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Do you ever feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel? It’s very common for students to feel stress-a physiological and psychological state that results from a variety of factors, including individual experiences and genetics. Exploring how stress develops can help you understand your personal symptoms and how to relieve them.
Krystyna R., a second-year graduate student at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, has noticed that even when she and her friends experience the same stressful event, it doesn’t affect her in the same way. Esteban N., a sophomore at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, agrees. “I definitely get less stressed out than some of my friends,” he says.
There are genetic, psychological, and environmental factors that influence people’s resilience.
In a 2011 overview of studies on stress, researchers in the Netherlands noted that early life events affect vulnerability to stress. For example, in a study of rats, a more attentive mother meant an animal was less likely to be stressed, and had fewer genes that initiate the release of stress hormones, in comparison with those that became stressed more easily.
You may be thinking, “Wait, I’m human.” True, but rats and mice are social, intelligent animals that can help us understand a lot about our own behavior-and findings about stress hormones in humans mimic the results in rats.
State of Mind
In a 2013 study published in Health Psychology, researchers found that people who considered themselves optimists had lower, and more stable, levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As one of the co-authors, Joëlle Jobin, explains in an interview with Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, “On days [when people] experience higher-than-average stress, we see that the pessimists’ stress response is very elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances.”
Anna C., a recent graduate of Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, suggests, “If you see a paper as a huge obstacle, it will be more stressful than if you see it as a step toward the career you want.”
Krystyna observes, “Grades, due dates, relationships, family, choosing a major, thinking about jobs-it takes a lot to navigate through college.”
In a 2011 study published in Molecular Medicine, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that mice experience changes in stress level and health based on their environment. Mice living in large, comfortable cages-especially those with access to regular exercise-had lower levels of stress hormone production in comparison with mice living in tight quarters. They also had increased body mass, which indicates good health in mice. (Perhaps that’s one difference between rodents and humans.)
Haley K., a senior at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, agrees. “College is a huge transition from high school. Classes are faster-paced with more pressure. It’s also stressful at times to be away from home,” she says.
Lower Your Stress
So other than surrounding yourself with soft nesting materials and using your exercise wheel, what can you do to reduce stress and manage it when it occurs?
Steve Lux, a health educator at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, suggests developing your own “bag” of six or more stress-reduction techniques that meet the following criteria:
- They work.
- They’re enjoyable.
- They’re versatile.
You’ll want to have options that can be used at different times of day, alone or with friends, and based on the circumstances. Lux says, “Healthy stress handlers are never at a loss for an effective strategy.”
Sean Moundas, a psychologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, suggests the following ideas:
- Connect with your supports.
- Develop a meditative practice. (This can be deep breathing, walking, listening to music, or anything that clears your mind.)
- Maintain a regular sleep, eating, and physical activity routine.
- Make time for things that are fun and relaxing.
- Discuss challenges with friends and family.
Haley has found prayer helpful, using it as a form of meditation. She explains, “If I’m particularly stressed out, I’ll sit in a chapel and enjoy my time.” Christina Berg, director of health education and prevention services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says small actions that don’t take much time can be a big help.
Lux says, “You can even go outside and scream at the top of your lungs!”
Moundas adds, “Psychological counseling can also be a helpful way to learn and practice effective coping strategies.” Margaret K., a junior at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, says, “Counseling is preventative. It can help you learn what makes you stressed and how to deal with it even before it happens.”
The next time you feel like a hamster on a wheel (or a mouse in a small cage), think about the aspects of your personality or environment that may be influencing your experience of stress. Then find the solutions that work for you, and gradually integrate them into your life.
- Identify your stress triggers.
- Examine if there are environmental factors you can adjust.
- Think about how your past experiences may be affecting your stress level.
- Develop strategies to manage pressure.
- Talk with friends and family when you feel overwhelmed.
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