5-step guide to managing stress
Download the interactive Stress Management Worksheet that you can fill on your computer or other device as you go through this process.
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.
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle aches, stiffness or pain (especially in the neck, shoulders and lower back)
- High blood pressure
- Frequent colds or flu
- Worsening of an existing illness (e.g. asthma, skin rashes)
- Chest pain
- Stomach cramps
- Weight gain or loss
- Increased smoking, drinking, drug use
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Mervousness (nail biting, fidgeting, pacing, etc.)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased memory
- Difficulty making decisions
- Mind going blank or racing
- Loss of sense of humour
- Decreased libido
- Bad dreams
- Short temper
Note: Some signs of stress, like chest pain, indicate a potential health problem. Consult your health professional if you experience serious or ongoing symptoms.
A stressor is something that causes stress. Any situation or event that you perceive 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 two weeks ago, look at the changes in your life that took place around that time.
- Ask someone close to you 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.
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 because I don't have enough money to pay the Visa bill".
In general, people evaluate a situation as a danger when they think they 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.
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: those that address the symptoms of stress and those that address the causes of stress.
Explore our resources on different stress management strategies:
- Strategies that address the symptoms of stress: The strategies that address the symptoms of stress 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.
- Strategies that address the cause of stress: Remember that stress is a response to danger. If you don't see danger, you won't experience stress. The goal of strategies that address the cause of stress 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.
- Strategies to manage real stressors: The goal of stress management strategies for real stressors is to take action to remove the danger that is causing your stress. 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. Managing stress caused by having to write a term paper requires building and using good writing skills. The skill you use will depend on the stressor.
- Strategies to manage self-created stressors: The goal of stress management strategies for self-created stressors is to change the way you think to remove the danger.
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 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. Here at Concordia, you can you can meet with a counsellor at Counselling and Psychological Services. You can also meet with a Health Promotion Specialist at Health Services or discuss your concerns with a nurse who can help you identify resources at Concordia or in the community.
The mental health support services page lists additional mental health resources at Concordia and in the community.