Coping with everyday pressure

By J_Howard

With the end of the semester upon us, students’ stress levels are on the rise. Though this response is common, it is the cause of many health concerns across the country.

Stress impacts everyone. The 2010 Stress in America survey by the American Psychological Association reported 37 percent of Chicagoans feel stressed or tense during their workday, a 9 percent increase from last year’s survey.

“Stress is a normal response in reaction to the demands of our everyday life,” said Melinda Ring, medical director for Northwestern Memorial Physicians Group. “A certain amount of stress is important for our bodies. Actually, if we are understressed we can underperform.”

Ring said an optimal level of stress is different for every person.

“We see some people thrive on being very busy and always having things to do, while others need to take it at a slower pace in order to be feeling their best,” she said.

When stress becomes a constant state of anxiety, it begins to take a toll on physical, emotional and cognitive health, according to Matt Richards, clinical intern for Counseling Services at Columbia.

“There is something we call the stress response, something a lot of mammals experience,” Richards said. “And that is when we feel we are in threat of danger, our bodies release hormones that try to get us to get out of the situation or stay and fight the situation. If we are constantly feeling like that, it can start to take a toll.”

Richards said one may physically experience muscle tension, chest tightness, sleep disturbances and possible high blood pressure. Difficulty concentrating, irritability and moodiness are some mental effects of constant or persistent stress.

Sleep difficulty due to stress is something Joseph Hermes, director of University of Illinois at Chicago’s Counseling Services, said he has seen many cases where stress has impacted students’ sleep habits.

“If you’re having a bad time sleeping, you certainly want to address that as early as you can,” Hermes said. “Eliminate things like studying in bed or reading in bed if you are having sleep difficulties, and really focus on the use of the bed for a major purpose of sleeping.”

Hermes said improving sleep habits is one of the many things that can be done to reduce stress, like having good nutrition

and exercises.

Ring said another component of stress relief is mind-body therapy.

“Everybody needs to have mind-body therapy in their life,” she said. “We want people to activate their relaxation response where the body does start to calm down and the heart rate slows.”

Mind-body therapy activities include yoga, guided imagery, muscle relaxation and meditation.

Ring said the ideal dose is about 20 minutes twice a day, but for those who cannot find that specific time, start small.

“I often tell patients if we can just start with a few minutes dispersed throughout the day of doing, deep breathing exercises, then that is a good start,” Ring said.

Columbia’s Counseling Services provides support for those struggling with stress. Ring said counselors also work to help students get connected with services on campus that can ease the workload.

“We get into this thinking very frequently where things have to be this way or they have to be another way,” Richards said. “And of course, most things in life are more complex than that. Black and white thinking leads to stress and worrying. Often these situations are not nearly as consequential as we imagine them to be.”