Stress 101

We all experience stress from time to time. It’s a completely normal reaction to events or stressors in our lives, and the student experience is full of events that can be stressful. Between adjusting to campus and classes, your coursework and expectations, extracurricular activities, work, meeting new people and more, your life is busy—possibly making you even more susceptible to stress. Changes in your routine, like an upcoming paper or exam, or a miscommunication with a peer can cause stress. It’s important to recognize that stress can be caused by events we perceive as good or bad. It does not discriminate, and positive events that we are excited about can be just as overwhelming as ones we view negatively.

Your Reaction to Stress

Fight or Flight

Our bodies and minds are primed to respond in a specific way to stressors. You may have heard the term “fight or flight response.” This is how the stress response is commonly described because of the tendency to either take on a stressful event and work through it (fight) or to avoid or flee from it (flight).

Not all stress is negative. Some stress, in small doses, can give you that nudge to help you with a project, or prepare you for an interview, presentation, or athletic competition. It can make you feel energized and ready to take on the task-at-hand. This is called eustress (positive stress). And in these instances, you are “fighting it”. Conversely, a state of distress occurs when stress becomes too much for you to manage. Distress can cause emotional responses and disruptions such as procrastination, avoidance, or withdrawal. In these instances, you may be “fleeing” from stress.

Short- or Long-Lasting

Another distinction among stressful events is whether the symptoms and reactions they cause are short-lasting (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress may be what you experience when you are studying for an exam. When the exam is over, the stress is alleviated. When your response to stress goes on for days or weeks, you are experiencing chronic stress. This type of distress can lead to significant health problems.

Your Thoughts, Feelings, and Actions

Remember, our thoughts about a stressor can impact our feelings about the situation as well as how we react to a situation. One of the first steps in understanding your experiences with stress is exploring your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

If you haven’t considered this before, think about a current stressor you may be experiencing.

  • What is the stressful event?
  • Is it causing eustress—do you feel excited, fulfilled, or motivated?
  • Is it causing distress—do you feel overwhelmed or tapped out?
  • Is the stressor something that will end soon, like a test or a report?
  • Is the stressor something constant, like a relationship or a job?

Answer the following prompts:

I think ______________ about this stressor. (thoughts)
I tell myself____________ about this stressor. (thoughts)
I feel_____________ in response to this stressor. (feelings)
I act or appear as_____________ when I am stressed. (actions)
I cope by___________ when I am stressed. (actions)

What did you notice about your thoughts, feelings, and actions or responses to this event? Are they constructive, or do they unintentionally cause more stress?

While understanding your response to individual stressors is important, stress can cause a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral responses, regardless of the type of stressor. Sometimes, when you are in the midst of your daily or weekly routine, it is difficult to acknowledge stress or be mindful of physical or emotional symptoms that may indicate when you are experiencing stress. Being aware of what causes you stress and your response to it can help you manage stress effectively. Check out our other articles on stress to learn more about your physical or emotional responses to stress, pitfalls that may contribute to stress, and tips for managing stress.