Radiolab, in its wisdom, has given us this hour-long episode titled “Stress.”

Seriously, if you’re interested in understanding what stress is, how it affects your body, and what you can do about it, please listen! You can do other things while you listen – exercise, clean, eat, whatever – but just listen.


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.

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?

10 Ideas to Start the Year Right

Hey, it’s a new academic year, full of promise and possibility! Now is the time to establish a realistic plan for making sure the year goes well. In terms of overall wellness, let’s take a minute to think about a few simple things you can do to improve your semester and your year. You don’t haveto do things PERFECTLY to make them better!

(1) Prioritize sleep. Students who get adequate sleep (7-10 hours per night, depending on the individual) have HIGHER GPAs! All nighters result in lower quality work and lower GPAs – along with greater stress, weakened immune system (more cold and flu!), appetite problems, low energy, moodiness, and anxiety. Sleep is important. Make it a priority.

(2) Eat more foods that look the way they grew and less of the stuff that could never exist in nature. I.e., more “whole foods” (which just means food where you eat the whole plant, instead of some refined part of it) and fewer processed foods. This is an easy rule to follow. Just ask yourself: did it grow that way? Spinach? Yes. Donuts? No. More spinach, fewer donuts. Corn? Yes. Pasta? No. You don’t need to eliminate any foods, just change the proportions, so that MOST of the food you eat is whole and less of it is processed.

(3) MOVE. YOUR. BODY. Exercise is the single most efficient strategy for reducing and managing stress. Some people are natural exercisers, who need to move their body in order to feel good. Your brain will work better if you allow yourself the exercise you need! Others are not natural exercisers; for you, know that you don’t need an intense gym workout to make a difference. A 20 minute walk downtown or around campus will do it. Just go.

(4) Alcohol: limit yourself to beer and wine. Basically no one is ever transported to the hospital because they were drinking beer or wine, only when they’re drinking liquor – it’s just much harder to drink more than you intended when you don’t have to be so careful about measuring. If you’re going to drink liquor, MEASURE CAREFULLY. (*PS – Obviously this tip is just for the 21+ folks in the crowd.)

(5) Another alcohol tip: limit yourself to 2 or 3 drinks – 4, at the absolute max. Students who don’t have more than 4 drinks have higher GPAs than students who have more.

(6) Spend two minutes per day paying attention to your breath. Two minutes. You’ve got two minutes, right? Spend two minutes a day paying attention to the movement of breath into and out of your body, and notice when your mind wanders – which it will. One reason our brains are so amazingly powerful is that they easily connect ideas together, so your mind SHOULD wander. The trick is to NOTICE that your mind has wandered, let those thoughts go, and gently return your attention to your breath. This practice of noticing when your mind has wandered and returning it to what you WANT to attend to trains you to be in control of your brain, so your brain isn’t in control of you.

(7) Be selective about what TV you watch. Recent research has suggested that every hour of TV you watch takes 22 minutes off your lifespan. Ask yourself, “How many minutes off my lifespan would I trade to watch this show?” For example, I would TOTALLY give about 10 minutes to watch an episode of “The IT Crowd,” because it’s AWESOME. But I wouldn’t give anything to watch “The Bachelor.” It’s just not my thing. (Clearly I’m a nerd.) How many minutes of your life is a show worth?

(8) Cultivate a “loving presence.” You know how there are some people who, when they walk into a room, everyone just feels better? You just love spending time with them because they have this warm, positive energy. And then there are people who walk into a room and everyone feels uncomfortable. To be one of the people everyone is glad to see, practice thinking of something positive about each person you meet, when you meet them. Allow yourself to relax with them, give them your full, undivided attention, and make genuine eye contact.

(9) Beat self-critical thoughts by contradicting them! When you notice yourself thinking anything like, “Ugh, I’m a failure,” contradict it right away with a thought like, “Actually I’ve got a lot going for me!” The more you contradict that negative self-talk, the less you’ll believe it! (Which will improve your mood and your GPA!)

(10) Keep your mood positive and stable by avoiding the “exhaustion funnel.” When we start to get burnt out, often we’ll begin trying to simplify our lives by eliminating the “optional” things – which are often the things that GIVE us energy. Instead, when you notice yourself feeling worn out, cranky, or sad, take time away from the things that drain your energy and engage with the things that make you feel alive and whole. You’ll work more efficiently afterward, more than making up for the time spent away from work stuff.

You don’t have to do all of these – heck, you can just do one or two and your whole semester can change!