Santa Clara University

Wellness Center

Understanding Stress

What is stress?

Stress is a response of the body to a variety of internal and external stimuli. External triggers may include a job change, a move to a new city, marriage, death of a loved one, or an illness in your family. (Happy as well as sad events can create stress.) Internal stimuli may include physical or mental discomfort. Personality traits, such as a need to strive for perfection or to please others, may also cause stress.

Stress can produce either negative or positive reactions. For instance, you may strive for perfection because you feel inadequate, and the constant pressure you put on yourself may ultimately work against you. On the other hand, you may experience pressure positively and become highly motivated and productive, thus achieving more than you would under normal circumstances.

How do I Recognize Stress?

There are many symptoms of stress that people feel. Below is a partial list of sypmtoms across various planes of experience:

Physical Symptoms

  • heart pounding
  • headaches
  • sweaty palms
  • indigestion
  • skin breaks out
  • shortness of breath
  • holding breath
  • cold hands
  • sleeplessness
  • sleep too much
  • fatigue
  • nausea

Emotional Symptoms

  • moody
  • irritability
  • depressed
  • anxious
  • lack of sense of humor
  • abrasive
  • angry, hostile
  • nervous
  • crying often
  • lack of interest in previously fun things
  • “burnout”

Social Symptoms

  • isolation from others
  • intolerance
  • resentment
  • loneliness
  • abrasive, hostile
  • lack of intimacy
  • fewer contacts with friends
  • nagging
  • distrust
  • using people

Intellectual Symptoms

  • forgetfullness
  • loss of concentration
  • poor judgment
  • poor time management
  • disorganization
  • procrastination
  • fuzzy perception
  • confused
  • lack of interest
  • stop thinking
  • diminished fantasy life
  • negative self-talk

Spiritual Symptoms

  • feeling of emptiness
  • loss of meaning
  • doubt
  • loss of faith
  • unforgiving
  • martyrdom
  • looking for “magic” 
  • loss of direction
  • cynicism
  • apathy
  • “giving up”

**BEWARE: Long terms effects of stress can include: ulcers, chronic gastrointestinal problems (i.e., coilitis, irritable bowel syndrome), high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, migraines, chronic neck and back pain, fatigue, insomnia, major depression, anxiety

Why is stress harmful?
Be it positive or negative, stress does produce physical reactions. The body releases hormones and chemicals that accelerate the function of the heart, lungs, muscles, and other organs. This response may be protective, enabling you to escape from a careening car, for instance. When you feel safe again, these bodily reactions usually disappear. However, if you are stressed for long periods of time, these hormones will continue to be released and to stimulate your body--eventually, this mind- body communication produces wear and tear. Stress is an inherent part of daily living. It has been a part of human life since man walked on earth. During prehistoric times, normally stressful days entailed securing food, maintaining family needs, and avoiding dangerous outcomes with dinosaurs. In many ways, we operate in a similar capacity with the challenge of modern day life. The need to keep current with e-mail messages and faster-paced computers, complete To Do lists, and do "more" with "less" renders a sense of being always on the go. In essence, the primitive need to always be on guard and ready to perform has not changed much over the years.

The good news is that there are two (2) forms of stress. Distress, the more familiar, is the chronic feeling of being overwhelmed, oppressed, and behind in your tasks. It is the pervasive sense of being taxed by life with little opening for relief. Eustress is the alternate form of stress that is actually beneficial. Eustress allows us to engage with the challenges in life that are meaningful and offset boredom. It can entail utilizing that adrenalin surge to lend the necessary energy for maximum productivity. Have you ever been "charged" as you prepared a long term paper a day in advance of the due date? If you enjoy waiting to the last minute to prepare projects and find that they have a higher quality, the sensation you experience may be ‘eustress’. Keep in mind that perception is the key to determining which category a situation falls under. What is perceived as negatively stressful for one person may be perceived as positively stressful for another. The rest of this article will focus on coping with the adverse impact of stress.

Why Do We Feel Stressed?
We feel stressed when demands on our system are not met with equally effective coping strategies. We may have excellent coping skills for several areas and limited resources in a few. It is important to determine which areas are more challenging to make appropriate accommodations.

Essentially, we "stress out" for three (3) reasons:
     1. Change in life has an unsettling effect.
     2. We are feeling challenged or threatened by an outside force.
     3. We experience a loss of personal control.

