Before we can tackle your stress, you need to understand it better. Where does it come from? How does it tick?
Fight or flight - why cave bears are controlling your life from the Pleistocene
Way back in the day (I mean way, WAY back) life and death struggles were a part of every human's every day reality. The stress response evolved as a way for us to escape life threatening situations so we could live to gather another day. The sympathetic nervous system is how our body regulates stress. You've heard of "fight or flight"? When early man encountered predators, his body was able to fight or flee (depending on survival odds) because of this system. Cortisol and other stress hormones increase, blood evacuates the limbs and centers on primary body functions, heart rate increases, adrenaline rushes...I think we're all familiar with the sensation. These biological processes help you perform your best to either fight or flee - to a point.
Yerkes-Dodson and why too much stress gets you eaten (read: fail)
in 1908, two psychologists figured out that too much of a good thing was, in fact, too much. Stress generally helps us perform - on tests, in athletic events, on the job - until the stress level gets too high. If you are under too much stress, your body will actually begin to shut down - you'll have trouble remembering things, your sleep with de disrupted, and you'll feel bad physically. Cortisol, just like other drugs, can get you "high" in small amounts. Large amounts can get you dead (or dropping out, since most of us don't fight cave bears regularly).
So I'm stressed. So is everyone else!
If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you? Ok don't answer that. Our society has normalized stress to such an extent that we actually have competitions with each other to see how unhealthy we can get. "I have two exams AND a paper due tomorrow." "Oh yeah? That's nothing! I have 3 exams, two papers, an 8 hour shift at work, three crying infants at home and I haven't slept for four days!" So...does that make you the...winner? Knock it off, people. Stress is not good for you. Sleep. Sleep is where it's at. Our memories are consolidated as we sleep. If you're not sleeping, you're actually getting dumber. It's science!
But but but I have all this stuff to do!
Think of relaxation differently. You're not being lazy or unproductive - you're actually honing that fine brain of yours. It's time to relax, my friend. You've heard the phrase "work smarter, not harder?" Here's How...
We need to trick your sympathetic nervous system. Think of it as interrupting an assembly line - if one part isn't working, the whole thing shuts down. If you can get one aspect of your stress response under control, you can stop the whole process from escalating. Below you will find an audio file that is a relaxation exercise. During the exercise, you will learn various breathing and imagery techniques that you can use to help yourself relax.
Find a calm, quiet place where you will not be interrupted. The relaxation is about 18 minutes long, so make sure you have enough time to listen to the entire thing. When you are first starting out, you will need to listen to the exercise 3-5x/week. Ideally you will use this at first in times where you are NOT stressed, so you can better use the skills later when you are. Think of it like learning a musical instrument - you don't learn to play the Oboe DURING the concert. You practice first. It should take 2-3 weeks to feel like you have a good sense of the relaxation. At that time, you can begin modifying the techniques to use as helps you best. If you enjoy this exercise, the Oasis Room in the Counseling center has many, many more to choose from.