I swear. I have an epiphany about life in general, at least once a week.
This is emerging adulthood, my friends. You will have revelations about things your parents tried to teach you when you were younger and are only now figuring it out for yourself. You will fail sometimes, but you will also succeed and feel fabulous about it. You will compare yourself to others constantly, and you will experience emotions you never thought were possible to experience. You will get jealous about other people’s happiness (technology and social media certainly do not help with this).
This is all part of life. You just never thought this would happen to you.
I do not claim to be an expert at anything, especially when it comes to living life. But, I have learned a few valuable lessons for those who are at the end of high school, attending college, just starting a new career, or getting married and having a family.
One of the biggest lessons is how to deal with stress effectively.
When I turned 18 a few years ago, I remember being ecstatic. I was finally an adult, able to go see an R-rated film with my friends, drive with as many people in the car as possible, apply for a credit card, live in an apartment with roommates or even alone, and most of all, I was going to college.
After high school graduation, I was so excited. First, there was freshman orientation, then getting a roommate assignment and moving into the dorms. Picking out my classes and figuring out my major was like being a kid in a candy store. It’s like the floodgates opened, and a new world of decisions (and unbeknownst at the time, stress) came flowing into my life. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of my undergraduate career. I sometimes even embraced the stress.
But, it took me a long time to learn how to live without overloading my body and mind.
During my years attending DePaul University, I learned a lot about myself and about how I, myself, handle stress. It is in the moments when you are faced with the most difficult, overwhelming stress that you truly learn how your body and your mind react to your first heavy load of that beast.
Some people crumble, others have nervous breakdowns, and some even have to visit the student counselors for help. Some students cry their eyes out, while others remain stoic… simply because they don’t know how to deal.
I have always been an emotional person, so when I was faced with my first overload of stress, I cried and became angry, along with feelings of frustration. Over the years, though, I learned to be a rock, remaining calm and strong through stressful times.
What IS Stress?
Stress is generally defined in terms of the body’s response to the demands that are being placed upon it. Not all stress is bad! A little burst of adrenaline helps students get through a hard final exam or finish a final paper before the deadline.
However, when a person cannot learn to relax, then stress becomes damaging to the body.
When I get stressed out past my limit, I get headaches, muscle tension, and minor chest pains. If I become overly stressed, my body will eventually start to have major problems. According to the American Psychological Association, if stress is not handled effectively, the long-term effects include chronic aches and pains, breathing problems (including asthma and lung disease), high blood pressure, heart disease, acid reflux, stomach ulcers, and digestion issues. I already have asthma, so I do not need stress to make breathing even more difficult for me.
All of this is harmful to the mind and body, short- and long-term.
A 2008 a study highlighted by the American Institute of Stress showed that eight in 10 college students reported “sometimes or frequently” experiencing stress in their daily lives.
This is huge! Many students and young adults not in college are over-worked and are being run down. We take on a lot, whether it’s adding a job to schoolwork or taking more classes than the recommended load. There are ways of coping with stress that do not include binging on pint after pint of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream or drinking yourself under the table at home, by yourself (tempting, I know).
Tips to Deal with Stress in Your Life
Not only does exercise relieve stress and built-up tension, but it also helps you stay healthy. You might be stressed about gaining the infamous “freshman 15,” but if you spend at least 30 minutes every day walking or doing yoga, you will feel a reduced sense of anxiety, tension, and stress. I enjoy swimming laps, hiking, leisurely walking, and bike riding. Just the other day, I explored the new town I live in by biking 10 miles in an hour. I am not one to just sit around. I like to stay active, plus it helps me get a better night’s sleep. My advice is to stretch every day, too. This can be done before bed for about 10-15 minutes. Stretching relieves tension and helps you relax at the end of a long day.
This goes along with yoga and Pilates, as well. Taking time to simply sit, relax, and let the day fade in the background is a good thing. Meditation can help you manage your emotions better as well. Adding meditation in the afternoon or in the evening for about 30 minutes can do wonders to reduce stress.
This one might seem like common sense, but I never knew how powerful eating fruits and veggies could actually be. If I became stressed out about college during my freshman year, I would pick up a pint of ice cream and eat the whole thing in one sitting. This was bad for two reasons: it is high in calories and fat, and I am lactose intolerant. Not only did the bad eating habits make me feel sick for the rest of the day, but it did NOT relieve my stress. It only added guilt onto my plate. Eating healthy, organic foods when you are feeling stressed keeps your body running at its optimal pace. I feel awful after eating a bad meal with processed foods and lots of sugar. But, when I eat healthy, my body feels good and thus my stress dissipates. Another aspect of healthy eating that I often forget is keeping hydrated. Drink lots of water throughout the day to keep your body energized and clean.
Take a break
If you’re working on a lengthy paper, take a break every once in a while to get up and walk around. Your brain needs mental breaks, and your body needs physical breaks. Sometimes sitting can make you feel more tired than if you had put in a hard workout. Every 30 to 45 minutes, it’s good to get up and stretch or take a walk.
It’s important to know your limits and know what tends to stress you out. If you can pinpoint what makes you stressed and how much stress you can take, you can start to change things in your life. I could not always control what was going on in my life, especially the things happening with my mother, medically. But, I do know that big exams tend to stress me out. If I can start studying early or know when a big exam is coming up, then I can control and attempt to reduce my stress before I become overly anxious.
