In my past work as a therapist on college campuses, and now as a psychologist in private practice, October is the time of the year when I tend to see a sharp uptick in stressed, overwhelmed, totally burnt-out college students. The freshness of the semester has faded and the reality of all of the assignments, papers, projects, exams and midterms seem to have formed a menacing thundercloud over the heads of many unsuspecting students. Instead of being motivated to work harder, however, many find themselves becoming frozen, unmotivated, and continue to fall farther behind on their work. There's a reason for that, and it all has to do with how stress affects our brains.
Stress and the Performance Curve
Stress is something we all experience. It's unavoidable. We all experience stress differently, and to varying degrees. Stress is the body's reaction to any demand, pressure, or strain. There is "good" stress, which arises from the demands from a pleasurable activity, such as a sport, trying something new, or being creative. Good stress is motivating and helps us perform and do well. Unhelpful stress, however, happens when you have a chronic feeling of being overwhelmed, oppressed, and behind. This stress may be focused on one particular thing, such as being unable to complete an assignment, or it may be a general feeling, that impacts all parts of your life. When we experience unhelpful stress, it often feels as if there won't be any relief. This type of stress stops us from being able to function day to day and interferes with what we want to accomplish. Unhelpful stress is the result of too many little stressors piling up.
So some stress is helpful and some stress is not, and it all has to do with how much of it there is. Some stress helps us do well, but after a certain point, our ability to perform begins to deteriorate and we get overwhelmed and start to shut down. This phenomenon is illustrated through the Performance Curve. Too little stress leads to boredom, but too much results in burnout.
4 Signs You're Overwhelmed and Burnt Out
There are many symptoms of stress, and everyone experiences stress differently. But there are several experiences that are more common.
1.) Physical Symptoms Stress definitely impacts us in a physical way. When you are overly stressed, you may notice your immune system weakening and getting sick more frequently, headaches, stomach aches, high blood pressure and other heart issues, fatigue, and exhaustion. Our sleep often suffers when we are stressed, leading to insomnia, frequent night wakings, and unrefreshing sleep.
2.) Mental/Emotional Symptoms Many who are overwhelmed with stress find themselves, anxious, irritable, nervous, or worrying frequently. They may procrastinate, feel unmotivated, feel and lose self-confidence. Some people who are burnt out may also find themselves thinking and talking negatively, and feeling stuck or helpless. Additionally, some people may find it difficult to focus, concentrate, and may struggle with disorganization.
3.) Social Symptoms Particularly for those who have been feeling overwhelmed for a long time, it is common for social functioning to suffer. People who are burned out may begin to avoid social situations and other people. When they do interact with others, they may not act like themselves and relationships can suffer.
4.) Unhealthy Coping Some people may find their appetite goes down when they are stressed, and may end up losing weight. Others overeat when they are too stressed. Similarly, some people overuse alcohol or other drugs to help themselves cope through the stress, which can have a variety of unhelpful and unintended consequences. Mindless activities such as a lot of TV, gaming, or internet can also ultimately be unhelpful in alleviating stress.
Diet & Exercise Have you noticed yourself under-eating or overeating when you're stressed? There's a big connection between our diet and our mood. Eat regular, balanced meals and avoid too much junk food. Caffeine is fine in moderation but too much can exhaust you in the long run. Drink plenty of water.
Exercise relieves stress, improves sleep, and can provide social interaction if you do it with a buddy. Exercise can be worked into your schedule creatively, and it doesn't need to be anything too elaborate.
Sleep Getting enough sleep is critical for helping your mind and body recharge, helping you to perform better, boosting your immune system, and providing relaxation. If you are having difficulties getting enough sleep, evaluate your sleep routine. Make sure your sleep environment is comfortable and you only use your bed for sleep, you have a regular routine for going to bed, and you go to bed and wake up at about the same time each day.
Savor the Moment It's easy to zone out or start thinking about things that have already happened, or things that we need to do. One way to reduce stress is to spend some time in the present moment, becoming fully aware of what you're doing. One of the best times to do this is during a pleasurable activity. Do one thing at a time, and allow yourself to enjoy what you are doing in the present, rather then becoming fixated on the past or future. For example, the next time you eat, really focus on chewing slowly and enjoying the taste of your food. You don't need to do this all of the time, of course, but try to sprinkle moments of savoring throughout your day.
See my other article for more ideas of incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine.
Practice Gratitude Practicing gratitude regularly is another way you can decrease your overall stress. For example, you can journal 5 good things about your day or write a letter to someone with details about why you appreciate them. Throughout your day, watch for moments when you have the opportunity to say, "thank you." Another way to practice gratitude is through a "gratitude walk." Take a walk and appreciate your surroundings. For example, you could notice some beautiful flowers, a nice breeze, a cool looking building, etc.
Use Your Strengths People who focus on doing what they're good at are less stressed overall. Figure out what your strengths are, and try to use them as much as possible throughout the day. If you're having problems figuring out what you're good out, try taking the Values In Action quiz for some ideas. Research has shown that the more time we spend using our strengths, the more happy we are and the less worried, angry, sad, and in pain we are.
Do Something Fun Sometimes when we're overwhelmed with stress, we forget that we need to slow down and have fun. Think about what you enjoy doing. Maybe there's a hobby or activity you enjoy that you've been neglecting? Think about how you unwind. How do you take care of yourself? Having fun and unwinding is necessary. If you feel like you don't have time to stop and have fun, think of it like adding oil to a car—it's necessary to keep the car running. The same is true for making space in your life for fun. Be careful to differentiate between fun activities and distracting, mindless activities. When you do something fun, make sure to savor it.
Relaxation Relaxation feels good. It slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, slows your breathing, increases your blood flow, improves your concentration, calms your emotions, and boosts your confidence. Relaxation is the physical and mental time-out for your body. One of the fundamental ways to relax is to practice deep breathing (or diaphragmatic breathing). Take a deep breath in, drawing in the air to the bottom of your lungs, down to your abdomen. Try to see if when you inhale, you can make your belly rise instead of your chest. Inhale for about 5 seconds, hold your breath for 2-3 seconds, then exhale slowly for about 6-7 seconds. If you start to feel dizzy or sick, stop, and try again later.
Guided imagery or visualizations, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided meditation can all be helpful ways to relax. If you are having difficulties falling asleep, this can also be a good way to relax your body and mind and help you sleep better. You can find some free things to listen to here and here.
Taking care of stress = Taking care of you
Taking care of you = More energy
More energy = Being a better student
More energy = Being better able to reach your goals and do what is important to you
Don't wait until you're burnt out to deal with stress. You can help prevent it from getting too overwhelming. Think about stress management as an investment. Setting aside time to take care of yourself is crucial. First, think ahead. Anticipate stressful events such as exams or big papers. Break large tasks into smaller ones. It can help to track your progress, such as making task lists for yourself. Figure out ways to delegate stressful activities into something more manageable. Work in relaxation and self-care activities into your schedule, especially around more stressful times. And when possible, say "no" to more responsibilities when you already have enough to balance yourself.
If you've tried these strategies and you still feel overwhelmed, it may help to get additional help, especially if you've been feeling anxious or depressed. Counseling can help you address some of these problems. If you are a college student, check to see if there are counseling services available on your campus.
Dr. Amber Sylvan is a psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI who helps frazzled college students manage their stress.