This has been such a challenging semester, and we are hearing from students that they feel like their stress levels are at an all-time high, so we reached out to our friends in CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) for help. Dr. Kirsten Robertson has provided us with ideas for healthy ways to manage and reduce stress.
Life often feels a bit like a video game in which one challenge arises, you have to navigate it, and before long you are at the next obstacle. Unlike a video game, the real-life consequences of successfully navigating (or not) are much more tangible. So how do we manage stress when things feel overwhelming or chaotic?
Tip #1, Recognize Your Power to Choose: I can choose where to focus my attention and I can learn ways to manage how I interpret the situation. I can figure out what boundaries I may need to set, or what I need in order to feel safe. Even when things are at their worst and completely out of control, I can hone my ability to bring my attention back into the present moment.
Here is a helpful resource to find mindfulness activities that work for you!
Tip #2, Narrowing Focus: Instead of seeing all 100 things on my to-do list, I simply ask myself, “What is the next step? What do I need to do right now? And when I finish that, what is the next thing?” I narrow things down into small, manageable tasks. (Hint: this is what you’ve been doing in Success Coaching sessions all semester!) Pretty soon, I have made a small dent in the overall to-do list, but I kept my next steps small enough that I didn’t shut down completely.
Tip #3, Pushing Past a Moment of Panic: If you find yourself paralyzed from “the overwhelm,” take some deep breaths. Bring yourself into the present moment by noticing what is in the space you are in. If you are inside, what objects are around you? Can you hear anything? Smell anything? If you are outside, do the same thing. This brings you back from the fight or flight (or freeze) response and allows you to begin to figure out what that one small step needs to be.
Try this: Name 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, touch 3 things and notice how they feel, is there something around you can taste? Use your senses to bring you back to right here right now.
Tip #4, Self-Talk: When things get heated, what do you tell yourself? That you can never do it all? That you aren’t smart enough? That it’s too big or won’t matter? We all have an inner critic, but we don’t have to take what it says as truth. We can recognize those thoughts for what they are, simply thoughts, and we can challenge the ones that don’t serve us. Sometimes it helps to come up with a mantra, or a sentence you can repeat to yourself to challenge those critical thoughts. It can be as simple as, “I can do this,” “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” “I’m allowed to make a mistake. Just keep going” or it can be a favorite inspirational quote. If fight or flight is really intense, maybe it’s, “Right here, right now, I am safe.” What we say to ourselves makes a huge difference in how we feel and the actions we take.
Here is a resource with videos and guided meditations about self-compassion.
Tip #5, Self-Care: I often hear, “I’m too busy to _________ (exercise, take a break, be still, etc.).” What many people don’t understand is that self-care fills up our emotional gas tank. If we are empty, we can’t keep running. This shows up as difficulty focusing, lack of concentration, burn out, and mental fog. If we are empty it could take 2 hours to read the same page over and over trying to absorb the information. However, if you had taken the hour to do yoga, meditate, or whatever fills you up, chances are you would do the task quicker and more efficiently. We have to have balance. We need to do things that “fill us up” or give us energy, so then we have a reservoir for all the tasks that require it. If we have too much or too little of either of those things (having a lack of meaningful activities can be just as bad as having too many) we don’t function well. The first thing you have to do is identify what activities fill you up. For me it’s listening to an inspiring podcast, exercising, journaling in a quiet spot, or a hot bath with candles and aromatherapy. Once you know what yours are, make time for them. I challenge the “I don’t have time for that” excuse with, “You don’t have time not to.”
Tip #6: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Sleep: Our body is a brilliant and amazing machine, but it needs good fuel to work at its optimal performance. Our mood, ability to concentrate, and how we feel can all be impacted by what we put into our bodies. If you have only had energy drinks and sweets for the past week, your body will start to feel it. Take time to enjoy a wholesome and nutritious meal to set yourself (and your body) up for optimal performance.
Check out this link for additional information.
The same goes for exercise. You don’t have to do intense workouts (unless you want to), but our bodies were built to move. When we exercise, our brains produce neurotransmitters that achieve the same effects as some anti-depressants. Find something that is enjoyable to you and do it regularly (ideally 30 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week).
Lastly is sleep. Without it, we can have a hard time thinking straight, and if we go long enough without it, we can feel an abundance of physical and mental health symptoms. These can range from symptoms of depression, anxiety and even things like hallucinations or other symptoms of psychosis. There are many excellent ways we can get our sleep back on track if it has gotten out of balance somehow.
Check out this article about sleep hygiene. If you have tried these and still have issues, I encourage you to seek professional help to learn ways and get the proper treatment to improve your sleep.
Final Tip, It Takes A Village: Humans are social creatures. We need community made of people that see us, accept us, and support us. If you don’t already have a solid support system, remember that you can shape your community. Here is TU’s Student Organizations page, which is a great place to start. Think about something you love and find others who love it too. Start there. It can be scary to not know anyone and temporarily get out of your comfort zone, but the payoff of having community is worth it.
I want to recommend two documents that go into more depth about some of the things I have covered. In each of these, there are great resources and worksheets to help you manage stress: Coronavirus Anxiety Workbook and Election Stress Resource Guide (but the tips and tools are for all kinds of stress, not just COVID or the election.) As you develop your ability to become stress resilient, may these skills bring you a lifetime of success. And of course, we encourage you to check in with CAPS staff any time you feel it might be helpful! You can schedule an appointment here.