Managing Stress

Many students find that they need to develop new skills in order to balance academic demands with a healthy lifestyle. Fortunately, the University of Michigan offers many resources to help students develop these skills. Many students find that they can reduce their level of academic stress by improving skills such as time management, stress management, and relaxation.


Stress is anything that alters your natural balance. When stress is present, your body and your mind must attend to it in order to maintain balance. Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones that help you cope with the situation. That in turn takes energy away from the other functions of your brain, like concentrating, or taking action. There are two different sources of stress: external triggers, like transitioning to college or your parents getting a divorce, and internal triggers, like placing high expectations on yourself.

Stress is a part of everyday life. There are many instances when stress can be helpful. A fire alarm is intended to cause the stress that alerts you to avoid danger. The stress created by a deadline to finish a paper can motivate you to finish the assignment on time. But when experienced in excess, stress has the opposite effect. It can harm our emotional and physical health, and limit our ability to function at home, in school, and within our relationships. The good news is that, since we are responsible for bringing about much of our own stress, we can also do much to manage stress by learning and practicing specific stress-reduction strategies.


Here are a few common indicators:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased worrying
  • Trouble completing assignments on time
  • Not going to class
  • Short temper or increased agitation
  • Tension
  • Headaches
  • Tight muscles
  • Changes in eating habits (e.g., “stress eating”)
  • Changes in sleeping habits

People with mental illness are more likely to notice that their specific symptoms re-emerge or grow worse during stressful times. In many cases, stress can act as the “spark” that ignites a mental health episode. But this does not mean that every time you are busy or face a difficult challenge you will have a mental health episode. Not everyone responds the same way to potentially stressful circumstances. For example, during final exams many students feel very overwhelmed and anxious, while others are able to keep their stress under control. If you, like many others, struggle with managing stress during difficult times, there are some helpful tips on this page that can help.

  • Practice time management skills to manage your academic schedule, social activities, and making time for yourself.
  • Set and implement specific goals for yourself that will improve your mood and help you reduce stress. Start by filling out a goal-setting worksheet.
  • Avoid procrastination. Procrastination can create more mental and physical stress. If you have trouble staying on task, consider downloading apps that will help keep you off things that are distracting. To learn more about procrastination, click here.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you burn off the energy generated by stress.
  • Practice good sleep habits to ensure that you are well-rested. Sleep deprivation can cause many physical and mental problems and can increase stress.
  • Try mindfulness meditation. Attend a guided meditation with Mindfulness@Umich
  • Limit (or eliminate) the use of stimulants like caffeine, which can elevate the stress response in your body.
  • Pace yourself throughout the day, taking regular breaks from work or other structured activities. During breaks from class, studying, or work, spend time walking outdoors, listen to music or just sit quietly, to clear and calm your mind.
  • Start a journal. Many people find journaling to be helpful for managing stress, understanding emotions, and making decisions and changes in their lives.
  • Realize that you have limits. Learn to work within your limits and set realistic expectations for yourself and others.
  • Plan leisure activities to break up your schedule. Click here for a list of fun things to do on campus.
  • Recognize the role your own thoughts can play in causing you distress. Challenge beliefs you may hold about yourself and your situation that may not be accurate. For example, do you continuously fall short of what you think you “should” accomplish? When our minds continuously feed us messages about what we “should” achieve, “ought” to be, or “mustn’t” do, we are setting ourselves up to fall short of goals that may be unrealistic, and to experience stress along the way. Learn techniques for replacing unrealistic thoughts with realistic ones.
  • Find humor in your life. Laughter can be a great tension-reducer.
  • Seek the support of friends and family when you need to “vent” about situations that bring on stressful feelings. But make sure that you don’t focus exclusively on negative experiences; try to also think of at least three things that are going well for you, and share those experiences.
  • Try setting a specific goal for yourself that will improve your mood and help you reduce stress. Start by filling out a goal-setting worksheet then help yourself stay on track by using your weekly motivator worksheet.

