These are the messages we are taught to live by on our quest for success. Because, as they suggest, in order to succeed you’re going to have to persevere through any number of difficult situations – these might include intense periods of hard, heavy workloads and extreme levels of pressure. But that’s okay, because diamonds are created by immense pressure … right?
We live in a world where we constantly expect so much of ourselves. It’s no secret that in today’s society, we believe that if we aren’t busy being busy, we aren’t working hard enough; and if we aren’t working hard enough, we aren’t deserving of success.
So, what happens when we are overloaded with life’s priorities of work, family and study, and keep piling as much onto our plates as we can? What happens when we have an imbalance between the volume of our priorities and the emotional resources (personal time, personal support) we need to cope with the demand? A completely natural, biological, and human reaction occurs, in the form of stress.
While hard work certainly does pay off, feeling pressured to consistently perform to a high standard while juggling multiple responsibilities can make you feel overwhelmed, and leave you more susceptible to stress triggers. This, if not addressed, can have negative impacts in the future.
Stress isn’t just something that happens. In fact, it has five stages: alarm, resistance, possible recovery, adaptation, and burnout. Not everyone will go through each stage sequentially – but by familiarising yourself with what stage of stress you may currently be in, you will be more likely to take positive action to expedite recovery after a stressful period or be able to create a plan for managing stress in the future.
These are the five stages you may experience when under stress:
When we are triggered into a potentially stressful situation, our bodies create a chemical reaction, releasing adrenaline and cortisol hormones into our bodies. This is called the acute stress response, but is more widely known as the fight-or-flight response (Young Diggers, 2019). It is widely believed that the fight-or-flight response evolved as a natural necessity for our early human ancestors, and we still instinctively react to stressful situations the same way. As we experience the fight-or-flight response to stress, our heart rate increases and blood pressure elevates, boosting our energy supplies to cope with a perceived danger or threat. These common signs can help you identify if you may be in this stage:
Whatever your initial response to stress may be (sweating, dry mouth etc.), your body is more likely to have a greater capacity to cope with the situation that is causing a stress reaction once you move into the resistance stage. This stage indicates that your body is trying to return to its natural state by releasing anti-inflammatory hormones to calm and ease the negative effects of stress. However, if the stress continues and you do not take the time to then recover, you may find yourself entering the last two stages of stress, adaptation and burnout, quicker (Lumen, 2019). Some helpful strategies to move through the resistance stage are:
Perhaps the most important stage of the stress cycle, recovery is integral to bouncing back from a stressful period, being able to return to a state of equilibrium, and being your most well self. This stage can be achieved by handing in or completing a particularly taxing piece of assessment, or taking a day for yourself after an intensive period when you’ve had to juggle all of life’s priorities at once. We all experience stress differently and recover in different ways, but there are a few techniques you can use to ensure you are giving yourself the best chance you can, long-term. These include:
Exercise: When exercising, your body releases endorphins that actually make you feel better, helping you to keep positive and improve your stress recovery (WebMD, 2005-2017).
Healthy diet: A well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh vegetables is the best way to supply your body with the nutrients it needs to ward off vitamin and mineral deficiencies and long-term stress, which can have an impact on an individual’s overall health and mental wellbeing (Scott, 2019).
Consistent sleep: By keeping to a regular schedule of when you wind down for bed and rise in the morning, your body can begin to have a sense of consistency, which can then regulate the mind and body to wind down and wake up naturally (Healthy Sleep, 2007).
After experiencing stress, you can make a choice to take the time to step back and recover (see stage 3), or adapt to the environment you have just experienced. At times, humans adapt to a stressful environment as a result of resigning to thinking that we are unable to improve the situation and so we just have to get on with it. If you do adapt, your body will be in a constant state of stress, which can have long-term negative effects such as lower energy levels, low self-esteem, difficulty sleeping, an unhealthy change in weight, and difficulty managing your emotions (Cole, 2018). If you do find yourself experiencing ongoing stress, there are a few strategies you can use to help yourself, including:
After you have been triggered into a stressful situation, it is recommended that you do take time to recover. If, due to circumstances or time frames, you are unable to allow adequate recovery, or you may have unknowingly adapted to a situation that has resulted in you being suspended in a heightened state of stress, it’s likely that you will experience burnout. Examples of burnout include severe exhaustion, cynicism, feeling emotionally drained, lacking positivity, experiencing catastrophic thoughts, and a detachment from others (Robinson, 2015). In order to combat these symptoms of burnout, the following strategies will aid in long-term recovery and help you more quickly bounce back to your best self.
If you have identified yourself as being in the stress response stages of initial alarm or resistance, it is important to remember to take time out to recover and give yourself permission to enjoy some ‘me’ time, whatever that may entail. Although it feels as if we are constantly told to ‘suck it up’, that you can ‘sleep when you’re dead’, and that ‘hard work makes the dream work’, the importance of taking the time to give yourself a break before you find yourself in the adaptation stage or, worse, the burnout stage, is vitally important for long-term productivity and wellbeing.
Remember: You are in charge of how you experience stress and only you can control how you cope with extensive workloads, manage your time and commitments, and strive for success in your studies without responding negatively to stress triggers. If you’d like to learn more about strategies that can help you combat stress, be sure to check out these ways to relieve stress and reset your mindset.
If you’re a current USQ student who needs immediate support managing stress levels, please get in contact with USQ’s dedicated Health and Wellness Team. They have a range of services available to students including face-to-face counselling, online counselling, and after-hours support.
Burgess, L. (2017). What to know about general adaptation syndrome. Retrieved form https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320172.php
Cole, N. (2018). The 5 stages of stress (it’s important to know which one you’re in). Retrieved from https://artplusmarketing.com/the-5-stages-of-stress-its-important-to-know-which-one-you-re-in-28f16e9f1950
Greenberg, M. (2016). 6 proven ways to recover from stress. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201603/6-proven-ways-recover-stress
Healthy Sleep. (2007). Sleep and mood. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/getting/overcoming/tips
Lumen. (2019). Stress: The stress response. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ap/chapter/stress/
Robinson, J. (2015). Working smarter: The 7 signs of burnout. Retrieved from https://www.worktolive.info/blog/bid/357306/the-7-signs-of-burnout
Scott, E. (2019). ‘17 highly effective stress relievers.’ Verywell mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/tips-to-reduce-stress-3145195
Stress Less. (2016). How to prepare yourself for potentially stressful situations. Retrieved from https://www.stresslessworkshops.com/how-to-prepare-yourself-for-potentially-stressful-situations/
WebMD. (2005-2007). Exercise and depression. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression#1
Young Diggers. (2019). The fight or flight response: Our body’s response to stress. Retrieved from https://youngdiggers.com.au/fight-or-flight