mental wellbeing. Good luck!

For more information, or if you would like to talk with Mooney or another counselor at ELG, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!

 

1. “Understanding the stress response,” Harvard Health Publishing, March 2011, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.