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You may be familiar with how you feel emotionally when under a lot of pressure: overwhelmed, agitated, or depressed. But stress can also manifest in physical ways, for example, as stomachaches or headaches. Getting to know your body’s reactions can help you address symptoms and also prevent them.
Your boss asks you to give a presentation the same day you have a huge paper due. You’re feeling anxious and then you get into your car at the end of the day to find your engine won’t start. Suddenly you feel extremely tense and your back and neck start to ache. Before you know it you have a headache and you’re craving something salty, or maybe something sweet.
This is your body telling you that you’re stressed.
“When I’m stressed, my body aches! I usually feel strain due to a build up of stress in my neck or lower back,” says Julie F., a student taking online courses at Bethel University.
Stress and Your Body
According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, almost half the respondents reported feeling very stressed in the past week, and almost 10 percent said it was at crisis level.
Pay close attention to your body; it will tell you when it needs extra care. Every person and every body is different, but here are some things to watch for:
- Tension in your neck and/or shoulders
- Upset stomach
- Fast heartbeat and/or “jitters”
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Extreme tiredness
- Frequent colds
- Loss of appetite or increased cravings for “comfort foods”
Julie T., a student at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California, notes, “I know that I’m stressed when I start to develop really tight muscles in my back and my neck.”
Over time, being in a stressed state will beat you down. When your body is constantly exposed to cortisol and other stress hormones, diabetes, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and other long-term health concerns can arise.
Mind Over Matter
There are many ways to prevent, and address, high levels of stress. Mind-body techniques are particularly helpful for alleviating physical symptoms. As the National Institutes of Health explain, “Mind-body medicine focuses on the ways in which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, experiential, and behavioral factors can directly affect health.”
What the following techniques have in common is a focus on how your body feels and how that relates to what you’re thinking. For some students, this focus can be achieved through exercise, a long shower, or massage. Here are some other options to try:
This method of stress reduction uses visual imagery and body awareness to move you into a deep state of relaxation. A simple example is this:
Picture someplace peaceful—perhaps a quiet beach or a backyard hammock—and allow yourself to experience restful physical sensations, like a calm heartbeat and warm arms and legs.
Dr. Nathan Cooper, a psychologist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, explains, “Through this strategy, one repeats self-suggestions out loud, such as ‘arms heavy, arms warm,’ three times each. Heaviness and warmth were chosen because these are states associated with relaxation.”
Meditation & Deep Breathing
In the recent Student Health 101 survey, 18 percent of respondents said they meditate when they’re feeling stressed, and 44 percent breathe deeply. You don’t need to spend a lot of time to reap the benefits of these activities.
Julie T. uses deep-breathing techniques when she feels sudden stress. She says, “I try to take a breathing break. I pay attention to my posture, close my eyes, and take a few cleansing breaths. It helps me refocus.”
There are many different types of meditation, ranging from techniques often practiced in a group to simple mind-clearing exercises you can do on your own. For ideas, type “meditation” into a search engine, find options in your community, or connect with your school’s counseling services for more resources.
A simple deep-breathing exercise
Deep Breathing Made Easy
Try these quick breathing exercises to relieve stress right away:
- Take a really deep, easy breath in, imagining that you’re filling your lungs with air from the bottom to the top. Focus on your abdomen rising as you breathe in, and falling as you breathe out.
- Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale slowly, counting from one to five, and exhale the same way.
- As you breathe, picture a place that is comforting. On your inhale, say to yourself, “I am warm.” On the exhale, “I am calm.”
- Continue until you feel more settled. Try not to pause or hold your breath.
Positive self-talk is a powerful way to relieve stress, as it shifts your perspective and allows you to focus on positive feelings. Lilo B., a graduate student at Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi, uses reassuring mantras to address the negative thoughts associated with stress.
“I repeat mantras while sitting still with my eyes closed. I visualize a happy experience without any bad thoughts. If I focus on positive feelings, I feel great afterwards,” she explains.
Reach Out for Help
If stress is taking a toll on your body, consider talking with a counselor or other health care provider. He or she can help you identify alternate stress-management techniques that can address both physical and emotional symptoms.
Many schools also offer stress-management seminars, yoga classes, and other relaxing activities. You can also look for these resources in your community or online. Taking some time to seek them out can empower you to pay attention to what both your body and mind are telling you.
More relaxation techniques
When you start to feel your level of anxiety rising, the act of calming your thoughts and breathing slowly can quickly help you relax.
Focus on the current moment and allow yourself to tune out other stimuli and worries. You might be concerned that this will take time away from what you’re doing. In actuality, it can take only a minute or two to interrupt the cycle and set yourself back on course. If necessary, step away from the situation and find someplace quiet, even if it’s a nearby restroom.
Here’s what you’ll notice as you relax:
- Your breathing will slow down and you’ll be able to breathe more deeply.
- Your heart rate will steady.
- Your muscles will become less tense.
- Visualize a peaceful place, such as a beach or inside your church.
- Imagine yourself there. What are the sights, sounds, and smells around you?
Some people find it helpful to carry an item that helps them self-soothe. These are usually small enough to fit in a pocket and in the palm of your hand: a smooth stone, a note from a friend, a soft-corded necklace, or anything else that helps you feel calm and peaceful.
- Take some slow breaths.
- Use positive and calming self-talk. Tell yourself, “This feeling will pass,” or, “I will get through this anxiety.”
- Pay attention to physical symptoms of stress.
- Try mind-body relaxation techniques.
- Learn some simple deep-breathing exercises to do anywhere.
- Look for stress-reducing activities at school or in your community.
- Reach out for help if stress is taking a toll.
Get help or find out more
American Psychological Association, Listening to the Warning Signs of Stress
HelpGuide.org, Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief
Metropolitan Community College, Longview Counseling, Relaxation Resources
Ozarks Technical Community College, Counseling Services, Relaxation Exercises
Antioch University New England, Controlling Graduate School Stress: Introduction
Columbia University, Work-Life, Stress Reduction Tips
Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., and McKay, M. (1997). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. Mjf Books: New York.