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Campus Overload
Posted at 12:46 PM ET, 12/12/2011

Students can’t let stress become their new norm


Today’s guest blogger is Jeff Goelitz, a program developer, senior trainer and education specialist with the nonprofit Institute of HeartMath. He is the co-author of “The College De-Stress Handbook: Keeping Cool Under Pressure from the Inside Out.”

For parents who send their kids off to college saying, “These will be the best years of your life,” it would be very appropriate to add, “If you can handle the stress of college life.”

Today’s college experience is much different than it was a generation ago — and not just because of higher tuition bills and Facebook. Today’s students are under a massive amount of stress.

Freshmen are showing up already stressed out, according to the latest CIRP Freshman Survey that reported students’ emotional health levels at their lowest since the survey started in 1985. While in school, more students are working part-time and near-full-time jobs. At graduation, only 29 percent of seniors have jobs lined up.

Pressure to excel often creates stress, and many students are not learning how to effectively handle this stress. Some students drop out or transfer, while an alarming number turn to alcohol. Instead, these students should build their emotional and mental resilience.

My colleague Robert A. Rees, a former dean at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a former director at the Institute of HeartMath, and I wrote a new book, “The College De-Stress Handbook: Keeping Cool Under Pressure from the Inside Out,” to put the intimate knowledge of stress and proven methods for handling it in the context of higher education.

As we say in the book: “One of the most rewarding times for college students is when they first sense that their gifts, talents and abilities are beginning to blossom. This realization is generally accompanied by increased self-confidence and a keener sense of direction and purpose. Many things become clearer. During such times, students tap into a state that heightens their focus and increases their creativity and productivity.”

Let me share five facts that I believe every college student should know about stress:

1) Stress can make smart people do stupid things: Stress causes what brain researchers call “cortical inhibition.” In simple terms, stress inhibits a part of the brain responsible for decision-making and reaction time and can adversely affect other mental abilities as well.

2) The human body doesn’t discriminate between a big stressful event and a little one: Any stressful experience will create a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in your body. If any amount of stress is left unchecked, many things can occur within the body, including premature aging, impaired cognitive function and energy drain.

3) Stress can become your new norm: When you regularly experience negative feelings and high amounts of stress, your brain recognizes this as your normal state. This then becomes the new norm, or baseline for your emotional state.

Overtime, high stress can become dangerous because you are constantly flooding your system with cortisol — the stress hormone — and adrenaline. When you’re in this flight or fight state it also increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, alters your immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system. It can even suppress the reproductive system and growth processes. The bottom line is that long-term activation of the stress-response puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including: depression, sleep problems, memory impairment, obesity, digestive problems and more.

4) Stress can be controlled: Countless studies demonstrate that people can restructure their emotional state using emotion-refocusing techniques. These techniques help you recognize how you are feeling and shift to a more positive emotional, mental and physical state.

One technique (described in detail on the HeartMath Web site) involves slowing your thoughts and focusing on your heartbeat, breathing slowly and deeply, and focusing on the positive feeling that you receive.

5) Stress less by loving what you study: Barbara Frederickson, a leading international authority on the importance of positive emotions, says humans are genetically programmed to seek positive emotions such as love and joy. It’s suggested to choose a major or career path you love and enjoy. Otherwise, you could end up fighting against your own biology.

What other tips do you have for handling stress, especially during final exams? Please share your thoughts below.

By Jeff Goelitz  |  12:46 PM ET, 12/12/2011

 
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