Stress is the boogeyman of high-achieving students everywhere, particularly now. But with conscious management, it can be a friend instead of a foe.
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Students at the George Washington University are no strangers to stress—and neither is anyone else.
“Stress is a naturally occurring part of life,” says Jessica Parillo, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the Colonial Health Center. “Having some amount of stress is adaptive and protective, because when it’s healthy, positive stress can push us to engage with the challenges and opportunities that are meaningful. But experiencing too much stress for too long can be really harmful.”
What is stress?
When triggered by short-term stressful stimuli like a looming deadline, a low bank balance or a high-stakes dinner date, the autonomic nervous system floods the bloodstream with stress hormones. These include adrenaline (the “fight, flight or freeze response” burst of energy that tenses muscles, increases heart rate, speeds up breathing and focuses attention) and cortisol (a versatile hormone that helps regulate blood pressure, fluid balance and other necessary bodily systems). Breathing becomes shallow and muscles tense as the body prepares for action.
That’s not always a bad thing. Moderate stress levels help us concentrate, compete, perform under pressure and make it to class on time. But the system is supposed to be self-regulating: When the threat passes, stress hormone production ceases and cortisol levels should return to normal. When our actions don’t relieve the stressor, or when a stressor becomes so omnipresent that it feels impossible to escape—like, say, an ongoing global pandemic—the physical stress response can become problematic.
“The body is geared up with no place to go,” Dr. Parillo says. “If we do nothing to reverse the physical stress reaction, we can remain in an almost constant state of unproductive tension—a permanent state of fight or flight that really affects our health in the long term.”
What causes stress?
In 2021, one is tempted to ask, “What doesn’t?” Stress reactions can be triggered by academic pressure, health concerns, unexpected changes in families or relationships, financial uncertainty or bereavement—all of which may be intertwined in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even positive changes may cause stress. Making new friends, adjusting to university life, trying a new academic field, getting a job or achieving a leadership position may cause unhealthy stress when not handled with care and self-compassion.
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Nausea and dizziness
Shallow breathing or hyperventilation
Heart palpitations or increased heart rates
Aches and pains
Change in appetite
Difficulty falling or staying asleep; increased need for sleep
Trembling or shaking
Frequent colds or flu
Feeling restless or “keyed up”
Disengagement or boredom
Feelings of insecurity
Feeling that activities are meaningless/anhedonia
Being irritable with others
Being indecisive or inflexible
Displaying “all-or-nothing” thinking
While everyone can probably relate to some of these symptoms, it’s important to pay attention to the severity with which they manifest, Dr. Parillo says. Different people handle stress differently, and it’s not a question of physical or moral strength.
“For some, just getting to classes every day can be a very stressful experience,” she says. “We all deal with stress differently. Our ability to cope can depend on our genetics, our previous life events and our social and economic circumstances as well as the practices and skills we have in place for ourselves.”
Some people are also more likely to experience stressful situations than others. For example:
- Individuals from marginalized racial or ethnic groups, or individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+, are more likely to be stressed about prejudice or discrimination
- Individuals who are experiencing or have experienced financial hardship, insecurity and debt are more likely be stressed about money
- Individuals with disabilities or chronic medical conditions are more likely to be stressed about their health or about stigma associated with their condition
Luckily, there are universal ways to manage our reactions to stressors and to channel stress in a healthy way.
Coping with stress
“Being able to recognize the causes and symptoms of your stress can in turn empower you to accept, cope with or change your stressors,” Dr. Parillo says. “By combining these skills with your goals in life, you can also learn how to balance and direct your energy so that stress, instead of being a negative force, becomes a kind of personal power.” (Click on each tip for practical stress management steps.)
- Let’s start with what not to do: If you’re struggling with severe stress, don’t try to squash it down and move on. “As tempting as it may be, ignoring your stress often means you’re ignoring the source of your stress,” Dr. Parillo says. “Our initial instinct may be to avoid or fight against it, but when stress, anxiety or frustration starts to take over, the most helpful approach is usually acceptance. Then we can often begin to better deal clearheadedly with the challenge in front of us.”
- Be mindful of what you’re feeling. It’s important to separate “a feeling I’m having” from “a fact.” Identifying a hopeless thought like “I’ll never be able to get everything done” as an emotion rather than an objective truth—and accepting that we are experiencing an unpleasant emotion, rather than trying to force it away—helps us get distance and stay calm.
- Practice self-compassion. “We tend to be very hard on ourselves and express a great deal of negative self-judgment and criticism,” Dr. Parillo says. But telling ourselves to “just feel less stressed” or “just get through it” is rarely helpful. Try to be compassionate and patient with yourself when you’re struggling. When you catch negative self-talk, ask yourself: Would I talk like this to my best friend? To my little sister? To my child? Treat yourself the way you would a loved one and give yourself credit for your talents and strengths.
