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Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Everyday Stress and Anxiety

 
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Stress and anxiety are a typical part of college life

Stress and anxiety are an everyday part of college life. From academic pursuits to personal and social exploration, college is a time of great change for your students. Will I get my homework done on time? How can I possibly finish this paper and study for my midterm? Will I be able to meet up with friends tonight? How do I confront my roommate on his behavior? I wonder if that girl likes me as more than a friend? New, unaccustomed situations can put our students into environments in which they are unfamiliar. 
 
Though we expect college to be a time of change for our students, many are unsure how best to handle the everyday stress and anxiety that such situations may cause. Students whom have always been so sure of themselves in high school are now presented with scenarios in which they just do not know how to react. The ability to cope in healthy ways with new stressors and anxieties is one of the key skills that all students need to grasp in order to be successful in college and throughout life. Whether managing multiple requirements, handling roommate conflicts, or dealing with interpersonal relationships, no situation is ever simple. Therefore students need to be aware of how best to develop the coping mechanisms needed to manage stress and anxiety so that everyday function is not compromised. Stress will always be present. Learning to manage this stress and anxiety is the key.
 
Again, stress is a normal part of everyday life, especially the life of a college student. Stress for students tends to come from daily commuting; managing finances; and/or balancing work, academics, and dating, social, and family relationships. Other students may tend to feel stressed and anxious about wasting even a minute of time, meeting high standards that are either self-imposed or a result of prerequisites of academic programs they will apply for down the road. Other students may be lonely, struggling to find their niche at Ohio State. Still others may have too much responsibility to feel a healthy amount of independence as budding adults. Stress can even come from what we think of as exciting or positive events, such as falling in love, preparing to study abroad, or buying a car. These events, albeit hopeful and promising, represent change, and change is never easy. However, change brings about opportunities to try new and healthy ways of responding to stress, and to leave unhealthy ones behind.
 
It is not the absence of stress that leads to happiness; rather, it is how we deal with it that can make us feel happy or unhappy. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, well-known happiness and creativity researcher once said, “It is how people respond to stress that determines whether they will profit from misfortune or be miserable.” Often we respond to normal everyday stressors by becoming overwhelmed, feeling panicked, or physically or emotionally withdrawing. We may be hyperfocused on the unpleasant and painful feelings of stress, which then leads to a decrease in overall performance and belief in our abilities, as well as physical, mental, and emotional fatigue. Normal everyday stressors, when coupled with healthy coping mechanisms, can lead to improved performance, increased motivation, and focused energy. It can even feel invigorating and energizing when we believe what we are striving for is within our capabilities and something we can handle.
 
When our students don’t know how to handle new everyday stressors like the ones first encountered in college, they may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as:
  •  Drinking alcohol to excess
  • Taking out their stress on their friends, significant others, staff, and family
  • Lashing out against friends on Facebook or Twitter
  • Avoiding the situation, hoping the problem will go away on its own
  • Overeating or eating excessive amounts of junk food or sugar
  • Overworking
  • Withdrawing from schoolwork, job, and social networks 
Although these coping mechanisms may seem to work in the short term, they are only a Band-Aid for the stress experienced, and they invariably lead to increased stress levels. For example, making the rash decision to lash out against others on Facebook or Twitter can lead to shame and regret, two emotions arguably worse than stress. Overworking, digging one’s heels in trying to accomplish more can be self-defeating. The more distressed our mental state, the less efficient we are, and then we become discouraged at the dismal amount of work we accomplished. (Sometimes all we need is a break from work, without feeling guilty for taking a break). And avoiding the situation and withdrawing from responsibilities only leads to the pileup of stressors that won’t go away until we begin to address them.
 
