How we perceive a stress-provoking event and how we react to it determines its impact on our health.
Canadian Mental Health Association
What can I do for myself right now?
What causes stress?
Stress is the body’s reaction to physical, chemical, emotional, or environmental factors. These can range from extreme, life-threatening situations to the simple and everyday challenges of life.
Pressure to perform well academically, to manage finances and relationships and lack of time are just some of the stressors students face. Stress can be a good thing when it acts as a motivator, helping you to accomplish your goals. Success, in turn, builds confidence in your ability to manage even more stress in your life.
However, too much stress or stress that is not managed effectively can be detrimental to your wellbeing and your ability to focus on achieving your goals.
Comparing stress and anxiety
What's the difference?
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.
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 or upcoming submission deadlines, 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.
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
- 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.
Manage your time more effectively
Managing your time more effectively can help you get things done and reduce stress.
Do your most difficult work when you have the most energy
Think about the time of day you are most effective and have the most energy. Plan to do your most difficult work during these times.
Know when to stop
Although some students may stay up until 4am studying, it’s not a healthy habit. Your mind is more efficient when you get enough quality sleep, so make sure to schedule enough time for rest.
Use all of your time
Maximize your time by studying between classes, on the bus and in other spare moments. Five minute chunks of reading or studying add up fast.
Discover more time management techniques at the Learning Commons.
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 or meetings? Studying or writing 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 or thesis defense alone in your room at night triggers a stress response, you might try studying with a friend or family member, 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, TA, or research supervisor 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.