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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 professor announces a surprise test on the same day you already have a huge paper due. You’re feeling anxious and then you get home from class to find your computer won’t turn on. 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.
“I had an experience where my heart was racing, I was sweating, short of breath, and sore and tense,” says Amanda G., a junior at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. “I had no idea what was wrong with me and later realized it was due to stress.”
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 percent 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:
- 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”
Margaret K., a junior at University of South Carolina in Columbia, notes, “When I get sick, it usually has something to do with ignoring physical signs of stress—until they become impossible to ignore!”
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 University of Maryland Medical Center explains, “Mind-body medicine uses the power of thoughts and emotions to influence physical 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, 13 percent of respondents said they meditate when they’re feeling stressed, and 42 percent breathe deeply. You don’t need to spend a lot of time to reap the benefits of these activities.
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 “meditation” into a search engine, find suggestions through your school’s spiritual programs, or find out if the counseling center offers training.
A simple deep-breathing exercise
Deep Breathing Made EasyTry these quick breathing exercises to relieve stress right away:
- Take a really deep, easy breath in, imagining that you’re filling your lungs with air from the bottom to the top. Focus on your abdomen rising as you breathe in, and falling as you breathe out.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale slowly, counting from one to five, and exhale the same way.
- As you breathe, picture a place that is comforting. On your inhale, say to yourself, “I am warm.” On the exhale, “I am calm.”
- Continue until you feel more settled. Try not to pause or hold your breath.
Brielle M., a senior at the University of Maryland in College Park, says, “I love positive self-talk. I fill my room with words of encouragement when finals occur.”
“Positive self-talk is the most important way I relieve stress,” says Emily W., a senior at Corban University in Salem, Oregon. “When I shift my perspective from looking at the short-term stress and focus on the bigger picture, I can feel my body relax.”
Reach Out for Help
If stress is taking a toll on your body, consider talking with a counselor or other health care provider. “When I was in crisis, I reached out to someone close to me and now I’m getting counseling,” says Katie G.*, a senior at Caldwell College in New Jersey. “I could feel my body shutting down because my stress was eating me from the inside. Now that I’m in counseling, I’m learning techniques to deal with this.”
Most schools also offer stress-management seminars, yoga classes, and other relaxing activities. Some even have programs that train students in the art of massage. Taking some time to seek them out can empower you to pay attention to what both your body and mind are telling you.
* Name changed for privacy.
- Pay attention to physical symptoms of stress.
- Try mind-body relaxation techniques.
- Learn some simple deep-breathing exercises to do anywhere.
- Look for stress-reducing activities at school.
- Reach out for help if stress is taking a toll.
More relaxation techniques
Focus on the current moment and allow yourself to tune out other stimuli and worries. You might be concerned that this will take time away from what you’re doing. In actuality, it can take only a minute or two to interrupt the cycle and set yourself back on course. If necessary, step away from the situation and find someplace quiet, even if it’s a nearby restroom.
Here’s what you’ll notice as you relax:
- Your breathing will slow down and you’ll be able to breathe more deeply.
- Your heart rate will steady.
- Your muscles will become less tense.
- Visualize a peaceful place, such as a beach or inside your church.
- Imagine yourself there. What are the sights, sounds, and smells around you?
Some people find it helpful to carry an item that helps them self-soothe. These are usually small enough to fit in a pocket and in the palm of your hand: a smooth stone, a note from a friend, a soft-corded necklace, or anything else that helps you feel calm and peaceful.
- Take some slow breaths.
- Use positive and calming self-talk. Tell yourself, “This feeling will pass,” or, “I will get through this anxiety.”
Get help or find out more
HelpGuide.org, Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes: Effects of Chronic Stress
University of Maryland Medical Center, Relaxation Techniques
University of Michigan, Academic Skills: Academic Skills, Stresses and Successes! University of Michigan, Managing Stress
University of Maryland Medical Center, Mind-body medicine
Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., and McKay, M. (1997). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. Mjf Books: New York.