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Skidmore College
Counseling Center

Emotional Overwhelm and Stress


Stress is the body's response to things that upset or excite us. Stress can be acute (a pop quiz or a bomb threat), episodic (monthly bills or quarterly exams), or chronic (rush hour traffic, a learning disability, or an alcohol dependant parent or spouse), depending on the stressor that causes the stress response. Not all stressors are negative. Some of life's happiest moments are enormously stressful (births, reunions, and weddings). This type of good stress is called eustress. Distress is the negative form of stress which can disrupt our lives and be harmful to our health. Distress has been linked to an increase risk of developing heart disease, a decreased function of the immune system, and other health problems including migraine headaches and a disrupted digestive system. College students are under considerable amounts of stress on a daily basis. Their response to that stress may lead to increased numbers of headaches, anxiety, anger, crying, depression, or starting new habits like smoking or drinking.

Stress Management

Starting college can be an incredibly stressful event for many students. Living with other people, moving away from home, adapting to the new social environment and the academic workload can put college students under a great amount of stress each day. Their response to stress may lead to an increased number of headaches, anxiety, anger, crying, depression, or new habits like smoking and drinking.

How to Manage Stress

When you begin college, you may want to think about the ways in which you currently handle stress and healthy coping options. There are healthy ways to reduce stress, such as talking to others, cultivating hobbies, using relaxation techniques or exercise can greatly improve your ability to cope with the stressors of everyday life and reduce the negative impact of stress. The Office of Health Promotion and The Counseling Center are also always available as resources for students who need assistance in coping with the pressures of college.

These things may help to decrease your stress level:

  • Strive for balance - review plans and commitments and scale down if necessary
  • Get the facts - when faced with a change or challenge, seek accurate information, which can bring vague fears down to earth.
  • Talk to someone you trust - A friend or a health professional can offer valuable perspective as well as psychological support.
  • Exercise - Even when your schedule gets jammed, try to work out 20 to 30 minutes several times a week (walk, swim, bicycle, jog, walk, or work out at the gym).
  • Help others - one of the most effective ways of dealing with stress is to find people who are dealing with hard situations as well and do something positive for them.
  • Cultivate hobbies - pursuing a personal pleasure can distract you from the stressors in you life and help you to relax.
  • Master a form of relaxation - Whether you choose meditation, yoga, mindfulness, or another technique, practice it regularly.

Stress reduction techniques

How to do Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tensing and relaxing body parts to decrease anxiety and achieve relaxation. It is particularly helpful for people with body tension, headaches, or insomnia. PMR is most helpful when it is practiced on a regular basis for about twenty minutes. For each sequence, focus on the sensations that come from tensing and relaxing each body part. If your mind begins to wander, gently direct it back to your muscles. Follow these steps to begin using PMR:

  1. Sit or lie down somewhere quiet and comfortable.
  2. Begin focusing on your breathing and take a few deep abdominal breaths as you imagine your body becoming more relaxed.
  3. Clench one or both fists as tightly as you can for about ten seconds. Pay attention to that muscle group and focus on the feeling of tension. Then release your fists for 10-20 seconds and notice the difference in how it feels to relax your hands. Imagine tension draining from your body. (Use the same technique for each of the following muscle groups.)
  4. Make a muscle with one or both biceps. Focus on the tension…and then relax.
  5. Hold your arms out straight in front of you and lock your elbows to tighten your triceps. Hold…and then relax.
  6. Wrinkle your forehead. Hold…and then relax. Imagine your forehead becoming smooth and soft.
  7. Squeeze your eyes shut. Hold…and then relax. Let the feeling of relaxation spread all over your face.
  8. Open your mouth as wide as you can. Hold…and then relax. Let your jaw hang loosely and your lips part.
  9. Tilt your head back gently. Hold…and then relax.
  10. Raise your shoulders to your ears. Hold…and then relax.
  11. Squeeze your shoulder blades back. Hold…and then relax.
  12. Hold your breath for ten seconds and release slowly.
  13. Tighten your abs. Hold…and then relax.
  14. Tighten your buttocks. Hold…and then relax.
  15. Tighten your thigh muscles. Hold…and then relax.
  16. Point your foot. Hold…and then relax
  17. Flex your foot. Hold…and then relax.
  18. Pay attention to your body and notice where there is any tension. If you feel tension anywhere, repeat that muscle group.
  19. Let yourself sink into your chair or bed and focus on the feeling of relaxation in each muscle group.

*Some people find it easier to listen to a tape or video that guides you through the exercises while you’re doing PMR. Click here for a YouTube video on PMR or make your own!*


How to do Deep Breathing

Anxiety often causes us to take quick, shallow breaths that make our chests rise and fall. Deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing can help trigger a relaxation response for both our bodies and minds. Diaphragmatic breathing involves taking full, deep breaths from our abdomens rather than our chests. This skill, when practiced over time in stressful and non-stressful situations, can help us feel relaxed more quickly. It is easy to learn and no one around you will even know you’re doing it! Follow these steps to begin training yourself to breathe deeply:

  1. Either sit or lie down somewhere comfortable and begin paying attention to your breathing.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your abdomen to see if you’re taking short, shallow breaths (with your chest rising and falling) or breathing more deeply (with your abdomen rising and falling).
  3. Begin to inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Try to breathe deeply from the ‘bottom’ of your lungs. You should feel the hand on your abdomen rise as it expands with air—think of blowing up a beach ball.
  4. When taking a breath, pause for a moment, and then exhale as slowly and fully as you can and try to imagine any tension in your body draining away leaving you feeling limp like a rag doll.
  5. Take ten of these abdominal breaths. Sometimes it can help to count to four on each inhalation and exhalation to slow down your breathing i.e. Breath in 2…3…4 and hold and out 2…3…4.
  6. If you become dizzy or light-headed at any point, take a break and breathe normally before trying again

If you are having a hard time dealing with the stress in you life you can make an appointment at the College Counseling Center by stopping by the office on the first floor of Jonsson Tower or calling 580-5555.