As we hit crunch time in the semester and final papers, projects and exams take over every aspect of our lives, stress begins to pile up as well. And the worst part is, we’re so consumed by the things that are stressing us out that we don’t even notice the toll it’s taking on our mental and physical health. We asked both collegiettes and an expert to weigh in on some signs that indicate you're way too stressed and what to do when that stress is becoming too much to handle.
1. You’re breaking out
One of the most common stress-related complaints from collegiates is that when they’ve got too much going on, their skin breaks out. “I’m not getting enough sleep when I’m stressed, and I’m not really taking care of my body how I should be,” admits Amber Layfield, a graduate of Appalachian State who notices that her skin tends to act up during stressful times. She adds that when she’s busy, important daily parts of her routine—like washing her face every night—sometimes get put on the back burner. Though it can be easy to abandon these habits because you’re so busy (or just because you forget), when you’re stressed out, taking care of yourself becomes all the more important.
In addition to always being sure to wash your face and remove makeup before bed, try to incorporate a little something extra into your routine, like a weekly face mask. Feeling Beautiful Dead Sea Minerals Anti-Stress Mask clears pores, prevents stress-related breakouts and has a calming, aromatherapeutic scent. It’s also less than five dollars at most drugstores—what’s not to love?
2. You’re tensing up
Auburn University graduate Lindy Olive notes that her “eyes twitch and back aches” when she’s feeling stressed. “Yoga is a must,” she adds. “I always find time in my schedule for yoga and a workout.” So, yes, it is possible that the key to reducing stress may be to add yet another item to your already-packed schedule. However, setting aside time for the many positive physical and mental benefits of yoga (or another exercise routine you find enjoyable) can work wonders for your health.
Stress might seem to be purely a mental thing, but it tends to manifest itself in physical ways. Dr. Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist, public speaker and author of Breathe: 14 Days to Oxygenating, Recharging, and Fueling Your Body & Brain, says we must be careful to avoid “forward head posture, which gives you neck and shoulder pain. You’re jutting your head too far forward, and this has long term severe health consequences.” This happens because we’re stressed out and spend so much time in front of computer screens and looking down at our phones. Get in the habit of sitting up straight and keeping your shoulders down instead of tensed up close to your head and neck—though it takes practice, your body will stop sending out the extra stress signals, and you’ll save yourself a lot of muscle pain in the long run.
3. You’re never feeling 100 percent
How often do you complain to your friends or roommates that you’re tired or feeling sick? Probably a lot more than any of us would care to admit. “Many of us are actually stress addicts,” says Dr. Vranich. We try to take on more tasks (whether they’re academic, professional, extracurricular or even social) than any person can reasonably handle, and then suffer long-term health consequences as a result. She adds that feeling chronically tired, sick or achy is often stress-related. “You might be having backaches, but told that your back’s okay, you have migraines even though you’ve done everything you’re supposed to, you have stomach problems even though you don’t have any food allergies—having something wrong that isn’t being resolved is usually related to stress.”
Dr. Vranich compares being stressed out to having a cup of strong coffee—when we’re high on caffeine, we feel like we can accomplish anything. When we’re stressed out, we feel a certain high from being busy or feeling important. But in the long term, after the caffeine wears off, we come crashing down and feeling energetic becomes difficult again. If you’re getting headaches or you’re achy and lethargic for lengthy periods of time, try some yoga or deep breathing instead of reaching for a bottle of Advil and see if it really is stress at the root of your problem.
4. You’re not winding down
You've heard a million times that you should be getting your eight hours of sleep every night, but it's a heck of a lot easier said than done. “Most people nowadays can’t go to sleep right away, wake up too early or are just having bad sleep altogether,” says Dr. Vranich. “Part of it is that we go from running and running and running all day to just wanting to switch off the light and go to sleep. Your body just doesn’t work that way.” She advises to come up with a nightly routine to wind down with—which is definitely much easier said than done, when we’re often at club or group project meetings until late at night or studying for exams into the wee hours of the morning.
“I have started to force myself to go home at a certain time so I can make dinner and rest for about an hour and a half, and make sure I go to bed at a decent hour,” says Amber. “It's better to get enough sleep and start your day early than not get enough sleep and force yourself to get up early the next day!” Amber also adds that she avoids caffeinated beverages after 2:00 p.m. every day.
Investing in a planner and setting aside a little bit of time at the start of the week to figure out when you’ll be able to get your work done (without having to cram an entire project into one night) will help you visualize your week and incorporate your eight hours each night. And of course (you’ve probably heard this a million times, but it never seems to be enough), you should try to stop checking your laptop and phone at least thirty minutes before you hit the hay.
5. You’re not breathing right
Surely you’ve heard that taking a few deep breaths can do wonders when you’re stressed out or in a panic. But did you know that there’s actually a right way to breathe? Dr. Vranich explains the importance of horizontal breathing, as opposed to vertical. Most of us are vertical breathers, meaning we use only part of our lung capacity to take in air, making our breaths shallow. When we’re stressed out, we tend to tense up our shoulders and neck and use them when we breathe in—which sends signals to our body to increase heart rate and release cortisol, inducing even more stress. Instead, we should be making use of our abdomen and diaphragm and expand them outward—horizontally—when we take in air. This is why Dr. Vranich also refers to this as “belly breathing”—it allows us to make full use of our lung capacity.
Because breathing is something we do without thinking, it can be difficult to change the way we do it—but it can happen with a bit of focus and practice. A physical sign of stress is less oxygen in the blood, and the only way to get that oxygen back is deeper, more focused breathing.
6. You’re not prioritizing
Dr. Vranich suggests that each day we ask ourselves, “What do I have to do today, and what don’t I have to do today?” We take pride in being busy and a go-getter, because we see it as a sign of being successful. However, there’s a fine line between being accomplished and neglecting our health. We have a false idea in our heads that the world will fall apart if we take even a short time away for ourselves—“and most of the time, it won’t,” she says. “There should be a point where sleep becomes sacred.” We should be sure that we are spending our precious time doing things we really need and want to be doing; it can be as simple as not checking Facebook after a certain time, or deciding to leave a party early because you know your eight hours of sleep are more important than hanging back at an event you aren’t even really enjoying.
Of course, when we’re balancing school, part-time jobs, internships, clubs, friends and family, eliminating stress completely will probably never be possible. But there does come a point where it becomes too much to handle, and you know you need to scale back. Learning good stress-relief habits now will help you later in life, both personally and professionally. Never feel guilty about taking some time for yourself—self-care is as important as any of your other myriad of responsibilities!