If you’re stressed and reading this article, you might be procrastinating. That’s okay; this will only take you 15 minutes to read, and it could help.
First, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and wait 30 seconds before you read the next line.
It’s going to be okay.
Let’s try to understand what you’re going through. Stress is, in part, a physiological reaction to a tense situation. It’s tied to our fight-or-flight response that is said to have once helped our ancestors escape from saber-toothed tigers or whatever else was trying to eat them.
A little bit of stress isn’t a bad thing; it can actually be helpful. At first, you get filled with adrenaline, your heart rate increases and your senses sharpen, making you physically primed and ready to face the threat, be it a final exam or an enraged woolly mammoth.
But, if stress is prolonged, your body’s continued activation can lead to symptoms such as headaches, a nervous stomach, muscle tension and fatigue. A weakened immune system can let you down when you need it most, and you could come down with a cold or the flu. Chronic stress can cause depression, anxiety, ulcers, and heart disease.
There is no avoiding stress, and nor should you want to avoid it. Some of the best events in life can be extremely stressful — getting married, goaltending in the Stanley Cup finals and rocking out in front of 10,000 screaming fans all come to mind. The best we can do is to learn to manage stress and minimize its negative effects.
Apart from avoiding stressful situations, there are two ways to manage stress: you can deal with the source of the stress, or you can deal with your feelings and your body’s reaction to the stress.
Janet Sheppard, a counselor at the University of Victoria, says the key is balancing these two ways of addressing stress. It is important to take time to take care of yourself and maintain your mental and physical health—which is treating the symptoms of stress—but you also need to get your work done in order to deal with the situation that is stressing you out.
Some students are so focused on their work that they neglect to take care of themselves, which can worsen stress. “They start chipping away at the things that make them feel better, like social time and exercise,” Sheppard says. “Then they’re stressed and they’re too tired to cook so they crave something junky and simple, so their nutrition starts to go and that effects maybe their digestion, maybe their sleep.”
Disrupted sleep patterns can be part of a vicious cycle. Students get stressed because they have so much work to do, and their anxiety, caffeine consumption and work schedule prevent them from sleeping properly. Sleep deprivation makes them unable to think clearly, making it more difficult to work and worsens their anxiety, and they compensate for their exhaustion by drinking more coffee, which exacerbates their insomnia.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, cut down on the caffeine — particularly in the afternoons. It’s also a good idea to keep your workspace and relaxation spaces separate, so you don’t condition yourself to confuse one activity with the other. “Don’t study on your bed,” Sheppard says. “I’ve worked with students who’ve ended up in a terrible mess with insomnia.”
People who are focused on scholarly pursuits sometimes disregard the warning signs their bodies are giving them, Sheppard says. “Sometimes I say, people around here think that your body is just there to carry around your brain.” But because stress is as much physical as it is mental, it’s important to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Those early symptoms, like fatigue and muscle tension, are a sign that your body could use a little TLC.
Taking time for exercise is important for both your mental, as well as your physical health. Moving your body and activating your senses can be a great way to clear your mind and give yourself a vacation from the purely intellectual world you’ve immersed yourself in. Returning to your work with a clear head, you might find that the time you’ve taken was more than worth it in terms of the amount of work you can get done.
On the other hand, students can spend too much time taking care of themselves. “Taking care of yourself can include taking a night off, reading a book for pleasure instead of for school, but if you’re not paying attention to it, it can turn into avoidance and procrastination.”
Surprisingly, Sheppard finds that many people procrastinate and avoid doing their work not because they lack drive, but rather the opposite. “Lots of times the people who end up being the most avoidant tend to be really perfectionistic — they’re procrastinating because they’re afraid of not being good enough.”
Often, procrastination is a result of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done. It can be a good idea to make a list of everything that you need to accomplish, and break it down into clear, identifiable tasks. A good way to find balance is to set out realistic goals for yourself to accomplish certain tasks, and then reward yourself by allowing yourself time for an activity that you enjoy.
There are many other small ways you can relax and recover your balance during the day, many of which take up very little time, such as deep-breathing exercises. Many people swear by meditation, or by stretching and muscle relaxing exercises, such as progressive relaxation.
Everyone gets stressed and everyone deals with it differently. If you find that stress is becoming overwhelming, your university offers resources to help. Go to your university’s counseling department to talk to someone or to enroll in a stress workshop.
Erin Millar and Ben Coli are writing an advice book for university students. Email any questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.