Malama Ola: How To Stress Less

Contributing Writer Solomon Singer

Graphics/Comic Artist Tiffany Erickson

Photos courtesy of UH Hilo Counseling Services

Counselors Kerith Edwards; Anderw Polloi; Emily Low
Pictured left to right: Counselors Kerith Edwards; Anderw Polloi; Emily Low

Students stress a lot. It’s only natural to feel some sort of stress from time to time - before a big midterm, during finals week, or working at a job and taking care of a family, all while going to college. Stress can come in many forms, and some people do better with stress than others. The way people manage stress is also varied. Some people bite their nails, others lose focus; some panic, and still others go inward, closing off to friends and family. Whichever way students deal with it, stress is real, and is not something to ignore if you are feeling it. To understand more about stress and its effects, and for effective ways to deal with stress, I asked Emily Low, one of UH Hilo’s mental health counselors at Counseling Services.

  1. What is Stress?

According to Low, “stress is a natural thing for people to experience. It is the body’s response to a demand or change in the environment. All animals have the stress response. This response includes physical and mental changes from chemicals released in the body to prepare the body to handle the stress. Things that cause stress can be positive, such as getting an ‘A’ on a test or graduating, or they can be negative, such as an exam or getting a bad grade.”

  1. How can I tell if I am stressed?

“People respond to stress in many ways. We react to immediate stressors with certain physiological changes such as rapid heart beat as a survival instinct to protect us from danger, but there are also indicators of chronic stress. When you ask that question you are probably thinking of chronic stress, or the result of too many difficult or demanding experiences that overwhelm our resources to cope over time. Some people have obvious changes in their body and behaviors.” Low lists changes in eating or sleeping; being more irritable or anxious; having headaches; feeling less motivation; or having a reduced sex drive as some signs of stress. Low continues, “Other symptoms of chronic stress can be more subtle, such as less focus, memory changes, or lack of energy.”

  1. What are some of the reasons people get stressed?

“There are many reasons one may feel stress. What may be stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. It is all about your perception, and what stresses someone is very unique to that individual. What is important is what we do when we feel stress.”

  1. Is stress bad or good?

“Our stress response is an interesting thing. It is designed to help us, and it does that in a variety of ways. It primes us to perform by temporarily helping to motivate and focus us as well as helping to boost memory and possibly even our immune system. But from my perspective, one of the most important things it does is release oxytocin for social connection. Our body is setting us up to help ourselves by reaching out to friends and family. Also, there is research to show that if you think that stress is bad, and you are experiencing stress, then you may experience bad effects from chronic stress. If, on the other hand, you feel that stress is a performance enhancer, then you won’t experience the negative effects from stress. It is all about how you perceive stress in your life.” Low adds, “At Counseling Services, we help students manage stress with a variety of tools, but also redefine what stress is.”

You can learn more about this research from a TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal called “How to Make Stress Your Friend”. Check it out on our website at https://hilo.hawaii.edu/studentaffairs/counseling/StressLess.php

  1. Is student stress a common problem at UH Hilo?

“In a Fall 2016 National College Health Association survey, almost 40 percent of UH Hilo student respondents reported that stress affected their academic performance. More students reported that stress affected their academics than relationship problems, work, sleep problems, or overuse of Internet affected their academics. The most common issue for students who come in for counseling is anxiety, which can be closely tied to stress. We would like to see more students come in when they are experiencing mild stress before it affects academics. I’ve heard someone compare mental health to dental health - so come see us just like you would go see the dentist. Come in for yearly check-ups to learn how to care for your mental hygiene before you end up with ‘cavities’ - panic attacks - or even needing ‘root canals’ -needing to drop classes! Maybe I’m pushing the analogy, but I think you get the point.”

  1. What are some of the bad ways students deal with stress?

“The worst thing to do is socially isolate. This is going against the body’s natural healing instinct, which is to connect with others. Of course, when students try to keep their problems to themselves, they might end up finding other ways to cope with the stress that are not helpful. For example, they may start drinking more than they want to, or developing anxiety from avoiding what is difficult, which only perpetuates the problem.”

  1. What are some of the things I can do to reduce my stress?

“Reach out to a friend. Just by deciding to start the conversation, your brain will start the healing process. Watch out for your own signs of overload, and your stress triggers. One of the most effective ways you can manage stress over time is to practice mindfulness.

Low says that mindfulness is the most difficult, yet really simple thing to do — all you have to do is be self aware. “See the things you are doing, and notice yourself doing them. Feel the breaths of air as you breathe them in and out, feel the paper when you write, and be mindful of your bodily needs, like when you are hungry, thirsty, or tired. There is significant research to show that being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness can greatly reduce stress over time.”

Low notes that “diaphragmatic breathing is also excellent for relaxation in the moment because it induces the relaxation response, which is the opposite of the fight or flight response. Take a few deep breaths. It works! Of course it also helps to eat healthily, and get a good amount of sleep. For some stress can be managed by listening to music, taking time to engage in hobbies, getting outside in nature, or practicing time management. Exercise regularly. We have a wonderful Student Life Center, with lots of exercise opportunities, so use it regularly as a tool to combat stress.”

  1. What are the resources I have as a student at UH Hilo to help me deal with stress?

“We have a really exciting new tool called the HeartMath emWave Training Program. It uses a simple sensor to measure your heart rate variability, which is a physiological indicator of your stress level. It’s called biofeedback training, and because it allows you to visualize your stress, you can learn to change your reaction to stress. It is available in the counseling center daily, but call us to make an appointment to get started.”

Low also lists other services available. “We have a few Relaxation Station activities in our waiting area open to students Monday thru Friday. You can have fun with Play Doh, can color mandalas, and can have some relaxing sand play.”

They also have a full Relaxation Station coming up on Wednesday, April 19, at 11am-3pm in room CC301. They also offer Stress Management and Mindfulness classes every semester, which teach a variety of mindfulness strategies for beginners.

Low adds, “Also, just talking to someone can really help. We are here if someone needs extra help dealing with the underlying causes of stress, or has trouble finding ways to manage stress at a healthy level for them. If you know of a friend or classmate who is feeling anxious, depressed or stressed out, bring them up to counseling services. We are your stress management friends.”

Low invites those interested in her mindfulness classes to contact her at: elow@hawaii.edu, or call 932-7465 to be put on the list for the next class.

Counseling Services develops and delivers counseling, consulting, prevention and outreach services for the UH Hilo community that empower students to achieve personal and academic goals. They are open Monday through Friday, from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They are located at Student Services Center (SSC) Room E-203, and can be reached at 932-7465.

About the author: Solomon Singer is a pre-med student at UH Hilo and an outreach volunteer for Student Medical Services.