A University of Dallas student is no stranger to it. Think back to only a few weeks ago, when midterms were on the horizon: three papers, four exams or some other combination, some other variant on the overload theme. It was there in full force. It can come up during the midweek scramble, in that desperate attempt to survive coursework till the weekend. Sometimes it’s not even school-related.
There’s a lot going on, and it’s going on all the time. There are many sources of pressure involved in the life of a college student – academic, social, athletic, etc. With all those demands, stress is a steady trend from freshman to senior year. A constant, though somewhat enigmatic, companion.
But what is stress? In one sense, a UD student is well acquainted with stress, but, in another important sense, it can often remain an unexamined phenomenon. The term “stress” is not a simple one. It includes a multitude of symptoms, has both positive and negative manifestations, and is ultimately a highly subjective phenomenon, making it difficult to define satisfactorily. The website for the American Institute of Stress (AIS), a non-profit organization devoted to advancing knowledge of stress, notes that even for Hans Seyle, the 20th-century endocrinologist who coined the term, it always remained somewhat enigmatic. Seyle said, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.”
There are ways of understanding stress and the different ways it appears in students’ daily lives. Mike Brock, a licensed professional counselor who works with students at UD, specializes in stress. He gives one of the easiest-to-understand definitions of stress: “Stress is the gap between ‘the way things ought to be’ and ‘the way things are.’” It is a definition easily applied to everyday collegiate life.
Think of the kind of gap produced by an ordinary quiz in Baby Bio. It’s a gap that is not very stressful. But, if you were to introduce a 15-page term paper to Philosophy of Being, there would be a fairly large increase in that gap. The result: an increase in stress.
An increase in stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Brock explained that there are two kinds of stress: eustress and distress. “Eustress” is good stress, sharing the same Greek prefix “eu-” – meaning good, well or normal – as words like “euphoria” and “Eucharist.” When stress is first introduced, it is never a bad thing. Stress is simply an environmental demand for change, which produces a biological and psychological kind of flight-or-fight response. It’s the reason why some students choose to put off that 15-page term paper until the night before it’s due, since that’s when stress kicks in and produces the necessary motivation and focus.
On the other hand, as the name suggests, “distress” is bad stress. Distress occurs when a gap between “the way things ought to be” and “the ways things are” is sustained over a long period of time. At some point, if the gap is not closed, either by the environment or by the individual responding to his or her environment, stress can become distress and produce many negative symptoms. AIS provides a list of 50 common signs and symptoms of stress, which serves both as an example of possible negative symptoms and as an illustration of the highly subjective nature of stress. The list includes “Sudden attacks of panic … Increased or decreased appetite … Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed … Increased frustration, irritability, edginess,” among many others.
So how can a student make use of eustress and avoid distress? Regular exercise tops the list. For those who visit his office, Brock has a handout expounding on the benefits of exercise. It’s a collection of various quotes from specialists in the fields of stress and healthy living, including this one from Dr. Frank Lawlis, author of The Stress Answer: “Participating in physical exercise has been shown to be one of the most powerful (if not the most powerful) behaviors you can use to positively impact your mind and body.”
There are other ways to manage stress. Brock recommends that students use a planner to keep track of school and other activities. It’s a way of keeping your eye on the gap in a positive way, allowing you to respond to the demands of your environment and stay motivated. Brock says that “anything that gives us joy or pleasure” can help deal with stress. This can include having good relationships, meaning and purpose in life, and a healthy spirituality.
That stress is constantly trending for UD students goes without saying. For that reason, many find the question “Do you ever feel stressed?” absurd – if not offensive. And yet, the trend bears some looking into, since getting to know stress and its different manifestations stands out as the healthiest approach to students’ constant companion.
Mike Brock is a licensed professional counselor here on campus. His counseling office is located in Anselm 102, and he can be reached at 214-364-4154. Walk-in and scheduled appointments are welcome.