Story by Stephanie Seng, director of CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy
Amidst the bustle of students arriving and the excitement of new schedules and relationships, the iconic David Bowie/Queen collaboration plays on the radio. “Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you…” Lyrics written decades ago to reflect the stress of life still ring true today.
A Google search of the term “stress management” yields 444,000,000 results. Clearly, we are living in a time where life pressures are leading us to seek relief. By most accounts, some stress, defined by Webster as a “state of mental tension or worry,” can be beneficial as it keeps us energized and on our game. Too much stress, however, can hinder our work, interfere with relationships, and contribute to serious mental and physical health problems.
Stress management involves limiting our exposure to stress, as well as finding healthy ways to respond to it. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston whose work focuses on courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, suggests that managing stress means that “we don’t just change our schedules, we change our thinking.”
Experts tout the importance of self-care. There is no doubt that proper sleep, diet and exercise have a significant impact on our abilities to deal with the pressures of life, and can mitigate the detrimental impacts of stress on our health. Yet, for many, the idea of self-care creates even more anxiety, adding to the list of “shoulds” we place on ourselves.
Self-care vs. self-compassion
Instead of self-care, it could be helpful to think about self-compassion. Self-compassion can mean giving yourself the same grace you offer others when something isn’t perfect. It can also mean prioritizing things that bring you joy or satisfaction. However, time and energy are not limitless. Like deposits and withdrawals on a bank ledger, when we move something to the top of our list, something of equal “energy value” must move down (or off).
Juggling work and family can be a daunting task in an environment that demands excellence and a culture that says we can “do it all.” Like Brown, project leadership coach, Susanne Madsen, advises that we have more control over our stress than we might think. “It’s not really what happens. It is how we interpret what happens.” Additionally, stress can activate our fight or flight response causing us to react from our emotional brain rather than our logical frontal lobe. Madsen says changing our attitudes and perceptions and calming our emotional brain can help us manage stress levels.
Stress may be inevitable as we begin a new semester
Those in leadership positions have the opportunity to support staff and students as they manage stress through role modeling, connection, and support. In the 2018 CSU Climate Survey, respondents listed salary, workload and work/life balance, growth/promotion, and office climate as their top work stressors. Among college students, lifestyle and social changes, workload, and grades have been identified as common stressors. Supervisors and faculty can create a climate in the workplace and classroom that encourages conversation and collaboration about workloads, compensation, transitions, and expectations without fear of judgment or negative consequences.
Stress may be inevitable as we begin a new semester. However, instead of feeling “under pressure,” we can change our thinking, exercise self-compassion, and create a climate of connection and support that allows stress to help us stay positive and motivated, reach our goals and feel balanced in our lives.
Stephanie Seng is director of the Center for Family and Couple Therapy, part of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy provides high-quality therapy services to families, couples, individuals, adolescents, and children. The CFCT offers services to all members of the Larimer County community, as well as to students, faculty and staff on campus. Visit the website for more information.