Struggling with stress and tools for managing it

Dear Alice,

I have this problem with my studies. I feel that I need to work 24 hours a day in order just to keep up. I have been getting panic attacks and outbreaks of eczema because I am so stressed out. Can you advise me of any relaxation techniques that will allow me to unwind after a hard day?

A tightly wound spring

Dear A tightly wound spring, 

All work (or studying) and no play can certainly take an emotional and physical toll. It's common for students to feel stressed out by their academic demands, so know that you're not alone in feeling wound up. Relaxation practices may release some of your tension, but it might also be worthwhile to check in with a health promotion or mental health professional about how to address the root cause of your stress and panic attacks. 

There are a variety of techniques that can help to relax your mind and body after a long day of hitting the books. Stress relivers can also be a great way to start your morning more smoothly or to renew your energy between study sessions throughout the day. Here are a few stress relivers you might try to relax your mind and body: 

  • Turn up the volume. Music has a powerful effect on mood. You might experiment with nature sounds, soft jazz, or more energizing tunes like your favorite song to combat your stress. 
  • Get moving. Physical activity boosts feel-good chemicals in your brain called endorphins and provides a physical outlet for pent-up worries. Endorphins increase feelings of relaxation and reduce stress. It doesn't have to be strenuous exercise—even a 20-minute walk will boost endorphins. Other types of movement such as yoga and tai chi can also help to relax the body and clear the mind. 
  • Take a breath. There are many approaches to meditation, but incorporating breath focus and mindful meditation has been shown to help manage stress levels. Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down and concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths. Breathe in slowly through the nose, letting the chest and abdomen fill with air. Exhale slowly either through the nose or mouth, whichever you prefer. Continue this process 5-10 times, and you can do this however many times as needed throughout the day. 
  • Self-massage exercises. To address some tension in the muscles, you might consider doing a self-massage on various points of your body. 
  • Get some rest. Without enough sleep at night, you can be susceptible to feeling more intense levels of stress more easily. Rest is key to helping reduce stress since it gives your body and mind a break. 

In addition to relaxation techniques, it may be useful to pinpoint what specifically is causing you to feel so stressed out. As you gain clarity around the sources of your stress, it may be helpful to consider some tips for processing and managing it: 

  1. Acceptance: You can ask yourself if the current stress you feel is acceptable to you. If it is, then you can go with it—stress itself isn’t bad. In fact, it often reflects that you care and that what you’re doing is meaningful to you. Sometimes, though, stress is more than that and finding ways to manage it can be beneficial to your overall health. 
  2. Problem-solving: You can ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to fix or influence the situation that’s causing stress. It’s especially beneficial to focus on the process rather than the outcome of problem-solving. For example, if you get in a fight with a friend and your solution is to talk it out with them, putting the focus on the act of talking it out, rather than whether or not you successfully repaired your relationship can be beneficial. If your stress management is dependent on outcomes that you can't control, you could be setting yourself up for more stress if you don't get the outcomes for which you were hoping. 
  3. Self-imposed pressure: You can also ask yourself, "Are there any self-imposed pressures I am adding to this stress?" Becoming more aware of the stress stemming from your own self-imposed pressure can help you to catch those thoughts and interrupt them when they happen. Recognizing negative thoughts when they occur may allow you to take note of the issue. Rather than thinking about it further, you can take action to address the stress head on or make a plan so you can be more prepared to handle it in the future. 
  4. Effective coping: If you’ve tried other strategies, you might choose to explore coping mechanisms as a way to deal with stress. As a part of coping, practicing self-care can be helpful in managing your stress and difficult emotions. Getting enough rest, staying hydrated, and exercising regularly can be a way to combat stress even when you're in the middle of it.  And last, doing something that matters to you or aligns with one of your personal values can also be a great way of coping. 

For some experiences of stress, relaxation and coping on your own may not be enough. To help you put your concerns into perspective and identify additional resources, you may consider talking with a professional about your recent stress and panic attacks. If you're on a college campus, you might even check to see if there’s a counseling center to make an appointment. They may also offer a variety of support groups and workshops, including some related to stress and time management. While you're booking appointments, if you haven't already, you might also consider visiting a health care provider to treat your eczema. 

Setting high academic standards is something to be proud of, but all studying and no personal time may quickly leave you feeling burnt out. By taking time out to relax and practice self-care, you'll likely be happier and more productive in the long run! 

Last updated Apr 28, 2023
Originally published Jan 01, 1994