Seek help when needed
I never got to the point when I had to visit the student counseling services. However, I knew plenty of students who did. Know this… it’s completely okay to visit a counselor or therapist. It is important to be able to talk with someone about what is going on in your life. It’s not a good idea to keep things bottled up inside, eating away at you until you finally get sick or explode with anger.
Seek supportive friends
If you don’t have access to a counselor or therapist, a good friend who is willing to listen is important, too. Simply knowing that you have someone to confide in can help you feel as though you are not alone. I had a few friends to whom I could reach out. We would grab a cup of coffee, or tea, and just talk about what was going on in our lives at the moment.
Life Lessons and Learning to Cope
I was the student who wanted to do and join everything. I had a long list of “things I wanted to accomplish as an undergrad,” which roughly consisted of the following: join as many clubs/organizations as my schedule would allow, lose weight and exercise more, attend leadership seminars, conduct research with several different professors, maintain a perfect (well, near-perfect) grade point average, have at least three or four internships, graduate a year early, apply to graduate school, and, perhaps, work part-time.
This list was long, and I knew that. But, I was going to try my utmost to accomplish everything.
Some of my goals, I did not meet, while others I accomplished well beyond what I had originally intended. I have always been the type of person who is well organized and has everything planned out. I learned a few things that helped me grow along the way.
First, I learned that patience is truly a virtue. I needed to learn how to be patient, even though that can create stress for me. I had to wait to hear back from graduate programs during the application process. I had to be patient waiting to hear back from the new apartment complex for graduate school. It seemed like all I was doing this year was waiting, patiently, even though that is not my strongest personal trait.
Second, I had to learn that sometimes when you plan for things, they do not always work out like originally intended. I planned on attending graduate school for clinical psychology. I wanted to get a PhD. I applied to over ten graduate programs in clinical psychology; later learning that I did not want to be a psychologist after all.
One of my professors helped me realize that I was better suited for the field of communication studies. After all, my double major was in interpersonal communication. Through that particular field, I could still conduct research in both communication and psychology, and my other major in psychology would help me understand how people communicate as well.
The pieces fell into place, but it was not at all how I had originally planned it. Sometimes, I think that my life is all planned and ready to go, but the reality is that I often overlook things that may better fit me.
Last, life’s defining moments have built and shaped me into who I am today. The saying “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” could not ring any truer. College was a hard adjustment for me. I was lonely when I started, and I was afraid I would not make good friends. I have always been outgoing and friendly toward everyone and never had a problem making friends. Yet, I feared being alone during my first year.
Another bomb dropped during my first year at college. My mother was diagnosed with the rarest form of ovarian cancer, psammocarcinoma. She had her first surgery in November of that year, just before Thanksgiving. Her second surgery took place in January of that year. As if her first two surgeries and diagnosis were not hard enough, another bomb shattered my world. The doctors found an aneurysm that was ready to rupture at any time. This was surgery number three. In the late autumn of that same year, my mother’s colon ruptured from years of diverticulitis, and she had to have it removed and re-sectioned. Four major surgeries and major diagnoses in one year were just crazy.
Well, when life gave me lemons that were soured with adversity, I made wine because I wanted to mess with people. Only joking about that one. Honestly, I learned that worrying is useless because it only leaves you mentally and physically drained. Worrying doesn’t change what is happening.
Here are four valuable lessons that I learned, and that you have to learn for yourself:
You cannot control everything or everyone.
Your spouse/significant other, your dog, your parents, your boss. These are all people you cannot control. In fact, you cannot control anyone but your own self. Why try? It only creates more stress than you need. Stop worrying about who you can control and start thinking about how your actions affect others. Worry about your own self and how you want to be and live.
Worrying is useless.
What does worrying change? Nothing. What does worrying do besides stress you out? Nothing. Worrying has the power to control you, if you let it. I know, it’s difficult to stop worrying, especially if you are like me. But, you can choose to stop thinking about what worries you and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t try to control things through worrying because it only makes you hurt. And, it drains you, emotionally and physically.
Be optimistic and have a positive attitude.
Only YOU can make yourself happy. Of course, some objects and some people might be able to make you laugh and might make you happy; but YOU are the one who feels and chooses to be happy. Live joyfully and make the most of every situation and everything that life hands you. I make myself happy by listening to music, singing in the shower, and dancing around my house. Find what makes you happy, even if it is the smallest thing.
Live in the here and now.
The past is the past. The future is not here, yet. So, why would you live in either one of them? Take what you have now and make it the best you can. I often have thoughts of regret and hurt from things that happened in the past that I wish I could change. Trust me, history has been written. You can’t change what happened to you in the past and things you did. You can, however, work with the now and make choices that might make a better future for you.
I was not only the support that my father needed while my mother was recovering, but I learned that I have the ability to remain calm, cool, and collected in the face of adversity. No doubt, my stress level was through the roof. And yet, I maintained a near perfect GPA, getting As and nothing else, graduating the top of my class with the highest honors, having three internships, a part-time job, being president of two student organizations and member of many others, conducting a senior honors thesis research project, and participating in two psychology research labs.
I was accepted into the graduate program at Illinois State University, and I am grateful for every opportunity that has come my way. I will also be a professor, teaching introduction classes in general communication and interpersonal relationships.
Yes, it has been a long journey, but it was well worth it.