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wellbeing 10 Min Read

The 5 stages of stress every student needs to know

By Nick 28 Oct 2019
Image of man with his hands on his head.

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Graphic image reading, stress isn't just something that happens.

Never give up.

Never stop believing. 

Never stop fighting. 

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.

‘Sometimes I get so stressed that all I want to do is watch Netflix and eat takeaway. Then I remember that takeaway is for people who have money and this month I forgot to renew my Netflix membership. Well, things are not always that dire, but during busy periods of the university semester it can sometimes feel that way.’ - Andrew, Master of Psychology (Clinical) student

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: 

Image of alarm symbol. 1. Alarm (fight-or-flight)

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: 

  • Cooler skin: Our blood flow to the surface of our body decreases so that more blood can flow to the arms, legs, shoulders, brain, eyes, ears and nose – all of the body parts humans may have once needed when they entered the fight-or-flight mode (Young Diggers, 2019). 
  • Sweating: Even though the reasons for experiencing the fight-or-flight reaction have evolved since the first humans, when stress would mean having to go through physically taxing situations (like being chased by a predatory animal), we still biologically react in the same way. Sweating is a natural occurrence that can happen when body heat rises, as our bodies try to cool us down (Young Diggers, 2019).
  • Dilated pupils: Another biological reaction passed down from our ancestors, when your pupils dilate, more light enters your field of vision and subsequently, you can see better (Young Diggers, 2019).
  • Dry mouth: As the blood flow is decreased from the digestive system, saliva production is also decreased. This is our body’s way of refocusing on situation survival rather than digesting a past meal (Young Diggers, 2019).

Image of resistance symbol. 2. Resistance

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: 

  • Notice the causes. Students are very susceptible to entering the resistance stage of stress; constant studying, writing assignments, sleep-deprivation and poor diet are all situations where our bodies try to resist stress and keep pressing on. If you feel as though you are constantly fighting these potential triggers, you may need to take a moment to practice self-care.
  • Take action. While your body is taking action to calm yourself, the stressor is still there. You have a greater capacity to take effective action now, so ensuring you are being proactive in combatting the stress trigger will help you move through to the recovery stage more quickly. 
  • Plan for the future. If you find yourself in this stage of stress often, you can plan for it in advance so you find yourself spending less time in this stage in future. 

Image of recovery symbol3. Coping (recovery)

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).

Image of pull-out quote from article.

Image of adaption symbol. 4. Adaptation (what happens when you don’t take time to recover)

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:

  • Take a moment to check in with yourself. By asking yourself questions such as, ‘How am I really feeling?’ and, ‘Am I really handling this to the best of my ability?’ you may be able to put your current situation into perspective and motivate yourself to do something about it.
  • Open your mind to possibilities and release expectations. Human beings are great at creating their own narrative – before an event even happens. Learning to be in the present is one of life’s greatest struggles as we are often influenced by our pasts or what we think may happen in the future. By harnessing the energy of your thoughts, you can become more open to life’s possibilities, leaving those negative thinking patterns behind and releasing expectations of yourself (Stress Less, 2016).
  • Kindness to yourself and to others. Forgiving yourself when things don’t go as hoped or get out-of-control, or you find yourself in a stressful situation you thought you had adequately prepared for, may be the key to bouncing back from stress as the best version of yourself.

Image of burnout symbol. 5.Burnout

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.

  • Take moments to slow your mind and body. Even if you’re not aware that you are stressed, you may still be suffering the effects of a previous stressful situation. Taking regular time out of your day or night to stop and have mental breaks from what you are doing and release any tension in your body will help your mind and body recover more quickly from both current and past stressors (Greenburg, 2016).
  • Reassess your values and goals. Whatever the cause, realigning your priorities can help you to maintain an achievable workload, and stay on track to achieve goals that are in line with your values.
  • Rest, recover and reward. Take a break after you have got through a stressful period – this puts book-ends to the situation. Secondly, take the time to recover and do what you need to do to get back to your best self. Thirdly, treat yourself. Give yourself an incentive for your hard work, so that if you are triggered again, you are already subconsciously thinking about the reward at the end.
‘One of the big myths about stress is that you have to get rid of it entirely. It’s important to point out that stress is a normal part of life. We all experience it, and there are helpful ways to manage our stress so we can perform at our best and decrease our likelihood of burnout even when things feel hectic.’ - Asha, Registered Psychologist

You’ve identified what stage of stress you are in, now what? 

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. 

Reference list:

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

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