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Understanding and Managing Stress

Introduction - What is stress?

Stress can be understood as the wear and tear our bodies and minds experience as we adjust to an environment that challenges us with continuous change.

Both positive and negative changes can cause stress. For example, going to college is a positive change in life, but one that requires an adjustment to new circumstances and responsibilities. Negative changes, such as the loss of a relationship, illness, or poor academic performance may require multiple adjustments to new and unwanted challenges.

Stressors can have external or internal origins. External stressors may include too much school work and other responsibilities, roommate conflicts, fights with loved ones, concerns about family members, and/or worrying about one’s appearance or social acceptance. Internal sources of stress may include poor diet, little exercise, physical illness, insufficient sleep, taking things too seriously, negative thinking and taking no time for yourself.

Physiological, Behavioral, Emotional and Cognitive Responses to Stress

  • Emotional responses - Feeling overwhelmed, highly anxious and panicky; lack of motivation, inattentiveness, excessive worrying, irritability, anger, easily losing your temper, and crying.
  • Physiological responses - Immediate responses include muscle tension, heart racing, nervous tics, sweating, strong startle response and restlessness. Chronic stress can cause frequent colds, insomnia or sleeping too much, tiredness and a general lack of energy, as well as pain, skin problems, and headaches.
  • Behavioral responses - Hyperactivity, nervous habits (overeating, smoking, drinking, compulsive actions), becoming less organized, poor memory, confusion, stumbling over words.
  • Cognitive responses - Excessive preoccupation with a situation, repeatedly obsessing about an upsetting event, worrying excessively about future events, unstoppable negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs.

Consequences of Stress:

  • Many unpleasant emotions are generated, such as tension, feelings of inadequacy, depression, anger, helplessness, fear and anxiety.
  • Many physical problems can result from stress, such as exhaustion and a general weakening of the immune system.
  • Many bad habits, such as smoking and drinking are associated with stress.
  • A great deal of time is wasted by worrying and obsessing in an attempt to handle anxiety.
  • High stress almost always interferes with one's performance. It causes inefficiency at school and at work, poor decision-making, accidents and problems with relationships. Students with high test anxiety do more poorly on exams, especially on important tests, than less anxious peers.
  • Anxiety and fear cause us to avoid many things we would otherwise benefit from doing. For example, people may avoid interacting with others, participating in a variety of activities, or taking other risks because they are afraid.

How to Manage and Overcome Stress

Many of your reactions to stress can be changed, eliminated, or reduced. Here are some things you can do to better manage your level of stress:

Become aware of your own reactions to stress.

  • Determine the source of what exactly is causing your distress at this time.
  • Determine what you are telling yourself about this stressful event. Are you blowing this event out of proportion? Are you giving it more meaning and importance than necessary? Are you judging yourself based on this event? Are you worrying needlessly?

Reduce the intensity of your emotional reactions to stress.

  • Determine honestly whether your emotional reaction is appropriate to the event that is causing your distress.
  • Ask yourself honestly whether the triggering event is worth all of the emotional distress you are experiencing.
  • Take immediate steps to regain your perspective.

Reinforcing positive statements help us to keep potentially stressful events in proportion. Tell yourself statements that help you to cope, for example:

  • "I can handle this."
  • "It's not the end of the world."
  • "I can do this."
  • "This is not such a big deal."
  • "This is not even worth worrying about.

Develop assertive behaviors; learn how to say "No!"

  • You have a right to set limits and boundaries.
  • It's not possible to please everyone all of the time.

Set reasonable expectations.

  • No one is perfect; therefore, you should not expect yourself to perform perfectly all of the time.
  • Do not expect your life to be perfect. We all need to expect some frustration and disappointment as a normal part of being alive.
  • We can learn how to cope with our own imperfections and with frustration and disappointment.

Do things that you enjoy on a regular basis.

  • It's okay to give yourself permission to do something pleasant, relaxing and enjoyable every single day.

Exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet daily.

  • Take the time to learn about what kind of exercise routine and nutrition plan is right for you.

Talk with friends or someone you can trust about your worries/problems.

  • Sometimes just getting your feelings out is enough to reduce your level of stress.

Practice relaxation techniques. Here are some examples:

  • Whenever you feel tense, slowly breathe in and out for several minutes.
  • Take time out and do something distracting whenever you feel overwhelmed.
  • Visualize yourself relaxing in your favorite spot, like the beach, a room in your house, or any other place that is special to you.

Avoid using alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to manage stress.

  • Using substances to reduce stress will only create another problem.

Learn how to manage your time in order to avoid procrastination and last minute panic.

  • Setting a reasonable schedule and sticking to it eliminates many sources of stress in the first place.

Be kind and gentle with yourself.

  • Treat yourself with the same respect, patience and understanding with which you treat a good friend.

Getting Professional Help

Remember that you don't have to deal with stress by yourself. Speaking to a counselor about stress can help you discover new ways of managing and overcoming your anxiety. Your counselor can teach you specific strategies for stress reduction.

Resources at Iona College:

Counseling Center (914) 633-2038
Health Services (914) 633-2548
Office of Student Success (914) 633-2270
Office of Residential Life (914) 633-2336
Office of Mission and Ministry (914) 633-2632
Resident Advisors/Campus Ministers