Not All Stress is Created Equal: The 3 Levels of Stress and How to Manage Them

Picture this. You are a brand new student at a four-year university. Your schedule is already full on the first day. First, there’s student orientation, then a visit to the financial aid office, followed by a meeting with your new counselor, and (if you decide to live on campus) a quick check in at the housing office.                            

It doesn’t end there.

You have your first round of classes the next day, four of them scheduled back-to-back. For each of those classes, you already have homework due and at least one chapter to read.

And yet there’s still more.

You’re alone. All of your high school friends went to different colleges, and you are going to school out-of-state, away from family. To top it off, you haven’t quite found a way to connect with your new dorm mate just yet.

It’s only the first few days and already college has been more of an overwhelming experience that you expected. You’re stressed, feeling anxious about your new workload, and are disappointed that you don’t have anyone to talk to.

But despite feeling this way, you’re not alone. Many students experience these feelings, battling with the same stress and anxiety at multiple points throughout their college experience. But there are ways to manage this and stop these feelings from overtaking what would otherwise be a positive college experience.

The 3 Levels of Stress

All stress is not created equal; in fact, there are three different levels, including acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.

Each of these levels has its own symptoms and duration. And each requires different management techniques to overcome those symptoms.

Acute Stress

First up on our list is acute stress or short-term stress. This is the most common form of stress and stems from the pressures of thinking about the past and the future. It is easily recognized by most people and caused by everyday pressures in life.

Let’s walk through an example:

It’s finals week, and you have an exam in the morning. You spend all night studying, trying to cram every last bit of information that you can into your brain. Then in the morning, you end up sleeping through your first round of alarms and now only have 15 mins to rush to your class. The stress you’re experiencing due to being late is acute stress; it’s short term and not likely to stick around for more than a day or so.

Common symptoms of acute stress include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Muscular problems – i.e. headaches and back pain
  • Stomach pains
  • Other problems like rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms

Good news, though. Acute stress is often minor and is more often than not easy to manage. However, it’s important to note that even minor stress, like acute stress, should be paid attention to in order to avoid it from becoming a more serious level of stress.

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic acute stress is a more severe form of acute stress.  It refers to those people who experience acute stress too often, even reaching a point where the negative symptoms begin to run their lives. These people tend to always be in a hurry, are consumed by things that go wrong, and can have short-tempered behavior.

Let’s continue on our earlier example.  

Let’s say that you staying up late studying and waking up late for a class has become a daily issue. You are constantly getting to class just in time and it leads to a cycle of late study nights. Due to lack of sleep, you snap at your classmates. Yet despite being exhausted all the time and experiencing almost daily headaches, you continue on with the late nights.

A person who suffers from episodic acute stress can sometimes be referred to as a worry wart.

Worry warts constantly worry about everything. They believe that disaster is bound to happen and that something awful is awaiting them at every moment. They are always tense but instead of being hostile, they are usually more anxious and depressed.

The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the same as acute stress but usually occur for prolonged periods of time. Episodic acute stress can often be treated by implementing lifestyle changes to help better manage or even avoid stress triggers; however, sometimes professional help is needed.

Chronic Stress

The last and most severe form of stress is chronic stress. Chronic stress arises from a person who deals with a string of miserable situations day after day, leaving them feeling burnt out and as though they have no control over their lives.

For example:

After weeks of anticipation, you finally received word that you’ve been accepted into your first choice school. But unfortunately, you don’t receive as much financial aid as you were expecting and therefore need to take out a much larger student loan than you had anticipated. Knowing you’ll need to begin making monthly payments to pay off the loans soon, you start picking up shifts at the coffee shop on campus. But with your heavy class load, you can only manage to work a handful of hours and your paychecks are barely enough to scrape up the monthly payments, let alone live off of month-to-month.

You constantly worry about needing to make more money in order to make your payments but just can’t find the time in your schedule. You start to cut corners in school in order to squeeze in a few extra shifts, but that makes your classwork begin to suffer. The pressure of it all is constant and feels like it’s never letting up.

