Behavioral health students share 10 tips for stressing less

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month

Final exams. The fight you had with a friend. The overdue electric bill.

Stress—that physical, emotional and mental tension you feel—is everywhere.

And the USF COPH is no exception.

According to the American Institute of Stress, roughly three-quarters of Americans feel the physical and mental effects of stress on a regular basis. A full one-third say they are living with extreme stress.

Stress impacts lives in a number of damaging ways. It interferes with personal and professional relationships, causing conflict and feelings of alienation.

It also affects one’s physical health. People under stress often complain of headaches, an upset stomach and a lack of energy, among other ailments. What’s more, reports the National Institute of Mental Health, long-term stress can up your risk of infections, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and mental disorders like depression and anxiety.

While you can’t avoid stress, you can manage it. But how?

We asked three USF students who study behavioral health—a field that focuses on mental health and the forces (like stress) that impact it—for a roundup of stress-busting strategies. Each is based on either real-life experience and/or research. And while not every tip will work for every person (people handle stress differently, after all), most are simple and free.

Here, from COPH doctoral student Nicole Crawford and graduate students Lauren Julian and Enya Vroom, 10 studied-this, tried-that stress-relieving suggestions:

1. Meditation

Besides reducing the production of stress hormones such as cortisol, meditation can help you focus on the present and enhance your physical and emotional well-being. Try guided imagery (visualizing a relaxing scene, for example) or mantra meditation, in which you silently repeat a calming or inspiring word.

Nicole Crawford, MPH, MSW, in a standing yoga posture. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Crawford)

2. Exercise
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, even five minutes of exercise can quell anxiety. Exercise also reduces stress hormones, helps you sleep better and increases self-confidence. “When I exercise I make sure to work up good sweat and try to release all my tensions during my workout,” said Crawford. “After a workout, I always feel invigorated and then I wonder why I don’t exercise more! Ha!”


(Photo courtesy of iStock)

3. Pet “therapy”
Interaction with animals is proven to reduce stress. And the animals don’t always have to be of the furry variety, either. One study found that even petting a turtle reduced stress in participants—regardless of whether they were animal lovers or not. “I find any time spent around animals to be stress-relieving,” commented Julian. “Whether that’s walking my own dog, Maggie, or playing with the pet therapy dogs on campus—all the stress of the day goes away when I see that wagging tail.”


Enya Vroom, MS, on the USF campus with Eli, a therapy dog. (Photo courtesy
of Enya Vroom)

4. Coloring
Although it sounds juvenile, coloring has been shown to relax the brain by allowing an individual to engage in a “low stakes” activity. In other words, there is no real consequence to “messing up” while coloring.


(Photo by Anna Mayor)

5. Taking time for yourself and enjoying “the little things”
Engage in your favorite pastime like cooking, baking, crafting, reading or even something as simple as taking the time to enjoy your morning coffee or tea. Focusing on the “little things” can reduce tension and improve overall well-being. “Lauren and I share an office,” Vroom explained, “and every week we pick a new aspirational quote to go up on our board.” “We also have glitter jars,” added Julian, “and they are a great distraction for when we are particularly stressed.”

“Quote Board” in Vroom and Julian’s office. (Photo courtesy of Enya Vroom)

6. Deep breathing
How-tos: Sit straight up on the floor or on the edge of a chair. Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your diaphragm/stomach. Inhale for a count of four seconds, hold that breath for a count of four seconds, and then exhale for six seconds. Repeat 4-6 times, or until calm. Breathing slow and deep can assist with activating the parts of the brain that are associated with feeling calm and safe. “I do deep breathing first thing in the morning and before bed at night in order to calm down,” said Crawford. “It helps me re-focus during the middle of my day and let go of any anxiety I’ve been holding on to.”

(Photo courtesy of iStock)

7. Laughing
Find a joke or watch your favorite funny movie. The physical act of smiling can influence your mood directly and assist with getting you through stressful tasks.

Crawford, Vroom and Julian smile for the camera. (Photo courtesy of Enya Vroom)

8. Download an app for stress reduction
Apps can be useful when you are looking for suggestions on how to combat stress. Some apps include different exercises for muscle relaxation, deep breathing and more. Pacifica, Take a Break! and Headspace are a few top-rated stress-reducing apps available for Android and Apple products.

(Photo courtesy of iStock)

9. Get outside
Research shows a strong link between being in nature and wellbeing, so take a walk, run or hike outside. Additionally, the effects of being outside can lead to feelings of happiness that can last most of the day for some individuals. “Being in nature is my happy place,” stated Vroom. “I live in downtown St. Petersburg, so when I have had a stressful day, I like to run the waterfront to clear my head and take in fresh, salty air.”

St. Pete at sunset. (Photo courtesy of Enya Vroom)

10. Listen to your favorite music
Music can act as a distraction and even aid in meditation. “Listening to music is one of my favorite pastimes, especially when I’m feeling stressed. I have playlists for when I’m anxious that calm me down, or for when I’m sad that lift me up,” remarked Julian. “Listening to music or going to concerts can be a complete mood changer for me.”



(Photo courtesy of iStock)


Story by Nicole Crawford, MPH, MSW, Lauren Julian, MS and Enya Vroom, MS, with Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health