Understanding stress and the stress response


Stress is a normal part of the human experience. 

Everyone experiences stressful situations that can elicit a stress response; however, not all stress is bad. Learning how to respond to stressful situations in a proactive way can help you become more resilient.

The stress response is your body's way of letting you know that you need to adapt to changes in your environment. Normally, the physical reaction goes away after your challenge has passed. Understanding the stress response can help you learn how to effectively manage it.  

Recognize your signs of stress

First, you need to be able to identify when you’re experiencing stress to manage the stress response. Consider your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and physical symptoms. 

For example, you may feel suddenly overwhelmed or exhausted. You may have sleep problems when you face a challenge in your life, or you may experience physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.

Manage your stress

When you notice that you’re experiencing the stress response, you can take action.

  1. Reframe stress
    Think: "My body and brain are getting me ready to face this challenge. I am getting ready for an important task."

  2. Identify the source of your stress response
    Ask yourself why you believe you’re feeling stressed.

  3. Make a plan
    Use past experiences or brainstorm new ways to approach a difficult situation. Discuss the situation with friends and family and ask for help, if needed. You can also visit the Wellness Centre to talk to a Wellness Peer.

  4. Apply your solutions to the problem
    If academics is the source of your stress, access support and resources around learning strategies. You can also find tips on how to manage your time. If roommate conflict is causing stress and you live in residence, take steps to address the conflict productively.

  5. Evaluate the success of your solutions
    If you’ve attempted to resolve your problem and it doesn’t work, return to step 3 and consider alternative solutions.

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.

Take Care of the Basics

  • Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night

  • Fuel up on healthy foods

  • Stay active through exercise or fitness

Make Time to Unwind

  • Read a book, draw, create art, journal, or write 

  • Enjoy a hot beverage 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 (e.g., 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

A note about technology

Social media

Most people use social media as a way to connect with others; however, emerging research shows that connection over social media may not necessarily have the same positive benefits as an in-person connection. Try to meet with friends and family in person whenever possible.

Mindful breaks

It’s easy to spend time online as a break, such as scrolling through social media, watching videos, or mindlessly surfing from one site to another. 

These types of breaks may help distract your mind from worries, but they can also result in more time spent online than intended. Another more mindful, relaxing activity, such as taking a brisk walk outdoors, may be more helpful. 

Reduce your stress response in the moment

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. Sit and close your eyes, if possible. If not, simply focus on your breathing. 

  2. Inhale, preferably through your nose, for four seconds.

  3. Hold your breath for four seconds.

  4. Exhale slowly through your mouth for four seconds.

  5. 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.

Apps & 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 alumni email, which you can set up for free.

MindShift app 
Learn to relax, cope with anxiety, and develop helpful ways of thinking through this app.

UBC breathing videos 
Practice deep-breathing with short videos showing beautiful scenes of nature on campus.

Headspace app
Meditate and clear your mind for 10 minutes daily.

Calm app
Get more restful sleep by meditating with relaxing music.

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.

Wellness Centre
Talk to a Wellness Peer, a trained UBC student, for resources on stress, time management, or figuring out life as a student.

UBC Meditation Community
Join UBC students and community members in 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.

HealthLink BC 
Call 811 to speak with a nurse, or access online resources to help manage your stress.

Counselling Services
Book a one-on-one assessment for mental health concerns and get connected to resources.

24/7 services

UBC Student Assistance Program by Aspiria

Receive free, 24/7 personal counselling and life coaching, accessible anywhere in the world, offered in many languages through phone, video-counselling, or e-counselling.