6 Stress Relievers that Work

I get asked about stress more than anything else – and no wonder: stress is the single biggest wellness issue that college students report interfering with their academic success.

So. Ignoring, for the the moment, the “WHY” of various stress relievers, here’s a list of things that actually help when you’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and stressed:

Physical activity. Any kind. Walk, run, lift, climb, jump up and down, whatever. Move your body. It helps. Seriously. I know you’ve heard it before, but that’s because it’s the single most efficient way to deal with stress. Even if you just get out of your chair right now and stretch all your muscles. Really! Get up now and do it!

Affection. (i.e., the loving presence of someone you care about, who cares about you) Spending time with the people you care about the most makes you feel better. Of course not ALL the people you care about are equally comforting to be around when you’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or stressed, so be sure to select the people who really feel good. It helps.

Sleep. Shakespeare had an unwholesome obsession with sleep. He said it “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.” Right on. Get more of it. It’s good for you. (Oftentimes when people are stressed, they can’t get to sleep, which makes this advice pretty unhelpful. I’ll write a different post about that.

Being in nature. Getting outside and away from the things of man, as it were, shifts your brain out of human-busy-doing mode and helps you to operate in a mode more in tune with nature – a little slower, a little more aware of what’s going on right now rather than what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Go outside and pay attention to right now.

Learning something new. TED talks, RadioLab podcasts, and nature documentaries on PBS are just a few examples of ways you can get a feeling of self-transcendence, which takes you out of your stressed-out state and into a sense of wonder, curiosity, and hope. You can’t feel stressed and curious at the same time.

Doing something nice for someone else. There are few things more rejuvenating than being kind and thoughtful. Make a thank you card for someone who did something to help you out, find a friend who’s having a crappy day and ask them if they’d like to chill out with a movie, or even just stand up and get dessert for someone else. You’ll feel better if you do.

two times of day when you CAN’T sleep

Did you know there are two windows of time during the day when it’s impossible or nearly impossible to fall asleep?

Let’s walk through the sleep day:

If you wake up naturally, without an alarm, when your body is genuinely ready, you enter your first wake maintenance zone; you couldn’t fall asleep if you tried. Your sleep debt’s paid off (ideally) and your hormones are at a circadian peak, keeping your body alert and ready.

In the afternoon, your sleep debt has accumulated some and you experience a circadian dip, which generates a secondary sleep propensity (*in about 60% of people). Many people are familiar with this mid-day dip in energy. This is an ideal time for a nap!

And then in the evening you’ll have another period of alertness when you couldn’t fall asleep if you wanted to — the second wake maintenance zone or the “forbidden zone” for sleep. This second circadian peak could come anywhere between 4pm and midnight, depending on your biorhythms. (College age humans are “phase delayed,” so their forbidden zone is likely to come later, rather than sooner.) Whenever it is, this is an excellent time to do homework, have a deep conversation with a friend, or be creative.

Two hours after this, the “sleep gate” opens and you become increasingly inclined to sleep. Within 4 hours, sleep becomes hard to resist. This is your primary sleep propensity phase.

Then you wake up in the morning and start all over!

the basics of exericse

We all know exercise is good for us and we should get some, but it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in details about what exercise to do, how long to do it, how often, how intensely, blah blah blah. Don’t worry about it.

If you’re interested in specific guidelines or if you have an injury or other physical limitations, talk to a trainer, but in general, keep it simple:

FREQUENCY
Most days. 4? 5? 6? As much as it takes you to renew you without sapping your energy. Recovery is just as important as effort.

INTENSITY
You should be breathing heavily enough to make it impossible to sing, but not so heavily that you can’t talk in broken sentences. If it hurts, stop!

DURATION
Oh, at least 10 minutes in a row. Longer is better. If you’ve generally had a pretty sedentary life, 20 minutes in a fairly magical number. Once you get past about 45 minutes, though, things get more complicated and you should talk to a trainer.

The more sedentary your life has been so far, the less intensely you need to exercise in order to see benefits. And remember, SOME exercise, ANY exercise is better than none!

The Exhaustion Funnel

The “Exhaustion Funnel” is a hypothesized causal mechanism of negative mood and depression. Here’s how it works:

There are some things we do that use up our energy and other things that give us energy, and “wellness” is about finding a healthy balance, so that you’re never on empty. For example, school work, family/friend/relationship issues, worries about the future, and money concerns may drain energy away from a student, while sleep, exercise, recreational reading, and/or participating in a knitting student org may GIVE a student energy. Make sense so far?

Now, when a person is a little out of balance, with more energy going out than coming in, they begin to feel burnt out, drained, overwhelmed, or exhausted; and they try to reduce the demands in their life by eliminating those aspects that they perceive as “optional” – and often, these are the things that GIVE them energy. Like this:


(from “The Mindful Way Through Depression”)

Imagine a student who’s taking 18 credit hours and plays a club sport finds out that their parents are divorcing. That stress may cause her to feel overwhelmed, fried. What should she do?

The obvious thing she might do is drop her sport, and this certainly would save her time. But imagine that her sport gave her social, physical, and emotional energy that nothing else in her life did. By eliminating it, she loses all the benefits that are the reasons she played in the first place.

Could they possibly drop a course? Maybe, maybe not. Could she take a course S/U? A strong possibility. Could she realign her attitude toward her courses, recognizing that a bunch of her mental energy is going toward coping with the emotional stuff in her family, leaving less available for classes? She can definitely do that – in theory.

Many students are deeply invested in the GPA as a measure of their worth as a person.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer about WHAT a person should eliminate when they’re overcommitted, but to avoid the Exhaustion Funnel, be sure to ask yourself:

What GIVES me energy?

What DRAINS my energy?

How can I balance my energy in with my energy out?

What Causes Hangovers?

AsapSCIENCE, which makes educational animated videos about SCIENCE, has a great little video about what causes hangovers:

The short sciencey answer: acetaldehyde.

The short, non-sciencey answer: drinking faster than your body can metabolize the alcohol

Science wins at drinking!

For more info about dealing with or preventing hangovers, check this out!