Stress: Friend or Foe?

By Sarah Caesar

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Stress. The word itself is sure to make many of you cringe—and who could blame you? When it comes to the topic of stress and anxiety, statements such as “Stress is bad for you”, “Stress kills” or “Stress causes cancer”, often attached to horrific cliche and redundant graphics, clutter popular media sources.

Yes, I believe we are all familiar with these.

While these are not completely false, the media’s method of educating others of stress’ negative effects only make matters worse. In her 2013 TED Talk, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, renowned health psychologist and professor at Stanford University, points to research studies that show that stress itself is not what ultimately causes health problems, but instead it is the belief that stress is bad for you that is the main culprit.

One study aimed at understanding people’s views of stress and how it correlated with their health status five years later, found that those who viewed stress as harmful to the body suffered from deterioration in overall health or died (Keller et al., 2012). Partially based on these results and other data, it was established that the belief that stress is harmful to health could potentially be one of the top 15 causes of death in America, claiming more lives than even HIV/AIDS and skin cancer. Although this statistic was stated in a comical way, resulting in laughter from her large audience, McGonigal did not intend for this matter to be taken trivially. On the contrary, she believes that this is actually an extremely important observation, demonstrating the essential role our mind and emotions play on our physical health, and justifying how much our perception of stress as helpful or harmful affects our body (McGonigal, 2013).

Dr. McGonigal encourages us to take a different approach to coping with stress by embracing its positive potential and treating it like a friend (Cardus, 2015). Further validating the mind-body connection, she states “when you change your mind about stress you can change your body’s response to stress”. In other words, by telling yourself that stress, along with its associated heart-racing and head-tingling sensations, is actually the body’s way of providing you with the excess energy and strength needed to successfully perform a certain task, you greatly reduce the effects stress seem to have on your body and mind, and even reduce your risk of getting certain life-threatening diseases.

So, what are some simple ways you can relieve stress when it seems to be overtaking your body?

As college students, we encounter many stressful situations, some of which may creep up on us at the worst possible times (e.g. studying for a test, presenting in front of a class). During these moments, we may feel hopeless and might let stress win the battle. Don’t! Always remember, you  are the only one who has sole control over your body.  There are a few simple things you can do on a daily basis to permanently gain control of your mind, body and soul and, in turn, your stress.

  • Meditation– This is one my favorite ways to de-stress, especially because it can be done just about anywhere—at your work desk, your bed, floor, gym, etc. Defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as the process “[of spending] time in quiet thought for religious purposes or relaxation”, meditation is a practice that, if done on a daily basis, can significantly quiet your mind and help ease anxiety. The main aspect of meditation is to let go of those stressful thoughts inside your mind and instead focus on your breath by repetitively inhaling and exhaling.   
  • Exercise– Go for a short run, jump around and dance to your favorite song or cycle around your neighborhood. These are just a few of the myriad forms of exercise that exist. Any form of exercise, whether it’s beginner’s yoga or hardcore triathlon training, is great for relieving stress. When you exercise, your body produces more endorphins, hormones which increase pain tolerance by interacting with the brain’s opiate receptors. In addition to decreasing pain and stress, exercise also reduces symptoms associated with depression by elevating your mood (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2015).
  • Listen to music – Whether you’re jamming to your favorite rock song or listening to some soothing classical melodies, music, in any shape or form, is thought to be immensely beneficial for the mind and body. Scientific studies have found that listening to music significantly lowers levels of cortisol and epinephrine, two of the body’s main stress hormones. In one study, the researchers found that people listening to classical music performed significantly better on certain tasks than those who completed them in silence. As a result of their findings, they established that classical music can be used to improve concentration and memory and is especially helpful for those who have ADHD or inattentive ADD (Collingwood, 2013). So, you might want to rethink clicking that “skip” button next time Beethoven’s 5th Symphony starts playing on Pandora.
  • Take short naps and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep– I know it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re trying to juggle a billion things at once, but you just have to! Most college students work part-time while taking a full-course load (12-17 credit hours) and, in addition, also partake in many extracurricular activities, all of which are often done at expense of sleep. Sleep deprivation is one of the most common signs of stress and, ironically, often induces more stress, resulting in a vicious cycle that never ends until a proper sleep routine is established again (Melnick, 2013). It is absolutely essential that college students learn and maintain effective time management skills and for me, personally, it always helps to start off each day by making a to-do list. This helps me stay focused on the tasks at hand and satisfies my secret pleasure of checking off each completed task. However, sometimes even effective time management won’t help us tackle a heavy workload and, as a result, the late sleepless nights will become inevitable. During these times, though, it is important that you take short 10-15 minute naps every now and then to ensure that your body sustains its mental and physical energy.

References:

(2014, Feb 4). American Psychological Association Survey Shows Money Stress Weighing on Americans’ Health Nationwide. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/02/money-stress.aspx

Cardus, Merce. (2015, May 27). How to Make Stress Your Friend. Merce Cardus. Retrieved from: http://www.mercecardus.com/how-to-make-stress-your-friend/

Collingwood, Jane. (2013, Jan 30). The Power of Music to Reduce Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved from: http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-power-of-music-to-reduce-stress/

Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality. Health Psychology : Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 31(5), 677–684. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3374921/

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2015, April 16) Exercise and stress: get moving to manage stress. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469

McGonigal, Kelly. (2013, Sept) How to make stress your friend- transcript. TED. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend/transcript?language=en

Melnick, Meredith. (2013, Sept 9). 20 Scientifically-Backed Ways to De-stress Right Now. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/09/stress-relief-that-works_n_3842511.html