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Stress Management QUEST

I feel so stressed!
There is too much going on.
Why can’t I stop feeling this way?
I just want to give up.
How can I cope with so much going on?
What is Stress?

What is Stress?

Stress is a normal experience, and will happen to us all. Yep, that's right, even your lecturer gets stressed.

Stress is our body's way of responding to something that we need to be alert to, by triggering a physiological response call the fight or flight response. This response is when our body produces chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to get our body prepared to deal with the stressful situation. It turns on parts of our body that should be helpful in responding to stress (e.g., narrow focus, heart beats faster and blood flow increases) and turns off others that may be less important (decreased appetite and less ‘higher order’ thinking). Sometimes these responses are not helpful if we are stressed about something that does not need us to be in fight or flight mode. It means we might eat less, feel faint and lightheaded, or find it difficult to plan and organise.

Video: How Stress Affects Your Brain (4 min)

However stress is not always unhelpful, in fact, sometimes we need some stress in our lives to motivate us and give us drive to reach our goals. This 15 minute webinar from the University's Counselling and Psychological Services staff covers five key ways to reduce the impact of stress on your life.

Video: Getting the most out of your brain

Signs of Stress

Because stress impacts on us all differently we all have different ways we manage it and these can sometimes be a ‘sign’ that we are feeling more than a ‘helpful’ level of stress. These signs will look different for each of us but some common ones include;

  • Staying in bed
  • Missing activities (classes, work, social catch ups)
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Increasing online and screen time
  • Drinking more alcohol
  • Feeling on edge and frustrated or quick to anger
  • Crying more and over small things
  • Feeling overwhelmed and annoyed with things that don’t usually bother you

You might find help helpful to think back over the last week and see if any of the above seem to be showing up more than usual. Another option is to use an online resource such as this short questionnaire from ReachOut. Or, if stress has been around a bit longer than a week, then perhaps consider checking out this online tool on Beyond Blue.

STRESS vS PANIC ATTACKS

Panic attacks are not uncommon and most people will experience one during their lifetime. They may leave you short of breath, dizzy, breathless and sweaty. Some people think they are having a heart attack, or feel the world around them is not real. Often a panic attacks peak within about 10 minutes and usually last no more than 30 minutes. They often leave you exhausted and wiped out.

Stress differs from panic attacks in that the sensations may be little less intense, but it usually lasts for a lot longer than 30 minutes.

If you are experiencing repeated panic attacks, or fear of having a panic attack, you might like to check out Beyond Blue's information on Panic Disorder and consider seeking support. Treatment usually reduces the number and severity of the attacks and helps people get on with living their lives.

What Causes Stress?

As mentioned stress is a completely normal part of being alive. We experience a physiological stress response to help us manage being in a dangerous situation. However unfortunately we often may experience this response when a situation is not dangerous or longer dangerous. This does not mean there is something wrong with us, it is just our brain is trying to help us out!

Video: ,The evolution of the Human Mind (3 minutes)

Stress can be caused by lots of different things, but one of the things that may be important in moving us from a ‘helpful’ amount of stress to an ‘unhelpful’ level of stress could be the amount of stress we are managing. Learning to recognise how much we have on our plate is an important part of knowing our stress level.

Another cause of stress can be when we when we are unprepared for a stressful event. For example, if we have a big exam but we are also unwell and have not been sleeping or eating well, then the we may not be able to manage the exam stress as well as if we had been fit, healthy and rested.

Video: What is Stress (6 minutes)

Stress vs Anxiety

The avoidance of the discomfort of stress is known as anxiety. The longer we engage in the anxiety response and the greater the impact it has on our ability to get on with our life is sometimes when we might develop an anxiety disorder.

Nevertheless, experiencing some anxiety does not mean you have an anxiety disorder. Sometimes our feelings about stress are just so uncomfortable that we would do ANYTHING to avoid them and if we think we know what is causing our stress then we might start to avoid the source of stress, even if that avoidance has negative consequences. Sometimes this avoidance can be linked to behaviours that make us feel better in the short term, but don’t really help us to manage why we are stressed. A good example of this is Procrastination - which you can read more about on our procrastination tip sheet.

One of the things to keep in mind is that avoiding stress makes good neurological sense. Our brain engages in the flight or fight response and next time it just kicks in early and we prepare ourselves for stress by avoiding it! Now this may make sense if we are dealing with a dangerous animal or something that could cause us real harm, but often the things we are stressed about are not really harmful. More often they are linked with our past experiences that may not have done to plan. We often develop a pattern of thinking and feeling about our past experiences; and we also develop is a pattern of behaviours to manage those thoughts and feelings. Sometimes these thoughts, feelings and behaviours are so interlinked that they overlap and become automatic. If these become a core part of who we are they may require support from a counsellor or psychologist to develop new ways to manage our stressors. But sometimes if we reflect on what is causing our stress we find that we may be able to address the cause of our stress.

Video: Stress Vs Anxiety (1 minute)

How to deal with stress

1. Understand Your Stress

Take some time to check in with yourself and find out what are the main things causing us stress. Sometimes the stressor is something that is within our control (e.g, "I have too many tasks to finish by the end of the week"), sometimes it is not in our control (e.g,. "My partner might have an accident"), and often there are some aspects we can control and some we cannot. Sometimes the situation we are concerned about is hypothetical, that is, it has not actually happened yet, for example "What if I fail?". Understanding what aspects of the situation are within our control can help us to focus our energy and respond to the situation effectively.

