Stress at the start of school

Dear Alice,

How can I reduce stress as school begins?

Dear Reader,

The beginning of the school year can bring changes and challenges such as new classes, new roommates, and for many, a new environment. With so many transitions happening all at once, it's natural to feel overwhelmed at points. It can be helpful to understand that transitions are often characterized by various levels of fear and uncertainty, and it can be easy to experience our neurological responses to fear and uncertainty as stress. Through effective coping, healthy self-care, and a more complex and nuanced understanding of stress, you'll come to realize that stress isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the things that lead you to experience stress can actually be a deep source of meaning and purpose that allow you to engage deeply and flourish throughout these transitions in addition to the semesters to follow! Because of this, managing rather than reducing stress may set you up for the most success and satisfaction possible. For more on stress and building skills to effectively manage it, continue reading! 

You may find it helpful to consider what you're stressed about. Have you ever been stressed about something that didn't mean anything to you? Chances are, you've only been stressed about things that matter to you. Recognizing this lens, you may consider that stress is a function of caring and value. If you try to reduce your stress, you will need to care less about what you're stressed about or place less value on it. In many circumstances, caring less or valuing it less wouldn't be an effective strategy when it comes to coping or resilience. Instead, practicing a certain level of acceptance can help you reframe your experience of it so that you're better able to manage it.

With that, there will be times where acceptance isn't enough, and you still feel higher levels of stress. Another strategy to try would then be problem solving – is there anything you can do to fix or influence the situation? Are there responsibilities that you can relinquish? Taking control over the parts of the stress that you can influence will increase your ability to manage it. And still, sometimes you may experience levels of stress that feel too high despite acceptance and problem solving. The last thing to try is asking yourself: "are there any self-imposed pressures or perceptions I am adding to this stress?" If so, make those explicit so that you can evaluate whether or not they're warranted. Sometimes you may find that some of those pressures don't need to be there, and letting go of them can make a significant difference. 

If after trying to accept, problem solve, and manage any self-imposed pressures, you're still experiencing a level of stress that feels like too much, your only job then becomes effective coping. There are three steps for effective coping: 

  • Honor the reaction, challenge any conclusions
  • Commit to self-care for the health of it (not to feel better)
  • Act on something that matters to you (do something of personal rightness)

Honoring reactions and challenging conclusions is about pausing. You may find yourself asking what something upsetting may say about you, the world around you, or your future. Rather than getting conclusive, this first step of coping is about catching yourself when you do begin to draw conclusions, and instead focusing on the emotion that you feel and honoring it. You may feel upset because something upsetting happened. You may feel hurt because something hurtful happened. Trust that you've come by those feelings honestly, and validate that it's okay to feel the way you do.

Then, engage in an activity to take care of yourself that can assist you in holding and managing the difficult emotion you may be feeling. Some forms of self-care to consider include:

  • Verbal expression and social support: Talking with someone you trust and venting or sharing how you feel, while also feeling heard and listened to by that person.
  • Physical expression: Converting emotional energy to physical expression, including physical activity, athletics, progressive muscle relaxation, active breathing exercises, yoga, etc.  
  • Creative expression: Converting emotional energy to some form of creative expression such as writing, artwork, music (whether you're skilled at it or not!). 
  • Meditative expression: Meditative and spiritual forms of expression or reflection that are calming practices of emotional management can help foster acceptance of a current state and the temporary nature of challenging emotions.
  • Temporary break: Taking a temporary break from your stress through distraction can be healthy so long as it's temporarily setting the stress and difficult emotions to one side rather than suppressing them.
  • Ask, "What else is true?": Reminding yourself that there's a broader reality to your current emotion and identifying specific things about your life and world that are also true.
  • Appropriate inappropriateness: Sometimes it's healthy to express your objection to the difficulty or pain of your current reality – finding small ways to protest, rebel, or laugh at the absurdity of your situation.
  • Dreaming: While you cannot control this, it sometimes helps to know that prominent emotions in dreams may correlate to prominent emotions you're processing, and it's one way your brain tries to help you out even while you're not awake!

The third step of healthy coping is to do something of personal rightness, to act on something you value while you're feeling affected. Doing things that are congruent with your personal values helps to build resilience, self-esteem, and ultimately flourish. It also allows you to stay defined by your authenticity rather than your hurt, which can set you up to engage with your life in the ways you'd most hope or want.  

As you think about setting yourself up for success, it's key to consider your routines and the ways you can be proactive with your well-being, recognizing that all dimensions of well-being are related and influence each other. Some key aspects to think about include:

  • Sleep: Try to get the nightly sleep you require to feel right and rested the following day, and avoid having to drag yourself from class to class. Not only is it more difficult to deal with stress when fatigued, but according to research findings, sleep deprivation also weakens immune system functioning. Sleeping the same number of hours each night, during the same time-block (i.e., going to bed and rising at the same time each and every day), can give you a more reliable energy supply.
  • Physical activity: Engaging in aerobic activities helps strengthen your body and allows it to be more resilient when it faces many of the psychological and physiological responses to stress. (Hint: some great aerobic activity could include walking briskly, jogging, swimming, cycling, blading, playing tennis, basketball, volleyball, or racquetball, doing calisthenics, and working out on all those contraptions at the gym, including the stair-climber, treadmill, and rowing machine.) Aerobic action spends stress hormones, strengthens organs targeted by stress, improves sleep, and increases energy, just to name a few benefits. Most gyms have orientation programs to familiarize new users to exercise equipment, and to reduce the fear and discomfort felt by many workout novices.
  • Eat: A healthy, balanced eating plan is another key ingredient in stress management. You can Search the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition & Physical Activity archives for nutrition particulars and eating tips. Eating patterns also need to be taken into consideration: heavy, meat-laden lunches make for lethargic afternoons, while caffeine, alcohol, and other drugs can put your energy cycle on a roller coaster ride. You might also see if you can speak with a registered dietitian to discuss personal eating plans.
  • Manage time: Time management is really about self-management and priorities, and is discussed in the Go Ask Alice! Time management Q&A. For starters, you might try making a priority list and a to-do list, and having a back up plan in case unforeseen interruptions occur. What must you accomplish every day/week/month? What other activities are fun or a priority for you? How would you ideally like to balance work, life, and personal/social activities? When will you take care of needs such as eating, sleeping, being physically active, and relaxing? Making a list, or mapping your time on a calendar, can help you understand what is a priority for you and how you can work activities into (or out of) your schedule.

Need a few other tips on how to relax? You could try yoga, meditation, guided imagery, or diaphragmatic breathing. If you do try all that's mentioned above and you still feel levels of stress that are difficult to manage, you may consider making an appointment with a counselor at your school – even the most seasoned stress managers benefit from professional help from time to time!

For now: inhale...2...3...4... and exhale...2...3...4... and focus on the part of the stress that is stemming from what you value. You got this!

Last updated Nov 12, 2021
Originally published Sep 12, 1996