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Students need to find an outlet for their stress and anxiety

When our students’ stress levels reach more than they are used to handling, you can come into play as one of their most important support systems. You can provide them support like no one else can, encouraging them to hang in there as they figure out ways to address their own stressors. You can also encourage them to develop their own healthy coping skills to deal with their stress, which are imperative for their functioning throughout the rest of their time at Ohio State and beyond. “The pressures facing today’s college student continue to rise on an ongoing basis.  How students respond to and handle the stress in their lives will have a direct impact on their ability to be successful, both in and outside of the classroom.  Ensuring that students are learning and using effective and healthy coping skills will assist them in achieving success while at The Ohio State University and in their lives after they complete their education,” says Micky M. Sharma, director of Counseling and Consultation Service at Ohio State. Here are some tips for helping your young adult (student) develop effective and healthy coping skills when they ask you for support:
  • Do encourage
  • Don’t tell them what to do
  • Do listen and ask open-ended questions
  • Don’t take over and assume responsibility
  • Do serve as a resource person
  • Don’t try to solve problems for your son or daughter
  • Do recommend the healthy coping mechanisms below

Developing Healthy Coping Skills

An important first step for our students is to become aware of their own unique signs of their stress, as we all respond to stress in somewhat different ways. The idea here is that if we are in tune with our own unique stress signals, we can address our stress in a timely manner with healthy coping mechanisms. Stress signals tend to come in four main categories: 
  • Feelings: moodiness, irritability, excessive anger, embarrassment, fear of failure.
  • Thoughts: self-criticism, difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, forgetfulness, worrying, repetitive thoughts, thoughts of failure.
  • Behaviors: crying, increased or decreased appetite, lashing out at friends, acting impulsively, alcohol or other drug use (including smoking), nervous laughter, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, stuttering or other speech difficulties, being more accident-prone.
  • Physical signs: sleep disturbances, tight muscles, headaches, fatigue, cold or sweaty hands, back or neck problems, stomach distress, physical illness (colds and infections), rapid breathing, pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth.

Once students recognize their stress signals are present, you can encourage them to try out the different healthy coping skills below. Everyone is unique, so some coping skills work better for some than others, and some require practice to be effective, just like riding a bicycle.

 1. Breathe

When we’re stressed, we do not take enough deep breaths. Less oxygen enters the bloodstream, leading to muscle tension, chest tightness, and feeling more uptight. Take a moment to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Inhale deeply enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Then slowly exhale as you count to 10. As with any skill, the more you practice deep breathing, the more effective a coping skill it becomes.
 
You can also do the three minute breath practice with Matt Fleming, a counselor at Ohio State’s Counseling and Consultation Service (CCS).

2. Manage Your Time

By planning ahead and making a reasonable schedule for yourself that includes both work and fun, you can help reduce stress. Make a list of the things you have to do, tackle one at a time, and cross them off the list as you complete them. Don’t overwork yourself; too much studying is actually not a good thing and leads to inefficiency and burnout. Schedule reasonable breaks for yourself, including taking a walk outside or changing locations to give yourself a new perspective.

3. Maintain Your Connection with Others

We all need some alone time, but not to the point of becoming lonely. During times of stress, maintain your social support network of friends and family. Get involved. Do something for someone else by volunteering.
 
The Office of Student Life offers many opportunities to get involved and connected with other students on campus. The Ohio Union and Student Activities offers student organizations, leadership, community service, and other opportunities for getting involved. Students may also benefit from finding employment on campus. 

4. Talk It Out

If you are feeling overloaded by stress, discuss your thoughts and feelings with a trusted person—bottling up your thoughts of stress only makes it worse. Talking with someone else can help get out your confusing thoughts and clarify what’s important. Schedule an appointment to talk to a counselor at Counseling and Consultation Service (CCS) by calling (614) 292-5766.

5. Get Physical

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The ARC's climbing wall is a big part of recreational sports

 
Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. When you feel nervous, angry, or down, exercise can help relieve tension, relax you, and will actually give you more energy. Try to find a physical activity you enjoy and weave it into your schedule regularly. There’s something for everyone at Ohio State Recreational Sports,   which also boasts some of the top recreational facilities in the country. One of these is the RPAC, which has been named an Outstanding Sports Facility by the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association.

