Stress & anxiety

Stress is a part of everyday life that sometimes leads to feelings of anxiety. You can learn to manage stress and anxiety by understanding what causes you to feel stressed and train yourself to focus on calming thoughts or actions.

What are stress and anxiety?

What's the difference?

Stress

Stress is the body’s reaction to various stimuli, including physical, chemical, emotional, or environmental factors. Stress is a normal part of life and something that everyone experiences.

Acute stress is short-lived and involves the body releasing adrenaline and cortisol, which helps you respond quickly when needed (e.g., when you encounter something dangerous). Chronic stress, however, results in ongoing high levels of stress hormones that can compromise your immune system and cause severe health problems such as depression.

Stress, whether acute or chronic, is not diagnosed as a mental health disorder.

Anxiety

The experience of anxiety is more similar to fear. This may be fear of something specific or fear that doesn’t seem to have a cause. Many people experience anxiety in relation to common stressful events such as exams, and this anxiety can be short-lived. However, when anxiety continues and begins to interfere with ongoing daily functioning it is diagnosed as an anxiety disorder.

How does normal anxiety compare to an anxiety disorder?

Normal anxiety can take the form of “the jitters,” trouble sleeping, worry, or sadness. It's usually short-lived and disappears once the perceived threat to our wellbeing has passed.

Anxiety disorders, however, are more persistent and severe and may require assistance from a wellness professional.

According to the Anxiety Disorder Association of Canada, an anxiety disorder is characterized by constant, chronic and unsubstantiated worry that causes significant distress, disturbs your social life, and interferes with classes and work1.

1 Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a condition whereby you experience chronic and debilitating anxiety and/or worry. Some of the signs and symptoms to watch for include1:

  • Feeling restless or keyed up
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Feeling irritable
  • Experiencing muscle tension
  • Having sleep difficulties
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort including nausea and diarrhea
  • Sweating

Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada

Other types of anxiety disorders
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Specific Phobia

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers more information about types of anxiety disorders.

What can I do for myself right now?

Managing stress and anxiety

It helps to be proactive about stress and anxiety. When you start feeling stressed or anxious:

  • Acknowledge and accept that you are feeling stressed or anxious
  • Take a break
  • Talk to a friend
  • Allow yourself to cry
  • Go for a walk or run
  • Meditate
  • Breathe deeply and allow your natural relaxation response to kick in

Believing that you are able to manage stress and anxiety is important because your perceptions can have a large impact on your health. Research has shown that students’ perceived ability to manage stress can reduce their likelihood of becoming depressed.

Sawatzky et al, "Resilience mediates the effect of stress on depression in university students," Journal of American College Health, submitted for review July 7, 2010.

Identify the things that trigger your stress or anxiety

  • Keep a log of your stress triggers and review them periodically
  • Identify the times that you tend to get stressed or anxious

    Are you most stressed in the morning? Before class? Studying in the evening? Monitor the times you feel most stressed or anxious and include these times in your stress long.

  • Think of ways to change your responses to stress and anxiety

    Are there unhealthy triggers you can avoid or minimize your exposure to? Can you change how you approach triggers or the way that you manage stress and anxiety?

    For example, if studying for a difficult class alone in your room at night triggers a stress response, you might try studying with a friend or in a group at a different location and time of day. You might also want to try taking other steps to minimize the stress triggered by this activity, such as asking your professor or TA for help, accessing academic resources like the Learning Commons, or engaging in positive self-talk when you begin feeling stressed.

Try a mini meditation. Breathe in deeply, count to five, and exhale slowly. Watch your lower abdomen expand and deflate. Repeat five times.

Techniques to help you relax

If you're already feeling stressed or anxious, small, simple adjustments can make a big difference when it comes to managing stress and anxiety.

  • If you’re experiencing exam-related stress or anxiety, remind yourself that the exam period has an end date and it will be over soon.
  • Get up and stretch or walk around once an hour for five-to-ten minutes.
  • Try to get outside if you can.
  • Hydrate yourself with water throughout the day to keep your body and mind functioning well.
  • Eat well to properly fuel your body and brain.
  • Try a mini meditation. Breathe in deeply, count to five, and exhale slowly. Watch your lower abdomen expand and deflate. Repeat five times.
  • Engage in positive self-talk to help build self-confidence.
  • Face your fears head on. Avoiding stressful or social situations can reinforce anxiety - feel the fear and do it anyway.
  • Don’t try to be perfect: remind yourself that your best is something to be proud of.
  • Laugh: watch, listen, or read something that makes you laugh out loud.
  • Take a short break to meet a friend.
  • Have coffee, eat lunch, or go for a walk together.
  • Get enough quality sleep. Your brain is at its quickest and most adept after seven to nine hours of sleep.

What other students are saying about stress & anxiety