For information specific to exam stress, consult Mastering Exam Anxiety from Athabasca University in addition to the information below.
- Reducing stress has many, many benefits that include better sleep, better concentration, a lower risk of many health problems (e.g. heart disease, headaches, skin problems) and a lower risk of being overweight.
- Stress is the body’s response to danger (called the "fight or flight" response). If you don’t see danger in a situation or event…you won’t experience stress.
- To reduce stress you need to remove the danger, either by changing the situation (for real dangers) or by changing the way you think about the situation (for self-created dangers).
- Relaxation strategies can help reduce stress in short-term. These include deep breathing, meditation, visualization, music appreciation and progressive muscle relaxation.
- Effective long-term stress management strategies require building and using skills to remove the danger (e.g. problem-solving, decision-making, critical-thinking, communication, budgeting and other skills) or using cognitive strategies to change the way you think about the situation (e.g. cognitive restructuring, Socratic questioning).
Stress is a part of life. A little stress can be helpful: it stimulates you to accomplish your goals. Too often, though, stress becomes overwhelming and is more harmful than beneficial. Since there are many physical and mental health problems associated with stress, learning to manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to enhance and maintain optimal health.
This section summarizes the most important information you need to know about stress management. For additional infomation consult the "For Those Who Want to Know More" section below.
Stress is the body’s response to danger
This response helped our early ancestors survive threats to their existence. To survive an encounter with a predator our ancestors had to attack (“fight”), or run away (“flight”). The stress reaction – the "fight-or-flight response"– activates the nervous system, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and stimulates the body into action. Once the danger is gone, the fight-or-flight response fades and the body returns to its preferred state of balance.
The days of being chased by a predator are long gone, but we are still wired for a “fight-or-flight” response. Today’s threats and demands are diverse and can last for long periods of time. The pressures of being a student, managing finances, dealing with conflict in your personal life or as part of your job, raising a family are just a few of the many long-lasting, stress-provoking situations people face today. The body responds to these demands the same way it did when our ancestors faced a predator. Staying in a heightened state of stimulation contributes to health problems.
When you experience stress your body's alarm system ("fight or flight response") is activated. This stimulates many of your body's processes so that you are prepared to deal with the danger. Keeping your body in a stimulated state, especially if stress continues for extended periods of time, contributes to physical, mental and social problems. There are many benefits to managing your stress.
Managing stress is best approached systematically. The 5-step guide to stress management below can help you structure the way you manage your stress. Use the Stress Management Worksheet to systematically plan your approach to stress management. (Refer to the Stress Management Worksheet example to see how this tool can be used.)
Step 1: Identify if you are stressed
Each of us responds to stress in our own unique way. Get to know your particular signs and symptoms of stress and when you experience them consider that stress could be the cause.
Step 2: Identify your stressor
A stressor is something that causes stress. Any situation or event that you percieve as a danger will be a stressor. Examples of stressors are an upcoming exam, financial troubles, or a conflict with your partner.
Often, you can easily identify the cause of your stress. At other times, it can be difficult. The following tips can help you identify your stressors.
- Since stress is often related to change, examine recent changes in your life.
- Pinpoint when the symptoms started. For example, if you started having problems sleeping 2 weeks ago, look at the changes in your life that took place around that time.
- Ask someone close to your for their opinion. Sometimes, others know what might be causing your stress when you are not aware.
- Reviewing a list of stressors might spark some ideas.
Step 3: Identify the reason for stressor
Stress is a response to danger. No danger... no stress! Therefore, in this step you ask yourself: "Why do I see this situation as a danger?" The answer can often be stated in the format "I see this situation as a danger because I don't have enough ____ to deal with ____". For example, "I see this situation as dangerous becuase I don't have enough money to pay the Visa bill".
In general you evaluate a situation as a danger when you think you don't have enough resources to handle the demands of the situation. Therefore, you need to look at two aspects of the situation: the demands and the resources.
If you think you have enough resources to meet the demands, you will be able to handle the situation. You won't see it as a danger and will not experience stress. However, if you think your resources fall short of what's needed to handle the situation, you will see danger and experience stress.
Write down the demands and resources for your stressor(s) on the stress managment worksheet. This way, you will identify why you see the situation as dangerous.
Step 4: Identify an appropriate stress managment strategy and apply it
There are hundreds of strategies that can help to manage stress. The situation that causes the stress will determine which strategy would be most effective.
In general, stress management strategies fall into two categories: strategies that address the symptoms of stress and strategies that address the cause of stress.
