Dealing with Stress

Stress affects us in many ways and for each of us it may be very different. Sometimes stress is helpful; it motivates you to succeed, it can make you more resilient, it can help you achieve optimal performance, etc. Sometimes though, stress can feel overwhelming, and if unmanaged, can lead to distress. Being aware of your unique stress “signs” will help you better understand good stress, manage unhelpful stress, and recognize when stress becomes distress.

When you are stressed out, you may experience one or more of the following signs:



Difficulty concentrating
Unwanted or repetitive thoughts
Preoccupation with the future and fear of failure
Expecting to please everyone
Viewing all things as absolutely critical or urgent
“Black” or “White” thinking
Feeling overwhelmed
Moodiness and sadness
Feeling that you must prevail in every situation


Physical Symptoms:

Overeating or not eating
“Snapping” at friends
Increase of alcohol or drug use
Teeth grinding or jaw clenching
Difficulties with speech (stuttering) and clumsiness
Muscle tension
Sick more often
Stomachaches or knots in your stomach
Low energy
Increase or decrease in sleep
Increase in heart rate, rapid breathing
Sweaty hands and trembling

 Tips to Manage and Reduce your Stress

There are many ways to manage your stress and it is important to figure out which way works best for you. Below is a list of tools you could use. Each person is different, some of these tools will be more helpful than others and some will require commitment to the tool for effectiveness.

Take a Deep Breath

Stop what you are doing and take a deep breath, which will help lower your heart rate.  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Then slowly exhale as you count to 10. Deep breathing is a skill and the more you practice the more effective it will become. To help you practice, try listening to our audio guide to deep breathing. For more information on meditation and breath work, visit our page on mindfulness.

Exercise with a friendExercise

When you are feeling nervous, angry or upset, exercise can relieve tension, relax you and increase your energy. If you do not have time to make it to the gym, a short walk around campus or your apartment can offer immediate relief in a stressful situation. You could also try doing push-ups or sit ups for a few minutes. Take a look at all of the activities that are available through Campus Recreation.


Stress can cause you to lose sleep and lack of sleep is also a key cause of stress. This vicious cycle causes the brain and body to get out of whack and only gets worse with time. This may be the most effective stress buster. To check in on whether you are getting the most out of your sleep, visit our Sleep Information page.

Bowl of fruit
Eat Well

Stress levels and a proper diet are closely related. However, when we are stressed we forget to eat well and resort to cookies, ice cream and chips because they are easy and taste so good. Try to avoid those snacks and replacing it with fruits, vegetable and fish. Fish with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been show to reduce the symptoms of stress. A tuna sandwich really is brain food!

Connect with OthersConnect with Others

Feeling lonely can cause a lot of stress. A good way to combat sadness, boredom and loneliness is to seek out activities involving others, which can be found right on campus.

Get Organized

It is easy to feel stressed when you are overwhelmed by tasks, projects, people and expectations.

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Start making a list of everything on your mind. The act of writing things down clears your mind to better visualize what is weighing heavily on you.
  • Look at your schedule and set realistic expectations for yourself.
  • Each day you should set goals for yourself that can realistically be completed in a day.
Get organized with lists

It is normal to feel stress when we have many competing priorities and it is important to remember that it is okay to say ‘no’ sometimes too, especially if things begin to feel unmanageable. For more tips on getting organized and balancing multiple demands visit our page on Time Management.

Call a Friend

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a break to call a friend. Good relationships with friends and loved ones are important to any healthy lifestyle, and when you are under a lot of stress it can be very helpful. A reassuring voice, even for a minute, can help you gain perspective. You can also call the Counseling Center right here on campus.


Laughter is good for you! Take a break by reading, watching or doing something funny. It is so important to maintain your sense of humor when you are feeling stressed out. 

Treat Yourself!
Reward yourself

Always take the time to do something nice for yourself after accomplishing a goal, no matter how small or how big that goal was.

Recognize what you can change

We often add significantly to our stress level by trying to change things, situations, or people that we have no control over.  Try shifting your focus to healthy habits that you have more control over (listed above) and avoid exasperating the problem with unhealthy coping strategies (see below).

What should I do when stress becomes distress?

A person under continued high stress may experience a wide range of emotional reactions, which may include anxiety, irritability, sadness and depression.  A person may experience behavioral changes such as reduced physical energy, sleeplessness, problems with coordination and/or psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, backaches, or gastrointestinal problems. Finally, a person may have a severe reduction in their ability to concentrate, store information in memory, and solve problems.

If you are experiencing any of the above for a longer than usual period of time and/or you are engaging in on-going unhealthy coping strategies (such as isolating, procrastinating, using alcohol or other drugs, experiencing suicidal thoughts, postponing dealing with the issue and/or oversleeping), please seek professional help. Many students who are dealing with distress find it challenging to manage on their own.

If you are having a hard time getting through your day or dealing with stress it may be time to come to the Counseling Center and talk with a therapist.

The Counseling Center is a confidential resource open Monday – Friday 8:30am-5pm, with extended hours until 6pm on Wednesday during fall and spring semesters. The easiest way to secure an initial consultation is by making a same- or next-day appointment via the Wellness Portal. Students can also call or come by the Counseling Center to arrange for an appointment.

Contact the USD Counseling Center

I need to talk with someone now and the Counseling Center is closed!

If you have an urgent matter or are having thoughts of suicide and the Counseling Center is closed, you can call the Counseling Center main phone line at 619-260-4655 and press 1 to be connected to a triage counselor.