- Think of stress as an energy source. Because stress is a mismatch between the demands in our lives and the resources we have to deal with those demands, Dr. Parillo says, a helpful way to think about stress management is to ask: “Can I decrease the demands in my life, or can I increase my resources to meet those demands?”
- A helpful first step is to take an inventory of which factors are within your control and which are outside of it. If all of your exams are scheduled for the same day, for instance, that’s outside your control—but if you agree to help a friend move the day before, that’s within your power to change.
- Sort out stressors into three buckets:
- Issues with a practical solution
- Things that will improve with time
- Things we can’t do anything about
- Then, begin to take control by taking small, practical steps to address the situations in the first category. Make a plan to address what you can, set realistic expectations for yourself and prioritize tasks or commitments from there.
- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—and a few minutes of proactive time management now may be worth hours of anxiety and despair later.
- Break down tasks. Large-scale, long-term projects may escape our minds entirely for weeks, then feel impossible when we’re suddenly reminded they exist. Breaking them down into smaller projects and spacing those smaller projects over a longer timeline can help prevent that from happening.
- Take an inventory of your commitments. A lot of high achievers—which includes many GW students—tend to overcommit and take on too much. Try prioritizing your tasks and assignments to see where you could delegate, reschedule or just let something go.
- Practice saying “no.” Even things you enjoy can become stressful when they’re sandwiched between obligations to family, friends, school and work. Setting boundaries and respecting your own limits may help you take some of the weight off your shoulders.
- Take strategic breaks. Humans may be more productive and happier when we work in sprints with short breaks in between. But watch out: don’t use your break time for addictive activities, like bingeing on TikTok, that make it harder to dive back in to work when the time comes.
- Reduce unnecessary distractions and organize your workspace. That could mean decluttering your desk or finding a calm study space that meets your needs. It could mean blocking out a stressful environment with a calibrated noise generator like myNoise. Or it could mean taking a few minutes to close your eyes and listen to music that soothes you. Even when we don’t realize it’s happening, a lot of sensory input can exacerbate stress.
- Make a schedule. Whether using an app or a paper calendar, setting out a basic schedule can break down tasks and make them feel more manageable. For best results, plan more time for each activity than you think you need and make sure to schedule in time for relaxation. Speaking of which:
- It’s not an indulgence, it’s a necessity. “Self-care means different things for different people, but basically it’s any activity that we do deliberately in order to take care of our mental, emotional and physical health,” Dr. Parillo says. That may mean:
- Making time with family and friends. Schedule appointments if you have to—and try not to cancel. The temptation to withdraw when stressed can be powerful, but interaction with your loved ones is key to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
- Taking time to yourself. As important as it is to make and maintain social connections, that doesn’t mean you have to be constantly “on.” Whether that means a sheet mask, a mediation, a good book, a few episodes of your favorite TV show or some other form of down time is up to you.
- Proactive care. These are the activities that may seem like basic necessities but can become a kind of self-care when performed mindfully—things like cooking a good meal, working out or putting on some loud music to tidy your space.
- Hobbies and creative play. Make time to paint, sing, dance, play frisbee or do whatever else brings you joy. And don’t limit yourself to what you know: even if you don’t think of yourself as artistic, just sitting down with a package of markers and giving yourself 45 minutes to create whatever you want has been shown to reduce cortisol in adults.
- Physical and emotional health are deeply intertwined—caring for your brain means caring for your body, too. Get to know yourself, learn what hurts and what helps, and let that knowledge shape your future behavior.
- Eat well and stay hydrated. A healthy diet can improve your mood. Getting enough nutrients and essential vitamins, minerals and water may be essential to mental wellbeing.
- Exercise. Whatever your physical needs and abilities, getting your body moving—even if only for 10 minutes—is a key mood regulator. Check out classes, workshops and other fitness options at the Lerner Health and Wellness Center, try a student dance workshop, make an occasional lap of the Mount Vernon Campus pool, walk down to the Washington Monument or practice a little residence hall yoga.
- Sleep well. Sleep deprivation is one of the most harmful symptoms of, and contributions to, chronic stress. Try these tips to get the best out of your zzz’s.
- Get outdoors. The healing properties of fresh air are more than just a cliché. The Foggy Bottom campus is just a few blocks from Rock Creek Park, while the tree-lined streets of D.C.’s Foxhall neighborhood surround the Mount Vernon campus. When you need a bigger break from the stress of the city, GW TRAiLS offers outdoor trips farther afield.
- Avoid self-medicating. Alcohol and other drugs mask underlying problems, leading to an increase in stress after use. And while we may not consider coffee a harmful drug, high levels of caffeine can increase anxiety—so watch out for that fourth cold brew.
- Take care of your sexual health. Sexual health starts with education. At GW, the CHC also offers sexual health necessities like gynecological exams, birth control counseling and sexually transmitted infection prevention.