2. Moving from 'Worry' to 'Problem Solving'

Worry is a style of thinking in which our mind repeatedly goes over and over possible or actual problems. E.g., "I might not pass that exam". When we are engage in worry, our thinking tends to go around in circles. Although it can feel like we are doing something helpful to prevent the feared situation from happening, usually worry leads us to feel so anxious that we procrastinate or do not take any effective action to take steps to solve the problem.

Problem solving is a different type of thinking. It is a linear and logical thinking process by which we identify possible ways of dealing with the problem, consider the pros and cons of each option, choose the best solution and then put that plan into action. After you have completed or scheduled the action, then you can try to shift the focus of your attention away from the worry, using mindfulness or grounding techniques such as the examples below.

The Worry Tree explains this concept:

For example:

  • Feeling stuck with an assessment task? Can you chat to your tutor, lecturer, or even a classmate. Could you talk to Academic Learning Support, attend a PASS class, or chat to a Librarian for some help?
  • Had a fight with someone? Can you talk to them or talk to someone else who might understand.
  • Has life thrown you a curveball? Money trouble? Break up? Trouble at home? Can you speak to someone you know for support, or chat to a Wellbeing Advisor for some help?

There may be some problems for which there is no solution, either because it is outside of our control or because it is a hypothetical situation which has not yet occurred. In this case, it is not possible to use a problem solving approach, however it is also not helpful to continue to engage in worry. The best that we can do is to gently remind ourselves to disengage from the worry and put our attention on something else which is more useful.

Check out this helpful module from Centre for Clinical Interventions for more on Worry and Problem Solving Skills.

3. Changing the focus of attention: Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques are quick and easy mindfulness strategies to help you manage times of intense stress or anxiety. These techniques work by allowing you to drop an anchor in the present moment, rather than being caught up in worry about the future or past. Many of them are easy and quick to use. Here is a list of a few that you might find useful:

  1. Counting from 1-10 and then reversing from 10-1
  2. Using a grounding phase like “I’m ok” or “stay calm”
  3. Focus on your breath. Inhale for a count of four and then exhale to a count of six
  4. Connect with your senses – name three things you can see, hear, smell and touch
  5. Visualise yourself walking along a beach and watching the waves break on the shore, or sitting under a tree watching the wind gently blow the branches above you back and forth
  6. Go for a walk and notice the things around you, what do you see? hear? smell?
  7. Stamp your feet on the ground as you notice the sensations
  8. Have a shower, bath or go for a swim and feel the water wash over you

4. Making Stress Your Friend

Some psychologists have suggested (and have some pretty good findings to back them up) that if you make stress your friend it can reduce the negative impact of stress:

Video: TED Talk - How to make stress your friend (14 minutes)

5. Self-Compassion

Another way we can look after ourselves when we are stressed is to notice our self-talk when we are stressed. Often our inner thoughts may become self critical, and this can cause us extra stress (e.g., "I should be coping better. I shouldn't feel stressed!").

If you think that critical self-talk is something you might do, then try working on your own versions of some of these ideas:

  • I have a lot going on right now but I am doing the best I can
  • I may not have done as well as others in the last assessment but I still handed it in and got some useful feedback
  • I am trying something new and it’s OK if I don’t get it right the first time
  • It makes sense that I feel overwhelmed, I have been sick/broken up with my boyfriend/just had a fight with my Dad
  • I have managed these things in the past and am confident that I can get this done with a bit more time

To learn how to hold yourself accountable with kindness, check out the free workbook from Centre for Clinical Interventions on “Building Self Compassion”.

Final thought

Remember stress is normal, but it can feel uncomfortable. It is great to have a few different ideas about how to keep our stress in check but one idea suggested by William James may be the simplest one to keep things in focus:

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another - William James
Find Out More:

University of Newcastle Videos

The University's Counselling and Psychological Services have even put together this great video to help you get the most out of your brain.

Workshops

  • Coping with Stress – This online 4-lesson course is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques which are clinically proven to reduce anxiety.
  • Mindspot – This resource offers heaps of free programs on topics such as Wellbeing; Mood, OCD, PTSD, Indigenous Wellbeing and Chronic Pain.
  • University of Newcastle Counselling offers free workshops on various topics, including Beating Procrastination and Exam Anxiety.

Online Resources

Apps

  • Smiling Mind – Free guided mindfulness activities that you can do no matter where you are via your phone or device. 3 million downloads can’t be wrong!
  • Calm – Some options for calming yourself to reduce stress, improve sleep and engage in mindful movement are a part of this beautifully designed app.
  • Headspace – This app offers a introduction to mindfulness meditation to allow you to tune into your thoughts more effectively to manage stress.
  • Breathe2Relax – Guided practice to help you slow down your breathing and keep your fight or flight response in check!
Support is available

UPDATED MAY 2021

Credits:

Created with images by Alexas_Fotos - "anti-stress balls funny troop smilies stress reduction" • Clem Onojeghuo - "untitled image" • Asdrubal luna - "MX SADNESS" • 胡 卓亨 - "Teenage Girl Window Railing" • pedrofigueras - "pencil red chip" • JESHOOTScom - "laptop woman education" • Antoine Rault - "untitled image" • Breno Machado - "untitled image" • TheDigitalArtist - "stress anxiety depression" • leninscape - "yoga outdoor woman" • Debby Hudson - "Here’s my heart" • freeGraphicToday - "lightbulb concept cork" • Krissana Porto - "untitled image" • Everton Vila - "Don’t let go"