Stress and Anxiety

Stress can be good and bad.  Good stress can propel us onward with excitement and heightening our experience while bad stress can cause us anxiety and detract from our abilities, sometimes disabling us completely.

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When our stress level is extremely low our performance also remains low.This is when you are lounging by a pool or laying in bed, not doing anything but feeling calm and relaxed.This stress level is not ideal when we need to get a job done but is a necessary part of life.Allowing the body to release the built-up tension is a healthy practice.


Although stress is associated with negative effects, it can have positive effects on us.There is an optimal amount of stress, which heightens our abilities. This type of stress becomes desirable when we need to perform at our best in a sports game, job interview, or school exam.


When we experience bad stress we often feel anxiety, muscular tension, fatigue, irritability, racing heart, or an upset stomach.These are just a few of the many responses our bodies can have in response to distress.

Anxiety is a normal response to feeling threatened. People differ as to how vulnerable they feel in different situations; this feeling can be influenced by past experiences as well as by the beliefs and attitudes they hold about these situations.

Some general situations which often cause anxiety include:

  • leaving home
  • coping with work and exams
  • dealing with relationships or the lack of relationships
  • sexuality issues
  • preparing to leave university
  • new job
  • moving to new area

But sometimes it is specific situations that are anxiety provoking:

  • apprehension about going into new or social situations
  • having to deal with people in authority
  • worrying about whether you have chosen the right course or job
  • panic about preparing for and facing exams or making a presentation
  • fears about health

The experience of anxiety can range from mild uneasiness and worry to severe panic. At a reasonable level, short bursts of anxiety can motivate us and enhance our performance. If anxiety becomes too severe or chronic, however, it can become debilitating.

Anxiety typically involves an emotional component (e.g., fear, nervousness), a physical component (e.g., trembling, dry mouth, heart racing, stomach churning) and a cognitive component (frightening thoughts, e.g., “I'm going to fail/make a fool of myself/lose control”). These thoughts can then affect our behavior, in ways such as by putting off or stopping work, avoiding people, not sleeping, or drinking too much.

First of all, you need to know that anxiety is entirely normal. Everyone feels anxious when they are in a stressful situation where they feel vulnerable, so being anxious does not mean that you are "weak" or "abnormal". In fact, a certain level of stress can be very helpful--it can motivate us, be exciting or invigorating, and enable us to reach higher goals and meet new challenges. After all, if we never tackled things that we found challenging, we would stop learning or moving on in life.

However, it is also the case that too much stress can seriously interfere with living a normal life. Nonetheless, acute anxiety states are time-limited and will start to fade away in a relatively short period of time. Even when the anxiety is intense, you can still probably function better than you expect, and other people are often unaware of how you are feeling.

Here are some strategies you can try for yourself:


  • Count to ten before responding or reacting
  • Take some deep breaths
  • Go for a walk
  • Do a quick meditation
  • Sleep on it
  • Turn on Relaxing music


  • Eat to calm down
  • Drink alcohol
  • Smoke
  • Procrastinate
  • Under or over sleep

More strategies include:

1. Review the stressful circumstances in your life

Think about all the things that are going on in your life which might be causing you stress. When possible, try to find practical solutions to reduce these sources of stress. This might include:

  • saying "no" to things you do not want to do
  • giving up unnecessary, time-consuming activities and responsibilities
  • confronting work problems by talking to your tutor, director of studies or supervisor/manager
  • using an organized and realistic plan of action to tackle projects
  • asking for information or feedback if helpful
  • discussing a relationship problem

2. A rational approach to challenging negative thoughts

When people are very anxious, they tend to exaggerate how threatening a situation is, and to underplay how effectively they can cope with that situation. Our thoughts are distorted by our emotional state, and it can help to "stand back" and evaluate the situation more realistically when you feel calm. Below is a rational approach to put the fears into perspective, to challenge their validity, or to find an alternative view of your situation. Ask yourself questions such as these:

  • Are you judging yourself harshly?
  • Are you "catastrophizing"?
  • Are you worrying about the future?
  • Are you comparing yourself to others?

3. Distract yourself

Some people find it more effective to distract themselves from their frightening thoughts, perhaps by repeating a calming phrase to themselves such as "Stay calm and relaxed. I will feel better soon", or by doing mental arithmetic or saying the alphabet backwards. You can also try to distract yourself by focusing your attention on some external stimulus such as listening to a conversation, watching television, or becoming aware of what is going on around you. If you can stop attending to frightening thoughts, the thoughts will no longer be able to fuel your anxiety. You can also listen to relaxation tapes, exercise, or do yoga.

This is not the same as avoidance! It aims to help you stay in the stressful situation, not to opt out of it.

4. Face the situation

Confronting, rather than avoiding, anxiety-provoking situations also helps. When anxiety occurs in certain situations, it has become a learned response to those situations and it is a question of learning a new (relaxed) response. If you make yourself stay in the feared situation for long enough, the anxiety will reduce over time until it is completely extinguished. You could draw up a hierarchy of your feared situations, confronting the least threatening situation first and experience the diminution of your anxiety in that situation before progressing to a slightly more threatening situation in your hierarchy.

5. Learn to relax

The physical symptoms of anxiety occur because adrenaline is released by the nervous system into the blood stream and affects organs such as the heart, stomach and muscles. Relaxation and breathing exercises can help you to control these symptoms. You can learn how your body feels when it is relaxed if you tense different parts of your body (e.g. arms, hands, legs, neck, shoulders, forehead) for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax. Try to keep your breathing slow and regular so that you do not hyperventilate, making the physical symptoms worse.

It may help you to join a relaxation class. Relaxation exercises need to be practiced initially when calm. You will become better able to relax in stressful situations with increasing practice.


Learning to recognize your stress triggers and stress responses can help you identify when you are becoming stressed and help you relax quicker.Identifying your cues and responses will take time and effort.Next time you are stressed take notice of your physical and mental responses and any events that preceded your stress episode.


Common Stress Triggers

Getting charged extra at the grocery store

Social interactions

Change in financial obligations

Fear of failure (specific task)

Presenting a project in class

Having multiple exams scheduled on the same day

Fighting with a friend


Stress elicits physical and mental responses that are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system.This involuntary system activates responses, unique to every individual.These stress responses fall into three categories: fight, flight, and freeze.Becoming aware of your personal stress responses will help you catch stress quickly and enable you to begin using coping techniques to reverse it.


Common Stress Responses




Tense Muscles

Rapid Breathing


Intense Thinking




Increased Heart Rate

Feeling Faint


A panic attack is a severe experience of anxiety. People may feel intense dread, experience various physical symptoms and have extreme thoughts of losing control, going crazy, having a heart attack or dying. It is also possible to become afraid of panic attacks themselves because the experience can be so unpleasant. Paradoxically, this experience tends to make a person even more prone to having an attack!

Although panic attacks can be very frightening, they are not actually harmful. People do not actually have heart attacks or die from them!

Here are some strategies to help in the event of a panic attack:

  • Remind yourself that a panic attack will end!
  • Remind yourself that panic attacks are not actually dangerous!
  • Remind yourself of any previous occasions when you handled a similar situation well.
  • Picture a person you trust or who cares about you and imagine the person is with you offering encouragement.
  • Focus on the present moment and on the things around (outside of) you - observe their shape, color, sounds...
  • Stop what you are doing and slow yourself down for a moment! Breathe more slowly and gently (though not actually holding your breath). Then continue what you were doing slowly.
  • Take a big sigh, stretch out, and then flop and relax.
  • If you are able, take some gentle exercise (e.g., go for a stroll).
  • Get angry! Don't let this anxiety (or situation) get the better of you!