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The Science of HappinessMJ O'Leary
As a professional stress management coach for college students, I have recently held sessions with multiple clients who are already feeling overwhelmed as a result of transitioning to a new semester.
The most common causes of stress that we address are worries about establishing a new routine, meeting multiple deadlines, reconnecting socially after a long break, and managing time. In addition, some of these students share that feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, and pressure to succeed cause them to emotionally unravel.
Stress in college is pervasive (some might say inevitable). According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 85 percent of college students surveyed felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do at some point during the school year. A Harvard Medical School study (involving more than 67,000 students at 100+ schools) found that three-fourths experienced at least one stressful life event in the last year and more than 20 percent experienced six or more stressful life events.
As parents we understand that the college experience is not only about attaining academic credentials, but also for learning how to manage life. One of the most critical ways to manage life is to learn to manage stress and regulate emotions.
When the human mind perceives normal adjustments to college as threats, the human stress response is activated. Students experiencing the biochemical, physical and emotional effects of the response may describe them as anxiety, exhaustion and hopelessness.
Fortunately, this human stress response is an amazing mechanism for safety and survival. We need it to alarm us in certain life or death situations. The confusing part is: Our brains can’t decipher levels of threats. Feeling overwhelmed with college is registered in the brain the same as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car.
While preparing for a rigorous semester of college is not the same as jumping out of the way of an oncoming car, the stress response may automatically activate just as it would in a real life or death situation, leading a student to perceive college life and all that it entails as equally stressful.
It is somewhat normal to feel threatened by the pressure to perform and succeed; however, it is not necessary for these perceived ideas to cause extreme discomforts such as sleep disturbance, negligence of self-care, poor food choices, feelings of helplessness, inability to focus and concentrate, inability to regulate and monitor distractions, digestive issues, headaches and body tension.
Some amounts of college stress are necessary to study productively, maintain motivation and accomplish tasks, but the negative effects of stress shouldn't disrupt daily living and thriving. By simply learning the science of stress and what is an actual versus a perceived threat, students can learn to effectively manage the pressures of college so the demands don’t seem as unbearable.
Students can learn how to monitor thoughts and reactions to the perceived threats and better manage the symptoms.
They can become more aware of what aspects of college life are intimidating and frightening and learn to relax and observe those thoughts. They can monitor distractions, balance life outside of class, and effectively manage time. All of these deactivate the stress response.
To sum up, it is critical to learn how the mind and body respond to stress and to help them adjust by creating a daily routine of mind and body maintenance practices.
Here are eight practical, tried-and-true approaches that can help your college student disrupt the naturally occurring stress response as they embark on the new semester.
Write it out, draw it, color it, mind map it, keep it visible. Include:
Reduce or eliminate sugar drinks, caffeine and alcohol — Gatorade, energy drinks, teas (the kind with added sugar) and sodas included.
Practice “4-7-8” deep breathing daily (watch the YouTube video, and do the exercise just four times to get the beneficial effect), and try “square breathing," too. Use breathing apps. It only takes ten minutes to engage your diaphragm and activate the calm part of your nervous system. This also helps with many body functions.
Foods rich in vitamins B and C, iron and magnesium (such as oranges, broccoli, avocados, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, berries, grass-fed beef, salmon and sunflower seeds) are helpful in reducing the effects of stress and strengthening the nervous system. Adrenal glands lose these when you experience stress. Magnesium also helps in the production of serotonin throughout the day. Read "How to Right on a Campus Meal Plan" and then share the tips with your student!
Click here to find easy ways you can help your student get a better night's sleep in the dorm.
“I am right where I need to be. With this comes tough times. I am tough enough and I will be just fine.”
“I am on a journey and will embrace the mountains, the valleys and the peaks.”
“I am thankful every day for the opportunity to go to college. In four years, I will have grown exponentially and will contribute to society in ways I never imagined.”