The symptoms of chronic stress can include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Stomach problems
  • Heart palpitations
  • Headaches

If left untreated, chronic stress can lead to very serious health concerns including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and even self-harm.

Unfortunately, chronic stress is no easy fix and can sometimes prove difficult to treat. It often requires extensive medical intervention,  including professional counseling.

Managing Your Stress

Alright, so now that we have covered the levels of stress, let’s focus on managing that stress. While some forms of stress are easily managed, there are others that are more severe and need stronger forms of intervention and treatment. Here are a few tips that can benefit all forms of stress and can prevent an acute level of stress from becoming more severe. However, note that none of these options is an alternative to professional counseling and psychiatric help.

1. Exercise

Working out is a great way to manage stress. Not only does it improve your mood, but it also relaxes your body and your mind.

Ideally, you should exercise for 30 mins 3-5 times a week. But to get the most benefit, it’s recommended that you work out for 75 mins by doing exercises like swimming or jogging.

If exercising on your own doesn’t suit you, try joining a rec sport at your campus. Not only will it serve its purpose for helping with your stress but it’s also a great opportunity to meet other students you haven’t already met.  

2. Relax Your Muscles

Spending hours bent over a desk reading chapters and staring at a computer screen can make your muscles tense. By loosening them up, you can become relaxed and refreshed. You can do this by:

  • Stretching
  • Getting a massage
  • Taking a hot bath or shower
  • Getting a good amount of sleep

3. Deep Breathing

When it feels like stress is beginning to take over your life, it’s sometimes best to just stop and breathe. Deep breathing not only helps to calm you down when you start to get upset, but it also can help relax you and relieve your stress. You can do this by:

  • Sitting or lying down on the floor
  • Closing your eyes
  • Imagining yourself in a calming and relaxing place
  • Slowly breathing in and out deeply
  • Repeat this process for 5 – 10 mins

4. Eat Well

I get it. There are times throughout the day where you don’t have time to eat. Maybe you have to cram for your midterms or you woke up late and have to skip breakfast. The bad news is that this is actually hurting your health and causing you more stress. Not eating 3 meals a day or eating poorly can worsen your stress, your health, and your ability to concentrate and focus in school. By eating at least 3 meals a day and eating a well-balanced diet, you can help ease your stress. Some foods to focus on are:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole Grains
  • Lean protein
  • Of course…plenty of water

5. Leave Time for Yourself

College life is stressful. You are trying to balance hustling to multiple classes a day, balancing vast amounts of homework and reading, and learning to adapt to other aspects of the college experience.

And in the midst of all of this craziness, it can be easy to forget to take care of yourself. No matter how busy and hectic your schedule gets, it’s important to make sure you still find time for you. Use this time to relax, be around people who help lift up your spirits, or find a way to treat yourself.

6. Take a Break

Having to work daily while attending so many classes is difficult for any student. Taking a break for a small chunk of time is a great way to relieve stress. Set aside some downtime throughout the day to unwind and take your mind off the hustle and bustle of college. Some activities you can try are:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Listening to music
  • Reading a book
  • Spending time outdoors
  • Going to a movie
  • Spending time with a friend

7. Eliminate Your Triggers

Best piece of advice? Figure out what is causing you to stress. Is it your schoolwork? A professor? Financial pressures? The first step is identifying what parts of your life are causing you to feel anxious.

Once you’ve identified the cause or causes behind your stress, trying minimizing them or even eliminating them altogether. This often means making lifestyle choices such as eating a more balanced diet, fitting a regular exercise routine into your schedule, or avoiding certain people who cause you to feel upset or anxious.

It’s important to never disregard stress, regardless the level or the cause behind it. Taking the time to identify your specific stress triggers and discovering the best way for you to manage your feelings caused by those triggers is essential in avoiding your anxiety from becoming too serious of an issue. Regardless of what happens in life, take the time to give yourself the attention you deserve.

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