By Amber Harding
Student Health 101
You may be familiar with how you feel emotionally when under a lot of pressure: overwhelmed, agitated, or depressed. But stress can also manifest in physical ways, for example, as stomachaches or headaches. Getting to know your body’s reactions can help you address symptoms and also prevent them.
Your boss asks you to give a presentation the same day you have a huge paper due. You’re feeling anxious and then you get into your car at the end of the day to find your engine won’t start. Suddenly you feel extremely tense and your back and neck start to ache. Before you know it you have a headache and you’re craving something salty, or maybe something sweet.
This is your body telling you that you’re stressed.
“When I’m stressed, my body aches. I usually feel strain due to a build up of stress in my neck or lower back,” says Julie F., a student taking online courses at Bethel University.
Stress and Your Body
According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, almost half the respondents reported feeling very stressed in the past week, and almost 10 per- cent said it was at crisis level.
Pay close attention to your body; it will tell you when it needs extra care. Every person and every body is different, but here are some things to watch for:
• Headaches Tension in your neck and/or shoulders
• Upset stomach Fast heartbeat and/or “jitters”
• Difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Extreme tiredness
• Frequent colds
• Loss of appetite or increased cravings for “comfort foods”
Julie T., a student at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California, notes, “I know that I’m stressed when I start to develop really tight muscles in my back and my neck.”
Over time, being in a stressed state will beat you down. When your body is constantly exposed to cortisol and other stress hormones, diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and other long-term health concerns can arise.
Mind Over Matter
There are many ways to prevent, and address, high levels of stress. Mind-body techniques are particularly helpful for alleviating physical symptoms. As the National Institutes of Health explain, “Mind-body medicine focuses on the ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, experiential, and behavioral factors can directly affect health.”
What the following techniques have in common is a focus on how your body feels and how that relates to what you’re thinking. For some students, this focus can be achieved through exercise, a long shower, or massage. Here are some other options to try:
This method of stress reduction uses visual imagery and body awareness to move you into a deep state of relaxation. A simple example is this:Picture someplace peaceful— perhaps a quiet beach or a backyard hammock—and allow yourself to experience restful physical sensations, like a calm heartbeat and warm arms and legs.
Dr. Nathan Cooper, a psychologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, explains, “Through this strategy, one repeats self-suggestions out loud, such as ‘arms heavy, arms warm,’ three times
each. Heaviness and warmth were chosen because these
are states associated with relaxation.”
Meditation & Deep Breathing
In the recent Student Health 101 survey, 18 percent of respondents said they meditate when they’re feeling stressed, and 44 percent breathe deeply. You don’t need to spend a lot of time to reap the benefits of these activities. Julie T. uses deep-breathing techniques when she feels sudden stress. She says, “I try to take a breathing break. I pay attention to my posture, close my eyes, and take a few cleansing breaths. It helps me refocus.”
There are many different types of meditation, ranging from techniques often practiced in a group to simple mind-clearing exercises you can do on your own. For ideas, type “medita tion” into a search engine, find options in your community, or connect with your school’s counseling services for more resources.
Positive self-talk is a powerful way to relieve stress, as it shifts your perspective and allows you to focus on positive feelings. Lilo B., a graduate student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, uses reassuring mantras to address the negative thoughts associated with stress.
“I repeat mantras while sitting still with my eyes closed. I visualize a happy experience without any bad thoughts. If I focus on positive feelings,I feel great afterwards,” she explains.
If stress is taking a toll on your body, consider talking with a counselor or other health care provider. He or she can help you identify stress- management techniques that can address both physical and emotional symptoms. Many schools also offer stress-management seminars, yoga classes, and other relaxing activities. You can also look for these resources in your community or online. Taking some time to seek them out can empower you to pay attention to what both your body and mind are telling you.