- Again, try not to let the temptation to withdraw take over. Close friends or family members can offer help and practical advice and can support you in managing stress.
- Take time to talk about what you’re feeling when you can, whether with friends or a therapist. Observing and describing emotional reactions can help us get perspective on them.
- If you haven’t made social life a priority, get out there. Joining organizations, attending events, or intentionally interacting with classmates can help to expand your social network and encourage you to try new things without too much pressure.
- Ground yourself in your values in ways that expand your perspective. That might mean organized religious activities, like weekly church attendance, or finding opportunities to give back to your community or to volunteer in ways that align with what you believe in.
- Connect in small ways. Some studies suggest that a compassionate attitude and small acts of kindness toward friends, loved ones and strangers can help insulate against stress.
- “When we are racing from one task to the next, we are doing the opposite of being present in the moment,” Dr. Parillo says. “This can create or contribute to chronic stress as we keep our body’s fight-or-flight response activated.”
- Breathe. The prerequisite for most mindfulness techniques is calm and regular breath. Anxious breathing tends to be quick, shallow and thoracic (from the upper chest), so forcing ourselves to take slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths (from the abdomen) calms the stress response.
- Place a hand on your stomach and breathe in through your nose, focusing on filling only your lower lungs. Feel your belly expanding, while your upper chest remains still. Gently breathe out through the mouth. Repeat at least 10 times.
- Inhale on a count of four, hold the breath for a count of seven and breathe out on a count of eight. Repeat at least 10 times.
- Follow a breath-regulating animation or video.
- Slow down.
- When you finish a task, pause. Take a few deep breaths. Listen to your heartbeat. Attend to your basic senses: what can you see around you? What can you hear? What do you smell? What are you touching? These basic mindfulness techniques can help calm a physiological stress response.
- Try doing small tasks at an intentionally slower speed so as to introduce the possibility for more deliberate and intentional choices.
- Mindfulness meditation can be practiced during stressful and relaxed moments—and the more you do it, the easier it is. Apps like Calm and Headspace offer beginner courses.
Services and Resources
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the Colonial Health Center offers a number of services for students suffering from stress.
- Self-Led Digital Wellness Platform: Silvercloud GW provides free student access to this platform, which provides mental health tools, programs and support tailored to your individual needs and scheduled for your individual pace. It’s confidential and accessible 24/7 from a smartphone, tablet or computer.
- Well-being Skills Series Beginning Sept. 15, the CHC will host a weekly, hourlong group session every Wednesday at 4 p.m. at which students can collectively meet with a counselor to learn more about various wellness topics. These include including adjusting to change and transition, organization and procrastination, overcoming loneliness and more. No advance registration is required.
- Psychoeducation Workshops At these three-session workshop series, students can gain the skills and tools they need to better address and manage their symptoms and concerns. Students interested in joining should contact [email protected] to register or speak with a CAPS counselor regarding a referral. Topics and times are:
- Anxiety Toolbox: Tuesdays 1pm, Fridays 1pm
- Managing Depression: Thursdays 12pm
- Mindful Self-Compassion: Wednesdays 12pm
- BRIDGE (Building Relationship Intimacy and Dialogue Effectiveness): Tuesdays 3pm
- Individual counseling Students may schedule brief, goal-focused individual counseling sessions to provide support in managing concerns related to stress or other concerns. Sessions usually occur on a weekly or biweekly basis, either in person or virtually, and follow a student-centered treatment model that takes into account therapeutic best practices. Schedule an initial consultation with a counselor by calling (202) 994-5300 during virtual walk-in hours, which are daily from noon to 4 p.m.
- Group counseling Groups are a safe, nonjudgmental space to share as much or as little as you choose, and meeting other people who share your feelings, circumstances and concerns can reduce isolation A new weekly hourlong support group, “Adjusting to the New Normal,” meets Tuesdays at noon to discuss common challenges and concerns students are facing in adjusting back to campus learning and living. Further groups will be established as the semester continues.
- Off Campus Referrals: In addition to the short-term counseling services offered by the CHC, they can also provide referrals to longer-term mental health services off campus when students are seeking treatment for conditions that require more intensive or specialized care. The clinical coordinator works with students around their needs, insurance provider and therapist preferences to provide recommended referrals.
- Self-Help Library: The CHC offers an online database of pamphlets, books, podcasts, and videos on emotional well-being, mental health and other topics, including stress factors like procrastination and sleep habits.
- Call a Counselor 24/7: Students may contact CAPS any time to speak to a counselor about their mental health concerns, including anxiety. Call 202-994-5300.
- The CARE Network is a cross-departmental support system through which students are connected with appropriate and personalized outreach. Through an online form, students, parents, faculty and staff can identify students that need additional support and help them get it.