Stress Management

Managing Stress

UC Berkeley students face high amounts of stress. Whether we like it or not, stress is a part of our lives. So it’s not about avoiding stress but knowing yourself (your limits and your strengths) and being proactive. Believe it or not, sometimes a little stress can be helpful, motivating us to prepare and perform. Finding the right balance and attitude toward stress helps. Take time to learn more about stress and how to manage it.

What is Stress?

We all experience stress at one time or another. Stress is your body’s mental, emotional, and physical response to help you manage the changes and challenges in your daily life. It affects our bodies, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. The effects of stress can be positive, negative, or a combination of the two. For example, stress can motivate you and improve your concentration, or it can paralyze your ability to accomplish anything at all. Ideally, your body will return to a state of rest after a stressful event.

What are the Signs or Symptoms?

High levels of chronic stress can cause a variety of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors including:

  • Physical Signs: Tiredness or fatigue, Headache, aches, and pains, Feeling tense, Muscle spasms, Rapid heartbeat, Heavy perspiration or cold sweat, Stomach and digestive problems, Nausea or dizziness, and Heightened alertness or energy. 
  • Emotional Signs: Anxiety or fearfulness, Loneliness or helplessness, Feeling on edge or apprehensive, Easily frustrated or upset, Feeling pressured or pressed for time, Restlessness or listlessness, Feeling incompetent or inadequate, Feeling trapped or stuck, Anger easily, Dreading going to work/school, Feeling unappreciated, Sadness and depression, Alienation and isolation, Feeling guilty, Losing interest in people and things, and Mood swings
  • Cognitive Signs: Trouble concentrating, Daydreaming, Thinking the same thing over and over, Increased focus and concentration, Confusion and forgetfulness, Trouble remembering things, and Dulled thinking.
  • Behavioral Signs: Missing deadlines, Following rules rigidly, Being extra-productive, Making more mistakes than usual, Increased aggression, Using alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes, and Change in eating or sleeping habits.

Stress Management Strategies

Stress is a normal part of life, and can’t be avoided entirely, but it can be managed. Here are some strategies you can try: 

Identify sources of stress

Take a moment to write down a list of the things that are stressing you out right now. Then, try to identify more specifically the way you are feeling about each of these items (overwhelmed, frustrated, anxious, worried, scattered, etc.) and how you are feeling in your body (wired, exhausted, tight muscles, short breaths, upset stomach, racing heart, etc.). Being curious and non-judgmental about your current situation creates greater self-awareness and prepares you to take steps to manage the situation.  

Avoid unnecessary stress

There is so much to do at UC Berkeley that it can be challenging to set healthy boundaries and prioritize self-care. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, that feeling is an invitation to evaluate how you are spending your time and energy and to consider which obligations, relationships, and activities are nourishing you and helping you, and which are not.   

Change the situation

If your stress is self-imposed, the good news is that you have the power to change the situation! For example, poor time management is a major stressor for many students, and time management skills can be learned. If relationships are a stressor, you can work on your communication skills. If perfectionism and negative self-talk are stressors, you can work on self-compassion. Of course, making a change isn’t always easy. Get help if you need it! 

Change your perception

Sometimes you can’t change your situation, but you can change the way you perceive and feel about the situation, and that can relieve stress. Practicing gratitude is one proven way to increase your sense of well-being. At any moment you can pause and think about the things in your life that you are grateful for, and notice the changes you feel inside as a result. Another option is looking at the bigger picture. Will the things that are stressing you out right now matter to you in a year, or 5 years from now? If not, take a deep breath and let them go. 

Practice acceptance

There may be stressors that you cannot quickly change or see in a more positive light. You can lessen your suffering by practicing acceptance of your current situation. Do accept your completely valid feelings, whatever they may be, but do not add to your suffering by avoiding the situation, judging yourself, trying to re-write the past, or trying to control that which cannot be controlled. Long-term change often begins with awareness and acceptance of the present moment. 

Use coping techniques

  • Release: Don’t keep your stress bottled up. Talk to someone about it. Write about it. Let it out through movement. Turn it into music or art. Breathe it out. Have a good cry.
  • Relax: Practice relaxation techniques or do relaxing activities like breathing exercises, guided meditation, yoga, etc.
  • Renew: Laugh/find humor. Spend time in nature. Get sunlight exposure. Drink water. Practice your favorite form of self-care. 

