Understanding stress and the stress response


Stress is a normal part of the human experience. However, everyone experiences stress differently and stressors are unique to each person. Below you will find information on recognizing signs of stress, managing the stress response, and understanding different types of stressors.

Recognize your signs of stress

The stress response may be a normal reaction to challenging or demanding situations and can be experienced in many contexts such as school, work, and/or in our personal lives. Usually, the physical reaction to stress goes away naturally, after the immediate challenge has passed or the problem has been solved. Other times, however, it sticks around in ways that are not always helpful. Increasing your awareness and understanding of this process can help you learn how to manage your stress efficiently and effectively.

First, you need to be able to identify when you’re experiencing stress: consider your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and physical symptoms when you’re faced with a challenge in life. Maybe you feel sharp, fired up, productive, and motivated. You rise to the challenge, and tell yourself, “I can do this”.

At other times, however, you might not feel quite so great. Perhaps you find yourself thinking “on a loop” about how much work you have to do. Maybe you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, or irritable. You may also overthink, become unresponsive to others, or find it difficult to manage or focus on your tasks. You might be experiencing sleep problems or physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. These types of response to stressors often act as blocks to breaking the stress cycle. When these symptoms appear, there are strategies you can use to reduce the intensity of the stress response and move towards getting unstuck.

Reduce your stress response in the moment

There are many ways to complete the stress cycle. Below are some methods that research has shown to be effective. You can find more in the book, Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle, as well as in the Canvas course, Mental Health: The Basics.

  • Physical activity
  • Breathing
  • Positive social interaction
  • Laughter
  • Affection
  • A big cry
  • Creative expression
  • Making time to unwind

Box breathing technique

If you are experiencing a particularly stressful moment, try the Box Breathing technique.

The breathing exercise can help lower your heart rate, so you feel more relaxed. You can then focus your energy on addressing the problem at hand.

  1. Get comfortable and close your eyes, if possible. If not, simply focus on your breathing. Imagine your breathing following the shape of a square, or box.
  2. Inhale, preferably through your nose, for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Exhale slowly through your mouth for four seconds.
  4. Pause for four seconds before breathing in again.

Repeat this process as many times as you can. Even thirty seconds of deep breathing may help you feel more relaxed and in control.

Make a plan and look for solutions

Once you’ve reduced the intensity of the stress response, you can start to look for solutions to your current challenge. Use past experiences to reflect on how you managed a similar problem, or brainstorm new ways to approach a difficult situation.

Discuss the situation with a trusted individual, such as a friend or family member, and ask for help if needed. Try using the following prompts to get your problem-solving back on track:

  • What would a good outcome in this situation look like?
  • What strengths have I drawn on so far? What is working for me?
  • How have I managed similar situations in the past? What could I learn from that?
  • What would my friend, family member, or partner suggest if they were here?
  • What would I suggest to them in a similar situation?

Diverse experiences of stress

The stress response is something we all experience. However, there are aspects of any individual’s identity, known as the social determinants of health, that can disproportionately impact health and wellbeing, including mental wellbeing and stress.

The social determinants of health include (but are not limited to) income, education, childhood experiences, access to health services, gender, culture and race or racism.

Experiences of discrimination, racism and trauma (both historic and present-day) may play an important role in health outcomes for certain groups such as Indigenous Peoples, Black People, People of Colour, LGBTQ2S+, and people with disabilities. These experiences shape outcomes on a number of levels: they may modify the intensity of the stress response itself, or impact an individual’s capacity to cope, and/or limit access to available supports. 

Systemic stressors require supports that are implemented at a systems-level, rather than at an individual level.

As part of a caring, proactive community at UBC, we acknowledge these inequities and come together to support each other. UBC is committed to addressing inequities through strategic frameworks such as the Indigenous Strategic Plan, the Inclusion Action Plan, and through initiatives such as the Anti-Racism Task Force.

As well, UBC and the broader community have resources to support students who identify as IBPOC, LGBTQ2S+, and with disabilities, as well as resources to support you in being an ally to your peers with these intersecting identities.

Build resiliency

There are things you can do on a daily basis to be more resilient and feel ready to face challenges in school, work, and life. Learn about the 24-hour movement guidelines.

Take Care of the Basics

  • Get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • Fuel up on healthy foods.
  • Stay active through exercise or any kind of joyful movement.

Make Time to Unwind

  • Read a book, draw, create art, journal, or write. 
  • Connect with a friend or family member.
  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Remind yourself of your strengths.
  • Garden or visit the UBC farmers’ market.
  • Watch a comedy or read a funny book.
  • Do muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Find a quiet, safe space where you can relax, like the UBC Nitobe Memorial Garden.

Stay connected or get involved

  • Call or spend time with friends or family when you need to talk.
  • Build a support network by staying in touch with old friends. 
  • Have fun and meet new people by volunteering in your community.
  • Meet individuals with similar experiences and interests through an AMS club.

Apps and interactive resources

These websites and apps have been carefully chosen by health professionals at UBC. They’re easy and accessible tools you can use at any time, to help you learn about managing stress.

  • TAO Self-Help
    Manage your well-being with tools on stress, relationship problems, substance use, and more. Register with an UBC student email, which you can set up for free.
  • MindShift app 
    Learn to relax, cope with anxiety, and develop helpful ways of thinking and effective strategies for addressing anxiety.
  • UBC breathing videos 
    Practice deep-breathing with short videos showing beautiful scenes of nature on campus.
  • Headspace app student plan
    Meditate and clear your mind for 10 minutes daily on the paid app.
  • HeadsUpGuys
    Connect to a website resource aimed at helping men fight depression and prevent male suicide.
  • Calm app
    Get more restful sleep by meditating with relaxing music with this paid app.
  • Insight Timer app
    Set a timer for yourself and practice deep-breathing.
  • How to make stress your friend
    Watch a TED talk video from a health psychologist to see how stress can sometimes be positive.

Peer support

It might be easier to talk with a trained student about your stress. They may understand what you’re going through and can offer helpful resources.

  • AMS Peer Support
    Access free, confidential, one-on-one peer support for UBC students and staff facing a wide variety of challenges.
  • UBC Meditation Community
    Join UBC students and community members in free meditation sessions at the AMS Nest.
  • Zen at UBC
    Participate in meditation sittings held in the UBC Life building two times per week.

Professional support

If you've tried resources and they aren't helping, or if your stress or anxiety are persistent and negatively affecting your everyday life, talk to a staff member or health professional about your concerns.

  • UBC Counselling Services
    Book a one-on-one assessment for mental health concerns and get connected to resources.
  • Private counselling
    Learn how to find a private mental health practitioner, such as a licensed psychologist, registered clinical counsellor, or therapist with a Master’s in Social Work.
  • Here2Talk
    Call, chat online, or use the mobile app to get free, immediate, 24/7 mental health counselling, available in various languages for post-secondary students in British Columbia. UBC students can reach out as often as needed, anytime, from anywhere in the world.
  • HealthLink BC 
    Call 811 to speak with a nurse, or access online resources to help manage your stress.