Practical Advice - Coping with Stress
What is Stress?
The word ‘stress’ is commonly used. We talk about being ‘stressed out’, we might describe somebody as ‘being in a stress’, or somebody who is off work might be ‘suffering from stress’. Older generations would be more likely to use the term ‘nervous trouble’ or ‘suffering with my nerves’, but they would be talking about the same complaint.
Stress can be very short term (who hasn’t felt it when they are stuck in a traffic jam or kept waiting in a queue?), and this sort of fleeting stress is normal, understandable and a natural emotional and bodily response to irritating external stimuli. However, the type of stress which will be referred to in this leaflet is more long-standing and harder to shake off and which seems to affect most of our waking moments. Such stress takes longer to build up and is usually the result of too much going on in our lives - we become overloaded and end up not knowing which area of our lives to deal with first. Left undealt with, this type of stress can lead to depression, exhaustion and physical illness. That is why it is important to learn coping mechanisms so that stress can be effectively dealt with whenever it arises in our lives.
Recognising the Symptoms
- * Feeling ‘on edge’ all the time
- Unable to relax
- Feeling tense and irritable
- Prone to depression and weepiness
- Lack of concentration - unable to settle to anything
- Difficulty with sleeping
- Loss of appetite or, conversely, comfort eating
- Physical symptoms such as palpitations, chest pains, stomach pains, irritable bowel
- Prone to infections such as colds and ‘flu
How to Manage Stress
One of the major causes of stress is having too much to do with too little time to do it. Most students will recognise this situation. It is very important to learn how to prioritise the work that you have to do and to divide it into manageable portions. It is no use looking at an entire workload as a whole because that will only seem overwhelming. Take each manageable portion at a time and deal with just that until you have finished. Only then should you begin to think about the next portion. It is surprising how quickly the amount of completed work builds up by doing it this way. It is also important to take regular and frequent breaks - perhaps a ten minute break after every hour’s work - and to use these breaks effectively.
A drink and a light snack is good but also a few stretching exercises and deep breaths can also be effective in revitalising you for the next hour’s work. You will find that just getting one or two portions of work out of the way will encourage you to keep going and to feel less daunted by your workload.
Recreational Activities and Relaxation
It is vital that, even during the busiest times, you take time away from your work and commitments to refresh yourself. It is very tempting to keep going and use every amount of time available to you, but this is counter-productive as you will end up feeling exhausted and even more stressed. As well as the ten-minute breaks already mentioned, you will need to schedule in longer periods of time to ‘recharge your batteries’. Use these longer periods to get away from the work completely (both physically and emotionally) and try to do something that helps you to relax. Examples of this could be a long walk, a swim or some other physical activity. Reading a book (unconnected with your work), watching television, chatting to friends or family, can all help to distance you from the pressures of work for a while and refresh you for the next bout of concentrated effort. You will find that concentration comes much more readily if you take these rest periods.
It is very worthwhile to learn a relaxation exercise which can be used at any stressful time in your life. Some people find meditation useful or other disciplines such as yoga or tai ‘chi can be very helpful in stilling the mind. There are many useful books available on the market and it is worth finding something that is beneficial for you (for simple relaxation techniques see our green information card entitled Coping with Exam. Stress).
Sleeping can be difficult when we are feeling stressed. Again it is tempting to work into the small hours of the night and utilise all hours of the day, but this will only lead to exhaustion. Leave yourself plenty of time for bodily rest even if sleep itself can seem elusive. Don’t panic if sleep doesn’t come easily - the more you can relax the more likely you are eventually to fall asleep.
Learn To Say ‘No’
Often we can become over-stressed be agreeing to take on too much. When people ask us to do a favour it can be hard to say ‘no’. We all like to be liked and the fear of being thought disagreeable can lead us to agree to favours which we really have no time for. In fact, most people understand when we explain that we have too much to cope with at the moment and rather than disliking us, respect us for our ability to say so. It takes practice to be able to say ‘no’ assertively and without guilt, but it is well worth the effort.
Talking to Somebody
If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress and are depressed and anxious, tell somebody about your feelings. Choose someone who you know will listen to you and give you helpful feedback. This could be a friend or a relative, or a University tutor. The University Counsellors are well used to seeing people who are suffering from stress and will be able to offer you space and time to express your feelings confidentially. It really does help to talk to someone and not bottle-up your feelings.
Other Sources of Help
Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edward Bourne (available from University Library)
A Woman in Your Own Right by Ann Dickson (a useful book on assertive techniques - in paperback, about £6).