Faculty Spotlight: Stress

Stress in college is inevitable. Today, as undergraduate degrees become the norm, college students face a tremendous amount of pressure. Pressure to perform well academically, the increasing cost of undergraduate education, and developmentally still learning and growing – college students face a large amount of stress during a unique time in their lives. What are college students most concerned about? How are they coping and adapting to this stressful time?

In a survey on stress among over 300 undergraduate students, students rated academic performance, pressure to succeed, and post-graduate plans to be the most stressful and concerning.1 While these concerns were positively correlated with stress, they were also positively correlated with anxiety and depressive symptoms, highlighting the relationship between stress and mental health problems. Interestingly, students living off-campus scored the highest on stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, followed by transfer students.1 This highlights the importance of campus connection for well-being.

Other research on undergraduates has focused on high and low stress tolerance, with high stress tolerance scores indicating that the student was able to better manage stress. One study found that feeling supported by family, friends, and professors was the single most significant protective factor for high stress tolerance.2 Risk factors for low stress tolerance, however, were external coping sources, such as cleaning, calling a friend or relative, shopping, social networking, and using substances when stressed.2

While all college students are susceptible to stress, knowing who is more vulnerable to stress, such as students living off-campus and transfer students, can be helpful in identifying who may need more resources. Similarly, providing constructive positive feedback to students may aid in increasing their feeling of support at SPU, reducing their risk of developing low stress tolerance. Overall, as college students navigate the stressful experience of college, we can be supportive by acknowledging the stressors in their lives and doing what we can to promote a positive and supportive environment.

1Beiter, R., Nash, R., McCrady, M., Rhoades, D., Linscomb, M., Clarahan, M., & Sammut, S. (2015). The prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, and stress in a sample of college students. Journal of Affective Disorders, 173, 90-96. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2014.10.054

2Bland, H. W., Melton, B. F., Welle, P., & Bigman, L. (2012). Stress tolerance: New challenges for millennial college students. College Student Journal, (2)46, 361-375.

 

Radical Acceptance

When in distress or dealing with high emotions, it can be difficult to accept what is happening. Radical acceptance is complete acceptance of reality and what is happening – it lets you stop fighting with reality and helps you respond better to the distress. Radical acceptance is NOT giving up or giving in, and it is not tolerance. True radical acceptance is opening yourself up to experience the moment.

Radical acceptance can be hard to practice. In the moment, we’re often angry, bitter, or anxious. But with radical acceptance, we can come to peace with the full experience and the facts of reality. How can you practice radical acceptance?

  1. Try to limit exaggerations about reality. For example, thinking, “This professor has hated me since the first day of the quarter” is likely not a fact.
  2. Recognize when you are catastrophizing. For example, believing you’re a bad student if you do poorly on one test. This is likely catastrophizing.
  3. Avoid judgmental assertions. For example saying “I”m bad at this” is judgmental, and can be harmful.

Radical acceptance takes time – but if you can limit your exaggerations, catastrophizing, and judgmental assertions during times of distress, you can check what is actually happening in reality. Overall, trying to separate your emotions from your thoughts can help in practicing radical acceptance. When in distress, stepping back and checking what is actually happening can be incredibly beneficial in helping you decide what to do next. Finally, be patient with yourself when trying to practice new skills – radically accept that distress tolerance skills take time to master!

Self-Soothing

It’s finals week and almost spring break! If you’re feeling stressed about grades and exams, self-soothing is a great way to relax. Self-soothing is a distress tolerance skill that uses the five senses (smell, taste, touch, hearing, and vision). The goal of this skill is to find comforting activities that can ease distress through the five senses. When we’re in a distressing situation or having upsetting thoughts, it can be easy to jump into action without thinking and it can be just as difficult to calm yourself down. Using the self-soothing skill through the five senses, you can slow down, ease negative thoughts, and overall, lower your distress.

A few examples of these activities include lighting a candle (smell), eating a comforting meal or enjoying a cup of tea (taste), taking a bath or using a favorite blanket (touch), listening to music that is calming (hearing), or taking a walk outside or viewing art you like (vision).

Another self-soothing activity can be done through meditation. Through a body scan meditation, you take a break from the stress of what is going in the present and you can reconnect with where your emotions are at as you shift your awareness to your body. Click here to check out a great beginner’s body scan meditation!

When we’re able to step back from what is distressing us, we’re doing ourselves a favor. Self-soothing can be an act of kindness towards yourself and, ultimately, can help you think more clearly when your emotions are running high – which is great for de-stressing during finals week!

The STOP Skill

Crises happen all the time, whether you’re in college or not. From academic stress, to social and family stress, it can be helpful to have tools to help you manage situations and events that cause emotions to run high. Sometimes when our emotions run high, we’re tempted to act impulsively or reactively – meaning that we don’t think about the consequences of our words or actions in the moment. Sometimes we end up regretting what we’ve said or done when we act impulsively. The STOP skill can be used to help make better decisions in the moment.

  • Stop
  • Take a step back
  • Observe
  • Proceed mindfully

The first step, stop, is freezing in the moment. Instead of angrily saying something back to someone – it’s pausing. Next, take a step back, ask yourself how you want to respond. It’s important here to give yourself time to cool off or calm down. Observe is next – what is going on around you? How do you feel? Sometimes we want to assume we know everything that is going on in a situation, but that’s not usually the case. Take time to gather information so you can understand what is going on with other people involved. Lastly, proceed mindfully. Whatever the situation, there is an optimal outcome – how can you respond to the situation so that your goals are met? What do you want out of the situation? After utilizing the STOP skill, you can move forward calmly and towards a better outcome.

Like all skills, the STOP skill can be difficult to master, but practicing it can help you handle distress and difficult situations easier!