Stress! What to do?


Welcome, students, to another crazy semester at the University of Miami! Though the semester seems to have just started, everyone has been at full gear for weeks. Some professors have already given their third midterm exams, and students are expected to hurriedly piece together their schedules for next semester; meanwhile, the longing for those comforting bed covers intensifies with each passing day. As the workload piles up from procrastination, students utter one word that is mutually felt among their tired peers: stress. Aside from the pounding headaches and the light sobs into heavy textbooks, what is stress? Dr. Barry Zwibelman, Ph.D., associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Miami and licensed clinical psychologist, sheds some light on stress and stress management from a psychological perspective.

The concept of stress caught the public eye when it was linked to human medical problems, such as heart attacks and other cardiac conditions, that arose with no physiological explanation. The resulting panic paved the way for a new type of health craze — one that focused on maintaining our mental well-being. This mysterious tether between mind and body called for further scrutiny as well as development of methods for stress management. In his stress management class, Dr. Zwibelman emphasizes a conception of what stress ultimately is: the fight-or-flight response. As many students in introductory psychology courses learn, this reaction is a physiological arousal in response to a perceived attack or harm. A remnant of our primal nature, this response is responsible for split-second make-or-break decisions in moments of extreme duress. In these trying moments, you may experience elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, accelerated breathing and increased muscle tension — adjustments in bodily faculties made to optimize your capability to overcome the impending threat. What many are not aware of, though, is that the same reactions involved in this response to harm are also experienced as a result of day-to-day stresses.

Stress typically bears a negative connotation but, in fact, not all stress is bad. Dr. Zwibelman alluded to a famous quote in the field of stress management: “Without stress there would be no life.” This refers to the sheer ubiquity of what we perceive as stress. It is experienced in even the simplest, most mundane activities, such as asking or answering questions. The stress response is initiated when a specific purpose must be achieved or a certain goal reached. Dr. Zwibelman stated, “When you’re not performing and not accomplishing anything, your body is in a total state of rest. Good stress is one that gives energy to motivate and accomplish things.” Like a double-edged sword, the stress that motivates us can build up to the all-too-familiar bad stress, in which performance begins to decline. Imagine yourself confidently taking an exam that you know you studied endlessly for, but your mind blanks on a question, causing you to rack your brain anxiously for the answer. The stress that had previously served to motivate you soon turns to mid-exam anxiety as your heart beats faster, inflating the stress level to the point where it interferes with your test-taking performance.

How should you respond to and manage this stress? The first step is to become aware of the sources from which the stress originated. Some techniques to help do so include meditation, yoga, cognitive methods and deep breathing. Unfortunately, these sources may be problems that you cannot solve — issues out of your own hands. With regard to situations like these, Dr. Zwibelman mentions a serenity prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous: “Please give me the strength to change the things I can change. Give me the patience to accept those things that I cannot change and the wisdom to know the difference.” As this implies, various techniques exist for differing sources of stress. Some focus on solving the problems at hand while others focus on remaining calm through controlling stress response if the problems, by nature, cannot be changed.

One of the first techniques that Dr. Zwibelman teaches is diaphragmatic breathing. While reading this article, follow along to experience a method that seems simplistic but, with careful practice, is a skill that can manage stress relatively well. This exercise can be done anywhere and in any position — while lying down, sitting or standing up. First, take a deep breath, filling your lungs completely. Then hold that breath for a couple seconds and slowly exhale. At the end of the exhale, pause for a few seconds and take another deep breath. Concentrate on going through these motions slowly to consciously direct the body to relax. Pretty simple, no?

Next, try this drill again but use the diaphragm instead. The diaphragm is the layer of muscle that separates the thoracic cavity and the abdominal cavity. Follow the above-mentioned steps again, but this time, lower the diaphragm to inhale in order to completely fill the lungs with air. A sign that this is done correctly is if the stomach protrudes when lowering the diaphragm to fill the lungs. Interestingly, when humans are born, they naturally breathe through their diaphragms, meaning babies naturally practice diaphragmatic breathing. As time progresses and people suffer from increased stress, they start to take shallower and more rapid breaths, learning to breathe by pushing out their chests rather than their diaphragm. These changes physiologically relate to those from the fight-or-flight response, and the basic methods of stress management help to counteract these bad habits in activities as simple as breathing.

After mastering diaphragmatic breathing, you might consider combining the exercise with cognitive methods such as meditation, which requires focus on a single thought, usually soothing imagery. Sometimes other activities, such as exercising, listening to music or praying, are preferred; these methods are perfectly acceptable. One point Dr. Zwibelman emphasizes about the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing, meditation and similar techniques is that they can be exercised daily to cope with life’s normal stresses rather than waiting until good stress builds up and transitions to bad. He suggests a minimum of 10 minutes to a maximum of 20 minutes a day for practicing such coping mechanisms.

Keep in mind that stress is constant and sometimes the signs of stress’s toll are not always apparent. The body responds to the stress both physically and mentally. With techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, we have figured out viable and convenient ways to control this physical response, so try to practice these exercises daily. If you keep all of this information in mind and exercise good stress management, you might just feel more energized and productive.

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