Stop, look and listen for signs of stress

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As Megan Chipman focused on submitting her mission papers, she walked from the Tanner Building to the library.

Her thoughts were, “If I go on a mission, should I put my papers in now? Should I wait to put my papers in to see if I can get an internship this summer? Should I switch my schedule this semester so I can fit in an internship so I can leave in summer?”

Her mind was involved in her internal discussion for the earlier part of the day. She said it was hard to focus on anything; she was stressed about making the right choice and she couldn’t seem to get her mind off of it.

According to experts in the field, the onset of stress most commonly comes from transition periods in life. College students are in a period of constant change, explaining the high levels of stress. Stressful events cause negative thought patterns that make events worse than they are. The body recognizes stress before we do, and it shows physically and cognitively.

College students have a long to-do list that causes stress in their daily lives. (Photo by Chris Bunker)

The larger view

Stress in college years is a continually rising trend in the United States due to the changing environment, work, school, relationships and other major life decisions.

According to a Cooperative Institutional Research Program survey, more than 200,000 freshman students rated their mental health, and only 59.1 percent of students reported their mental health as above average. This is the lowest score in the 25 years the survey has been running.

Many college students make their stress worse by not taking care of themselves physically. Experts say not getting enough sleep, eating junk food, not exercising and overbooking are all ways students increase stress.

Findings from the 2009 College Senior Survey said that 33.1 percent of graduating seniors said they “frequently” felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.

Daniel Huestis, a BYU student, explained that everyone has stressful events and people; guys, especially, are good at hiding it.

“It’s not socially acceptable to show certain levels of stress, and when stress turns into distress people still don’t let on anything is wrong,” said Huestis. “Showing we are facing distress is a sign of weakness, and no one wants to feel like they aren’t up to the task like everyone else appears to be.”

Reasons

Experts say the constant competition faced in college is the cause of much stress, on top of holding a job to pay for school, extracurricular activities, dating and keeping in touch with family.

According to Barbra Morrell, the director of the Stress Management and Biofeedback Lab, the top three reasons students at BYU come to the Stress Management and Biofeedback Lab are school, relationships and finances.

Time management and too many things crammed into one day often create an increase in stress.

“Sometimes when I have a lot of things going on and I worry that I can’t get it all done, I spend more time stressing that I can’t get it all done than I do knocking things off my list,” said BYU student Lindsey Hanna.

Morrell explained many students get caught in thinking traps such as comparing, thinking negatively and responding to shoulds instead of personal priorities.

Experts say college is often a stressful time because students aren’t living a healthy lifestyle.

Taylor Farnsworth, a student at BYU, said one day he had a plane flight from Salt Lake to New York for a track meet, and during the plane flight he had to finish an eight-page paper.

“It would be so much easier if we could focus on one thing at a time,” said Farnsworth.

Impacts

Diane Peterson, a marriage and family therapist, said, “Our bodies often show us that we are in stress before our minds recognize it.”

Headaches, high blood pressure, diarrhea, higher sustainability to catch colds and the flu are all physical signs of stress said Peterson. Our emotions also give away our stress levels, including irritability, mood swings, lack of motivation and being overwhelmed or easily angered.

Studies have shown that when stress is heightened it impairs ability to think on a higher level, as taught by the Career and Academic Center on the topic of stress management. This means students who are too stressed before tests, at work or at school are not performing at their best because their cognitive abilities are lowered.

Peterson said there are two types of stress: good and bad (toxic).

An example of good stress is if a student is worried about a test and the worry makes him or her study to prepare. However, toxic stress would exist if a boss made an employee look bad at work, causing the employee to worry constantly about the security of his or her job.

“Toxic stress is when fears and imaginings are repeatedly disproportionate to actual risks,” Peterson said. “It is also when the amount of stress makes it difficult to cope.”

When this becomes a common pattern of thought, an anxiety disorder is often present, Peterson explained. A combination of therapy and medication make it easily treatable.

Talking problems out with a loved one, deep breathing, writing in a journal, listening to music, yoga, meditation and playing sports are all ways to relieve stress.

Megan Chipman, undecided on what to do about her mission papers, chose to talk it out with a friend.

The two conversed about both of their options and were able to relieve their stress together. Chipman now has her mission call.

“It is still stressful,” Chipman said, “but now it’s the good, exciting stress.”

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