Increase your resiliency

Taking good care of yourself will increase your ability to handle stress. Prioritize self-care and make space in your schedule for sleep, eating, exercise, relaxation, fun, and social connection. Practice self-compassion and positive self-talk. Get in the habit of asking yourself, “What am I feeling right now, and what do I need?” 

Seeking support

UC Berkeley students sometimes think that they are the only ones who are struggling, but everyone has their struggles. Sharing what you’re going through with others can be a tremendous relief, and you might be surprised by how well they can relate. If you are experiencing stress due to the effects of marginalization, oppression, and/or trauma, self-care is still important, but may not be enough. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your support network. Friends, family, mentors, spiritual leaders, community groups, roommates, and/or classmates may be able to lend a sympathetic ear or a helping hand. UC Berkeley also offers a variety of advising resources

If your efforts to manage your stress don’t seem to be helping, or you’d just like to have professional support, consider using the many services available to students at UHS (group counseling, health coaching, Let's Talk consultations, advice nurse, etc.). 

Remember: Stress management is an ongoing practice, not a one-time activity. Make it part of your routine for the best results. 

Relaxation Techniques

Feeling stressed? Try to S.B.R.C.: Stop-Breathe-Reflect-Choose

The next time you encounter a stressful situation, try these steps:

  • Stop what you are doing and the continuous flow of negative thoughts for a few seconds. 
  • Breathe deeply, feeling your abdomen rise and fall, releasing any tension as you exhale.
  • Reflect on what is going on. Is this truly a crisis? If so, will worrying and becoming tense help to solve it? Will this matter as much in a few weeks? Can you do anything productive to make this better? Be kind to yourself! Ask yourself rational questions and listen to your rational answers.
  • Choose how you are going to react in a positive manner - a choice that serves you. Realize that you have the power to choose your actions in the face of stress.

Additional Relaxation Techniques

  • Breathe: Try a breathing exercise. Look online for guided videos to get started.
  • 5-Minute Vacation Visualization: Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, visualize a relaxing vacation spot, and let your imagination transport you there.
  • Laugh: Laugher can help you relieve stress. Think of a funny memory or watch/listen to something comedic. Make sure to laugh out loud!
  • Reconnect with your body: Try a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) exercise, or body scan meditation.
  • Move your body: Try yoga, tai chi, qi gong, stretching, or dance, etc.
  • Self-massage: Massage your shoulders and neck or wherever you hold tension in your body.

Ways to relax at UC Berkeley

  • Use the massage chairs or take a nap at a REST zone.
  • Snuggle a pup at a Pet Hugs event. 
  • Wander around the UC Botanical Gardens (free entrance for students!).
  • Visit the Tilden meditation room at the Student Union.
  • Attend group exercise, yoga, and meditation classes at RSF. 
  • Lounge outside and watch squirrels.

More ways to relax

  • Put on some music and have a dance party
  • Listen to calming music
  • Drink herbal tea
  • Take a 20-minute nap
  • Walk or hike
  • Stretch or Yoga
  • Shower, bath, hot tub
  • Clean/organize
  • Find a good view
  • Arts and crafts
  • Spend time caring for pets and plants

Daily Habits to Reduce Stress

Watch for negative thinking

Notice how you talk to yourself about yourself, others, and the world around you. Try not to repeat negative thoughts to yourself; instead, try to substitute neutral or positive thoughts. 

Communicate clearly

Speak your mind without making accusations. Let others know when they make you uncomfortable. Take responsibility for your own feelings.  

Don't overlook your own needs

Especially when you are focusing on the needs of someone else, who may appear needier than you. It is stressful to care for someone who is sick or dependent. Don't try to make too many changes or accomplish too much at once.  

Make a list of priorities

Break things down into manageable pieces. Set limits. 

Sweat it out / Walk it off

Exercise moderately at least two to three times a week. Find a physical activity you really enjoy. A brisk walk at lunchtime can be a big help.

Take care of yourself

Maintain a nutritious diet. Caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs all contribute to stress. Get plenty of sleep. Don't forget to laugh, play, and have fun!  

Mindfulness and Relaxation

Practice deep breathing, visualization, meditation, yoga, stretching, or some other technique that helps you relax. Try to let go of what's bothering you. Go to a movie, read a good book, solve a puzzle, or take a break from whatever is causing you stress. When you are feeling more relaxed you will have an easier time finding concrete solutions to your problems.  

Get support

Identify friends and family you trust and can talk to. Make social plans with them. Use the phone to reach out when you are feeling overwhelmed. Talk about your feelings, positive and negative.