Managing Stress: What Students Should Know
Think of stress like holding a five-pound weight. It doesn’t take much effort at first, but after a few hours, holding the weight will take its toll.
While the amount of weight hasn’t changed, its impact on the person holding it changes exponentially over time. This is the metaphor Dr. James Deegear, associate director of clinical services at University Health Services, uses when he speaks to students at Texas A&M University about managing stress. If it’s not managed properly, a person’s coping resources can start to deteriorate over time.
The ability to identify and regulate stress is an important skill most students will need to learn during college, Deegear said. According to a recent Gallup poll, 72% of female U.S. college students reported experiencing stress when surveyed about their daily emotions. Stress was reported by 56% of male students.
“When students visit University Health Services, they fill out a questionnaire about what they’re experiencing,” said Deegear, a licensed psychologist. “The data shows stress as the highest reported concern among 68% of students. I have a hard time picking up a conversation with a student that doesn’t involve dealing with stress somehow.”
Everyone faces stress, and as difficult as it might be, “it doesn’t define who you are,” Deegear said. “You can get through this. It’s just so important to take care of yourself and be proactive.” It’s a message that’s also central to the university’s mental health campaign, No Aggie Stands Alone.
Identifying The Source
Naming what’s causing the stress is the first step students need to take toward better managing their emotions.
Deegear said he commonly hears from students who say they face difficulty with the demands of keeping on top of their grades, managing their schedules and communicating with professors. This can be especially stressful for first-generation students, said Jan G. Padilla, a health educator with University Health Services.
“There’s the pressure of succeeding in school and being a good student,” Padilla said. “High school is very different from college, and adjusting to class sizes can cause anxiety and stress.”
Once students identify where their stress is coming from, they can then start to take proactive steps, Deegear said.
“We can look at what we need to deal with right now versus what can be pushed down the road a little bit, kind of organizing the stress,” he said. “And then there needs to be a focus on self-care – how are you taking care of yourself to best deal with these things?”
Healthy Coping Strategies
Deegear said it’s important to avoid turning to maladaptive habits, like spending large amounts of time on social media, avoiding responsibilities, staying in bed all day and eating poorly. In students, sleep is often sacrificed when they start feeling stressed, which Deegear said only compounds the problem.
“Focus on basic things like eating habits, hydration and exercise,” he said. “You have to have those present in order to counterbalance the stressors that are coming your way.”
He also recommends journaling as a tool for regulating stress.
“I teach students that when you can make it concrete and write your feelings down, it helps organize it in your brain, frees up some energy and gives you something defined to find a way to address,” Deegear said. “That can be one way to help reduce the impact of that five-pound weight while also giving you some energy to continue managing the weight that remains.”
Padilla recommends reducing screen time, including social media. These “mental health breaks” can be a time when students can be more mindful and listen to their bodies. Not only are students often glued to technology, they’re often also distracted by extracurricular activities and social commitments.
“Students can learn to say ‘no,’ because committing to too many things can lead to stress, anxiety and burn-out,” Padilla said. “As an example, I personally like to disconnect from any technological devices (phones, watches, earphones) to listen to my body, go for a walk or connect with nature.”
He also educates students about the benefits of practicing meditation and yoga for just a few minutes each day. Padilla said he recommends blocking out 30 minutes per day for self-care.
“Set a time for yourself where you’re not doing something related to school or work,” he said. “It’s about ‘me time,’ and 30 minutes is very doable to just take a break for yourself.”
University Health Services also plans events throughout the year that give students the opportunity to relax. On Nov. 29 from 12-2 p.m., students can take a break ahead of finals to pet some dogs at the Zachry Engineering Education Complex.
“University Health Services wanted to find a way to relieve stress, because stress can impact performance as well as mental and physical health,” said Jo Ann Culpepper, associate director of Allied Health Services with University Health Services. “Petting a dog has been found to lower the stress hormone cortisol while increasing oxytocin, the hormone that makes you feel good. University Health Services cares about the students’ academic experiences and wants all students to be well so they can do their best.”
Several therapy dogs will be in attendance at the 12th Paw event for students to pet.
“It’s a great opportunity to just have a relaxing time with these furry friends,” Culpepper said.