Strategies that address the symptoms of stress
These are relaxation strategies. Remember that the body's response to stress (the "fight or flight" response) is stimulating. This stimulation contributes to health problems. But if you implement relaxation strategies you will turn off the stress response and reduce the damage caused by stress. There are many proven relaxation techniques that can help. They include:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Hot bath, sauna, hot tub
- Spending time with loved ones, including pets
Strategies that adress the cause of stress
Stress is a response to danger. No danger...no stress. The goal of these strategies is to remove the danger by decreasing your demands or increasing your resources (or a combination of both). The strategies can be placed into two categories depending on whether the stressor is real or self-created.
The goal of stress management strategies for real dangers is to take action to remove the danger. The action you take will likely require building and/or using skills. For example, managing stress caused by financial difficulties requires building and using good budgeting skills and managing stress caused by having to write a term paper requires requires building and using good writing skills. The skill you use will depend on the stressor. Helpful skills unclude:
- Problem solving
- Decision making
- Critical thinking
- Time management
- Conflict resolution and negotiation
The goal of stress management strategies for self-created dangers is to change the way you think to remove the danger. Two approaches that can help change the way you think are cognitive restructuring and socratic questioning.
Step 5: Evaluate
You have done your best to manage stress. Now it's time to evaluate whether your efforts were successful.
If you are no longer feeling stressed, congratulate yourself for doing a good job and note what strategies helped you so you can use them again in future situations.
If you are still stressed, review the steps. Maybe you didn't accurately identify the stressor or why it is a stressor. Maybe you selected an inappropriate stress management strategy. Maybe your stress is not a result of the situation as much as the result of your perception of the situation. Adjust your stress management approach in light of what you discover.
If you are trying hard to reduce your stress and it is not working, consider meeting with a counselor or other mental health professional. Concordia University has many professionals who can help, including those at Health Services and Counselling and Psychological Services.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle enhances your health and reduces your vulnerability to stress. It also makes you better able to manage stress when it arises. After all, good health is arguably your greatest resource, and the more resources you have, the better able you are to manage stress.
The best advice for healthy eating is to eat a plant based diet. This means choosing plenty of fruit, vegetable, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Consult the nuitrition section of our website for more information.
Engage in regular physical activity
Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity each week. Consult the physical activity section of this website for more information.
Don't use tobacco
If you use tobacco, the best thing you can do for your health –by far– is to quit. Consult the smoking cessation section of our website for more information.
If you would like professional help to quit smoking contact Concordia University Health Services.
Get sufficient, quality sleep
The best way to get sufficient, quality sleep is to establish a routine: go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning. For more information about getting a good night consult the sleep section of our website.
Establish and maintain healthy relationships
The people in your life are extremely important resources for stress management. They provide help, from feeding your cat when you are away, to emotional support and more. Qualities of healthy relationships include a balance of taking and giving, sharing, expressing vulnerability, being trustworthy, and showing respect.
Just as important as nurturing good relationships is letting go of bad ones. If there is someone in your life who is abusive or otherwise "toxic", consider breaking the ties.
For more on healthy relationships, see:
- Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health
- How to Make Close Friends: Tips on Meeting People and Building Strong Friendships
The problem-solving approach requires building and using skills to remove danger. Don't wait until you are stressed to learn these skills. The best time to build them is when you are not experiencing stress. Learn more about the skills outlined in this section of the website. Practice and refine them whenever you can.
Find meaning and purpose
Think about ways you can connect with something bigger than you. Some ways to find meaning include:
- Spend time in nature
- Take time to meditate
- Serve others e.g. volunteer
- Practice a religion: consult Muti-Faith Chaplaincy
If you are trying hard to reduce your stress and it is not working, consider meeting with a counselor or other mental health professional. Concordia University has many professionals who can help. You can meet with a Health Promotion Specialist at Health Services or drop in to discuss your concerns with a nurse who can help you identify resources at Concordia or in the community. You can also book an appointment with a counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services.
- If you are doing your own research on the Internet, make sure you know how to evaluate the reliability of information on the Internet
- How to effectively set, achieve and maintain your health goals
- Stress management worksheet and example of a completed stress management worksheet
- Stress and the Social Determinants of Health
- Documentary on stress called "Stress---Silent Killer"
- Coping with Stress: Cognitive-Behavioral Stress Reduction is an 80 minute video from the University of California that provides comprehensive informaiton on stress reduction