What do you think of when you hear the word “stress?” If you’re like most college students, you probably shrug and think, “Meh. Story of my life.” Let’s take a step back for a second and look at the story of stress.

Imagine we’re on pre-historic earth. There’s a pre-historic man in our story – let’s call him Bob. Obviously Bob has a very different life from you and me. He was designed perfectly for his main functions: finding food and surviving to reproduce.  Now, Bob’s out hunting Megaceros and comes across a cave bear.  If Bob did not have the amazing adaptations he does, he would likely end up as papa cave bear’s lunch. Instead, his sympathetic nervous system kicks into overdrive. He experiences increased heart rate, respiration and perspiration. Stress hormones are released into his bloodstream, he experiences feelings of panic and perhaps his thought processes feel unclear. In this case, being no fool, he decides that discretion is the better part of valor and books it out of there.

What we know as a plaguing, constant state of distress that negatively impacts our daily functioning often saved Bob’s butt. The stress response works very well if you’re running from a cave bear. Studying for mid-terms? Not so much.

So what can you do? You have this process hard wired into your brain from years of Bobs in your ancestral tree. The sympathetic nervous system processes are mostly subconscious. For example, I want you to try elevating your cortisol levels for me right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Can’t do it? That’s because you’re hormones aren’t under your conscious control.

Now let’s look at what people are always telling you when you’re stressed. “Just take some deep breaths.” Heard that one before? The problem with the take a deep breath approach is that it has some truth, but not the whole truth. Just standing there and taking a few deep breaths might help a little, but there is a whole lot more to it. The reason people tell you to take a deep breath when you’re stressed is because breathing is one of our body’s stress responses that we can control.

Find a comfortable location and lie down on your back. Place one hand over your navel and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath and notice how your hands move. Ideally, you want the hand over your navel to lift first (don’t thrust it out, let it happen naturally). This is called diaphragmatic breathing and it is the first technique to build on for relaxation.

Do you want to take back control of your body’s runaway stress response? Call the student counseling center and make an appointment for the Oasis Room. It’s a great free resource on campus that has everything you need to begin to control your stress. There’s a massage chair, light therapy and lots of different relaxation exercises that we promise will help. All you have to lose is your stress. And possibly a fight with a cave bear.

Stay tuned for more stress relief tips during finals.

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