Stress is the boogeyman of high-achieving students everywhere. But with conscious management, it can be a friend instead of a foe.
By Ruth Steinhardt
Students at the George Washington University are no strangers to stress—and neither is anyone else.
“The human body is designed to have a natural reaction to stressors,” says Jen Mostafa, staff clinician and military services coordinator for the Colonial Health Center. “We need that physical response to motivate us, because we’re kind of lazy by nature.”
What is stress?
When triggered by 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).
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moderate stress levels help us concentrate, perform under pressure and make it to class on time. And the system is supposed to be self-regulating. When the threat passes, stress hormone production ceases and cortisol levels should return to normal.
The problem, Ms. Mostafa says, is that we don’t know how to stop.
“We’re constantly connected to stress factors, so we’re not giving the body a chance to rest and recover,” she says. “It’s not just jobs or school. We’re always hooked in to stress-inducing news outlets, social media or external stressors. If, for instance, you’re on Instagram all the time and see how glamorous someone else’s life looks, you can get this automatic stress response of ‘something’s wrong with me,’ which increases cortisol in the body.”
Signs and Symptoms of Stress
Increased heart rate
Change in appetite
Difficulty falling asleep
Increased need for sleep
Trembling or shaking
Feeling restless or “keyed up”
Frequent colds or flu
Loss of sex drive
Memory and concentration problems
Anger over relatively minor things
Using alcohol and drugs (or wanting to)
Being prone to accidents
Feeling that activities are meaningless
Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
Chronic stress can be toxic—and self-perpetuating. Stressed people don’t sleep well. Sleepless people struggle more with solving stressful problems. People who can’t solve problems lie awake worrying about them, and perfectionism becomes pathological.
“Just about every student that sits on my couch says, ‘Everyone else has their stuff together, and I’m barely faking it,’” Ms. Mostafa says. “People tend to isolate themselves because they’re not doing as well as they thought academically, or they have 15 committees they’re on, or they’re not fixing the world right now, and that can lead invidivuals to feel as if they’re the only ones not meeting these high expectations. But in reality everyone is experiencing these emotions.”
Luckily, there are ways to escape the cycle and manage stress in a healthy way.
(Jessica McConnell-Burt/GW Today)
Coping with stress
Ms. Mostafa divides her stress management protocol into five basic tips. “We can find wins for ourselves in each of these areas every day, even when it’s something small,” she says. (Click on each tip for practical steps you can take to manage stress.)
- Recognize and accept emotions instead of trying to suppress them—and have compassion for yourself when your feelings are irrational or exasperating.
- 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.
- 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 gif or video.
- Show self-compassion. Telling ourselves to “just feel less stressed” isn’t very helpful. Try to be compassionate, patient and reasonable 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? Treat yourself the way you would a loved one, and give yourself credit for your talents and strengths.
- Talk and connect with others. 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 distance from them.
- Build healthy relationships. Unhealthy friendships and partnerships can be a major source of stress. Make sure you’re communicating your needs and listening to theirs.
- Unplug. “We have to make time to disconnect and take care of ourselves,” Ms. Mostafa says. “It’s incredibly helpful to identify what stresses us out and determine how to create boundaries with those things.” That means noticing when the Twitter news cycle is making your heart pound or when your reaction to a friend’s Instagram stories from Santorini crosses the line from “so happy for her” to “envy headache.” Social media can be addictive, and it’s important to find ways to opt out.
- Make sure your sensory input is calming. 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. GW Today has a few suggestions.
- That means paying attention to physical stressors like a cramped shoulder muscle or the way that fourth iced coffee might not have been the best idea. Get to know yourself, learn what hurts and what helps, and let that knowledge shape your future behavior.
- 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.
- Drink water. We know: Every personal trainer, dewy celebrity and self-righteous Facebook acquaintance goes on and on about how much water they drink. But it really is one of the single best steps you can take to reduce stress, especially since dehydration increases cortisol levels. If eight glasses a day seems excessive, start small by carrying around a reusable water bottle—there are filling stations all over campus.
- 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.
- Part of stress reduction for students is treating your brain like it’s more than just a workhorse.
- Continuous learning. You may feel like college classes are cramming your brain full of more information than it can hold, but learning doesn’t have to be graded. Podcasts, articles and books on subjects that interest you, including those you’re not studying, keep your mind flexible and engaged—and flexibility is key to preventing burnout.
- Stay curious. Your major doesn’t have to determine all your interests. In fact, college is a perfect time to discover interests you never knew you had. Make friends outside your discipline, try classes unrelated to your future plans and don’t be afraid to ask questions—or to fail.
Ms. Mostafa refers a person’s “grounding technique” as the practices and behaviors that align with their values. That might mean organized religion, like weekly church attendance, or an individual practice like meditation. It may mean finding opportunities to give back to your community or volunteer.
It also means making connections. According to a recent study, a compassionate attitude and small acts of kindness toward friends, loved ones and even strangers can help insulate against stress.
- This might seem like a self-explanatory stress reducer, but Ms. Mostafa says it’s often the first tip to fall by the wayside. Experts agree that feel-good, voluntary, purposeless play isn’t just for children. It’s a key component of mental and emotional health for adults, too. “Ask yourself ‘What did my eight-year-old self love to do, and when was the last time I engaged in that sort of activity?’” Ms. Mostafa suggests.
- Get moving. That might mean intramural sports, a quick dorm-room dance party or an impromptu game of tag with friends. It doesn’t have to be much—as long as it’s pointless. Having fun means enjoying the moment, not striving for a goal.
- Be creative. Like physical play, creative play is key to stress management. And similarly, it doesn’t have to mean painting a masterpiece or writing a novel. 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.
- Make time for friends. The temptation to withdraw when stressed can be powerful, but interaction with your loved ones is key to maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
- Laugh. That old cliché—“laughter is the best medicine”—is actually a physiological fact: it increases oxygen intake, stimulates muscles and cools down an idling stress response. In the long term, laughter can improve immune response and short-term memory. So yes: that Netflix stand-up special or YouTube comedian might be a worthwhile use of your time. Within reason.
Services and Resources
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at the Colonial Health Center offers a number of services for students suffering from stress.
- Individual counseling: Students can see a counselor for short-term individual therapy to work on issues related to stress and how to manage it. Sessions usually occur on a weekly basis.
- Group counseling: Students coping with ongoing stress may wish to consider joining a group, which is free and unlimited for GW students. 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.
- 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.
- Mental Health Discussion Series: This free weekly hour-long discussion series, hosted Wednesdays at 4 p.m., is open to all and covers topics from “Why Mindfulness Works” to “Overcoming Loneliness.”
- Referrals are available for therapists in the community, mental health agencies and other campus and community resources.
- The Colonial Health Center website, Facebook and Twitter have up-to-date information on services offered by CAPS, as well as links to related topics.
- 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.