Relaxation Techniques

Research has shown that relaxation techniques are an effective way to reduce not only stress but many of the symptoms associated with mental illnesses. Try one or more of the following techniques for relaxing your mind and body and reducing the physical and psychological tension associated with stress. Take the time to experiment with these techniques to find out which ones work best for you.

  • Breathing Exercise: Place one hand on your abdomen right beneath your rib cage. Inhale slowly through your nose, drawing a deep breath into your lungs. Your chest should move only slightly, while your stomach rises, pushing your hand up. As you exhale, just let yourself go and imagine your entire body becoming loose and limp. It should take you twice as long to exhale as it does to inhale. Practice three times per day for two to three minutes. For more information and resources on this technique, click here.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Pay a “mental visit” to your muscles, stopping at each area of the body from head to toe (or toe to head), paying attention to individual areas where tension exists. As you pause at each area, tense and relax each muscle, trying to release unnecessary tension. Spend a few more minutes on those areas that seem to be holding the most tension. For more information and resources on this technique, click here.
  • Visual (Guided) Imagery: Imagine tension flowing out of your body from top to bottom.  Visualize tension draining down your shoulders and arms and out through your fingertips into the air, down your thighs and legs, and out through the soles of your feet into the ground. It’s also helpful to take a mental “vacation,” imagining yourself in a pleasant, relaxing place such as on the beach or in the woods. This can be a place where you’ve been or a place you’d like to be. Take time to imagine the specific details of what you see, hear and feel in this place. For more information and resources on this technique, click here.


❖      Mindfulness: Mindfulness is about noticing our thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations without judgment. It’s a helpful tool in managing stress for those with a mental illness.

➢      Being Mindful of Everyday Activities. As a student, your life and your mind are often so busy that you forget to take notice of the everyday occurrences that keep your senses ‘awake’. For example, as you walk across the Diag, you may be lost in thought while drinking a latte. You may not be aware of how you arrived at your destination or of the steam of the latte as you take a sip. Rather than allowing yourself to miss the moment, pause, take a breath and notice what you are experiencing. Your experiences may be pleasant and worth savoring. But even if they are unpleasant, you will be better able to cope if you face your experiences directly and strive to live “in the moment.”

➢      How to practice Mindfulness through Meditation.

  • Find a comfortable position.
  • While focusing on your breathing, allow your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations to flow over you, entering and leaving your awareness at their own pace. Recognize each sensation, but then let it fade away, allowing the next thought or feeling to enter your mind. Continue to acknowledge each sensation, then let it go.
  • You will likely find that your mind is very busy with thoughts about all kinds of things – some pleasant, some unpleasant. Each time you notice that your mind has wandered, gently and without judgment shift your awareness back to your breath.
  • It can be most helpful to practice mindfulness for 30 minutes a day until you become comfortable with the technique.

The goal of mindfulness meditation is not to change your thoughts in any way, but simply to notice them and as best you can, continuously returning to your breath. Learning mindfulness meditation is similar to learning any new skill. There are an abundance of website and apps for guided meditations. Keep it simple. Be patient and kind with yourself. Do not expect that you will be able to “empty” your mind of thoughts and enter a state of deep relaxation. Try starting with ten minutes each day, setting a timer to see what happens. Remember that each moment is a new opportunity to begin. With practice, meditation can allow you to develop clarity in your thoughts and feelings, decrease your negative thoughts, and promote a sense of peacefulness and centeredness. You can also contact The University of Michigan Psychological Clinic for information on mindfulness-based cognitive group therapy for depression, which is an eight-week course developed to prevent depression relapse.


Additional Resources:

  • Check out a list of mental health apps recommended by the ADAA
  • Visit MiTalk to learn more about academic stress and maintaining balance
  • Wellness Coaching is a free 1:1 consultation focused on helping a student promote their own well-being and can help students find ways to manage stress



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