6. Take Care of Your Body

Eat healthy and get enough sleep—eat breakfast in the morning, avoid “all-nighters”, and avoid too much caffeine, sugar, alcohol and nicotine. Getting enough sleep and eating healthy food fuels the body as well as the mind. Consider your body a car, and sufficient sleep and healthy food the gas. With a full tank, you’ll be able to go the distance in dealing with stressful situations.

7. Laugh

Maintain your sense of humor and your ability to laugh at yourself. Give yourself a break by watching or reading something humorous.

8. Know Your Limits

There are many circumstances in life beyond our control, including the behavior of others. If a problem is beyond your control and cannot be changed at the moment, don’t fight the situation. Try to accept situations you cannot change, focusing on the things you can change for the better.

9. Have a Good Cry

A good cry during stressful times can be a healthy way to bring relief to your anxiety and may prevent headaches and other physical consequences of bottling things up. Sometimes a good cry is all you need.
 
However, if you are crying daily, seek an initial consultation at Counseling and Consultation Service (CCS) – (614) 292-5766. Talking with a counselor can help uncover underlying issues that may be bothering you beyond the normal stressors of everyday student life.

10. Avoid Self-Medication

Alcohol and other drugs do not remove the conditions that cause stress—they only mask or disguise problems, leading to an increase in stress after use. And behavior under the influence of alcohol and other drugs can create problems that were never there before. Only take medication that is prescribed to you by a physician.

11. Maintain a Positive Outlook

It is easy to fall into a rut of negativity when you are stressed, as if you are wearing glasses that only let the stressful in and keep out the joy. It takes a little work to take off these glasses, but once you do, it will be worth it. Research studies consistently show that a positive outlook and an attitude of gratitude can greatly reduce stress and bring joy into our lives. Take time each day to notice 5 positive moments throughout your day. Don’t hesitate to write them down. They may seem small, but they are potent, tipping the scales of your perception to the positive and giving you energy. Some positive events in any given day: 
  • Someone you met yesterday remembering your name
  • A cool morning breeze
  • A coin found on the street
  • Snow falling outside while you are inside comfy and warm
  • A text from a friend
  • A courteous driver
  • A beautiful sky
  • The warmth and company of your pet
  • Having coffee with a friend 

12. Take a "One-Minute Vacation"

Take just one minute to close your eyes and imagine a peaceful place where you feel relaxed and comfortable. Pay attention and be curious about all the details of this place, including pleasant sounds, smells, and temperature. If you find yourself having difficulty imagining a scene on your own, try listening to one of these guided imagery exercises provided by the Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In your mind, you can walk through a tranquil forest or take a relaxing cruise through the tropics.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
You can also practice Chi-lel Qigong here at Ohio State, a method of relaxation and stress management through gentle movement. It is offered every Thursday morning while classes are in session, from 9-10am, in the Younkin Success Center, Room 300.
 
You can also participate in Mindfulness for Stress and Anxiety, a group for practicing techniques to reduce stress, improve coping, and maximize personal wellness offered at CCS. Email Matt Fleming (fleming.171@osu.edu) or Elizabeth Cannon (cannon.104@osu.edu) for more information and a mandatory prescreening. You can check out other groups offered by CCS here.

13. Seek Help for Managing Stress

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Counseling and Consultation Service's Staff are always available to assist your student

“The ancient redwood trees of Northern California, huge as they are, have a very shallow root system, yet they cannot be blown over by the strongest wind. The secret of their stability is the interweaving of each tree's roots with those that stand by it. Thus, a vast network of support is formed just beneath the surface. In the wildest of storms, these trees hold each other up”(Dawna Markova). It is human to need help and courageous to seek it. Even the finest athletes continue to have coaches to help them enhance or recover their skills. There are numerous resources at Ohio State to help students find their optimal functioning, throughout their student experience and beyond.
 
Student Wellness Center (614) 292-4527
Career Connection (614) 688-3898
Student Health Services (614) 292-4321
Telephone directory for the entire campus: 292-OHIO
 
References
 
Written and compiled by Elizabeth A. Cannon, Counseling Intern, Counseling and Consultation Service, and Ryan Lovell, Director of Parent, Family, and Alumni Relations