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Do you ever feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel? It’s very common for students to feel stress-a physiological and psychological state that results from a variety of factors, including individual experiences and genetics. Exploring how stress develops can help you understand your personal symptoms and how to relieve them.

Individual Experiences

Becki H., a graduate student at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, finds that  various factors cause stress for her peers, but they all have similar reactions. She says, “I experience the feeling of stress similarly to others, but I get stressed by different things.”

There are genetic, psychological, and environmental factors that influence people’s resilience.

Genes
In a 2011 overview of studies on stress, researchers in the Netherlands noted that early life events affect vulnerability to stress. For example, in a study of rats, a more attentive mother meant an animal was less likely to be stressed, and had fewer genes that initiate the release of stress hormones, in comparison with those that became stressed more easily.

You may be thinking, “Wait, I’m human.” True, but rats and mice are social, intelligent animals that can help us understand a lot about our own behavior-and findings about stress hormones in humans mimic the results in rats.

State of Mind
In a 2013 study published in Health Psychology, researchers found that people who considered themselves optimists had lower, more stable levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As one of the co-authors, Joëlle Jobin, explains in an interview with Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, “On days [when people] experience higher-than-average stress, we see that the pessimists’ stress response is very elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances.”

Sherry H., a student taking online classes at Ashford University, experiences less intense responses to stress, which she attributes to her optimistic attitude. She says, “I always look for the positive in situations, especially when I’m feeling stressed. This tends to diffuse some of the pressure and puts things into perspective.”

Environment
Becki observes, “Reading and writing papers cause stress. Fitting in school as a part-time student is stressful, not just because of the time involved, but also the brainpower and energy needed to keep working outside of work hours.”

In a 2011 study published in Molecular Medicine, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that mice experience changes in stress level and health based on their environment. Mice living in large, comfortable cages-especially those with access to regular exercise-had lower levels of stress hormone production in comparison with mice living in tight quarters. They also had increased body mass, which indicates good health in mice. (Perhaps that’s one difference between rodents and humans.)

Lower Your Stress

So other than surrounding yourself with soft nesting materials and using your exercise wheel, what can you do to reduce stress and manage it when it occurs?

Steve Lux, a health educator at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, suggests developing your own “bag” of six or more stress-reduction techniques that meet the following criteria:

  • They work.
  • They’re enjoyable.
  • They’re versatile.

You’ll want to have options that can be used at different times of day, alone or with others, and based on the circumstances. Lux says, “Healthy stress handlers are never at a loss for an effective strategy.”

Sean Moundas, a psychologist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, suggests the following ideas:

  • Connect with your supports.
  • Develop a meditative practice. (This can be deep breathing, walking, listening to music, or anything that clears your mind.)
  • Maintain a regular sleep, eating, and physical activity routine.
  • Make time for things that are fun and relaxing.
  • Discuss challenges with friends and family.

Nicole H., a student at Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota, has found guided meditation videos helpful, especially if the message is about reaching goals. She explains, “I’ve listened to recordings of a man or a woman with a very soft voice reminding me to stay focused and that I can do this. It’s quite relaxing.” Christina Berg, director of health education and prevention services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says small actions that don’t take much time can be a big help.

Lux says, “You can even go outside and scream at the top of your lungs!”

Moundas adds, “Psychological counseling can also be a helpful way to learn and practice effective coping strategies.” Sherry says, “Counseling is extremely beneficial for relieving stress. It can enlighten you about tools and techniques for [reducing] stress.”

The next time you feel like a hamster on a wheel (or a mouse in a small cage), think about the aspects of your personality or environment that may be influencing your experience of stress. Then find the solutions that work for you, and gradually integrate them into your life.

Take Action

  • Identify your stress triggers.
  • Examine if there are environmental factors you can adjust.
  • Think about how your past experiences may be affecting your stress level.
  • Develop strategies to manage pressure.
  • Talk with friends and family when you feel overwhelmed.

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