Ways to Respond to Stressful Conditions
Most people don’t usually plan how to respond to stress. They tend to react without thinking. What is your usual practice?…avoiding the situation, taking emotions out on others, withdrawing, or confronting the situation head on? Largely, it may depend on the situation and potential consequences as to how you respond. It may be easier to confront a friend about his or her irritating tendency to borrow your clothes and leaving you nothing to wear when you really need it than confronting your mother about re-organizing your bedroom. Both may be stressful to you (e.g., lack of control over your belongings). However, the "power" structure is a little different.

Positive Coping Mechanisms for Stress
     1. Exercise/yoga/stretching
     2. Eating a balanced and healthy diet
     3. Spending time alone (i.e., read, write, draw)
     4. Spending time with friends (i.e, going to movie, shopping, play sports)
     5. Forgiving easily, remaining open to change
     6. Treat yourself (i.e., get a massage, manicure, good meal)
     7. Get enough sleep (most people need at least 7 hours per night)
     8. Seek help from a professional (i.e., doctor, counselor, RD)

Negative Coping Mechanisms for Stress
     1. Drinking alcohol/doing drugs/smoking
     2. Excessive worry, imagining the worst
     3. Over or under eating
     4. Stubbornness or Tantrums (i.e., yelling, pouting, moping)
     5. Withdrawing/keeping things to self/denial of problems

REMEMBER: When you experience stress you have a choice—you can either resist it, avoid it, or adapt to it. Examine your pattern in the past when dealing with stressful situations. Are you pleased with your current coping strategy?

To determine your best strategy for a given situation incorporate the following outline in your decision process – assess what is important, determine what areas render you vulnerable to stress, and be clear about your expectations.
     1. Assess Your Priorities – By knowing what is of primary and secondary importance, you can order your activities and expectations in light of your energy on a given day. A structure to follow makes it easier to engage in daily tasks. The stress of trying to remember what you should be doing is eliminated.
     2. Stress Vulnerability – If you know that presentations make you nervous or know that negotiating a car deal petrifies you, do not wait until it happens to incorporate your ‘skills’. Practice is essential. By envisioning the stressful condition and acting out your reaction to anticipated stressors, you can become better prepared for the actual event.
     3. Expectations - Align your expectations of yourself in a given situation with a reality-based view. If you did not study adequately for an exam, rarely attended class, and infrequently turned in homework assignments, it may not be realistic to expect a top grade on the test. Expecting too much of yourself or others can be disappointing if those expectations are not realized. Maintain a realistic perspective to offset misunderstandings. A key problem in this area is perfectionism. Stress is highly anticipated if you feel a need to produce ‘perfectly’ on a consistent basis, try to be someone your are not, or become inflexible with your priorities.
     4. Incorporate Healthy Practices Into Your Daily Schedule – By incorporating a healthy level of exercise, appropriate eating practices, and relaxation techniques (e.g., yoga, meditation, or free breathing), you lower your risk for becoming over stressed. These techniques can lower blood pressure, strengthen muscles, and reduce tension.

Stress Management Techniques


  • Along with improving your ability to relax, you must assess diet and other strains on your body.
  • Aerobic exercise can reduce anxiety up to 50%.
  • Good nutrition (a well balanced diet) will improve your ability to appropriately respond to stress.
  • Get an adequate amount of rest each night.
  • Reducing caffeine intake will help you manage your anxiety (2 ½ cups of coffee doubles the epinephrine level).
  • Smoking cessation is important, as nicotine is also a stimulant.
  • Biofeedback techniques can help up to 80% of migraine sufferers.
  • Acupuncture has also shown promise.


  • If you have multiple stressors (deadlines, increased responsibilities), you must prioritize your time.
  • Initiating a time management schedule remains a positive way to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Break large demands into small, manageable parts. Work through one task at a time.
  • Do what needs to be done first, leaving other things for tomorrow.
  • Identify your goals and work toward them.
  • Take direct action when stress arises- identify your needs and articulate them; Be intentional about what you can do.
  • Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings concerning the stressors in your life.
  • Develop a support network to rely on in times of need.
  • Remember to be kind to yourself and not dwell on the "shoulds".

**In addition to these areas of stress prevention, consider adopting a "recharge regime", a regime that renourishes your emotional battery. Try to approach life in a more balanced manner, accept change as a part of life, develop a strong social support system, and believe in yourself---you are your best advocate!

On-Campus Resources

Counseling Center
Health Center
Wellness Center

Other Stress Resources

Source: Student Counseling & Resource Service-- University of Chicago Virtual Pamphlet Collection

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