It’s human nature to slip into unhelpful behaviors and thought patterns when we’re under stress. Sometimes we fall into bad habits and negative thoughts when we’re overwhelmed. We can find ourselves feeling so stressed that we start to feel out of control, scared—even hopeless.

Seven Signs to Watch For

Here are 7 signs that stress might be interfering with your life:

1. Avoidance: Ignoring friends; skipping classes, homework, or extracurriculars; not engaging with family members

2. Procrastination: Playing games or hanging out online for hours a day, or doing other activities that keep you from accomplishing what you need to do

3. Changes in eating habits:  Overeating, eating too little, obsessing about food, or getting queasy when thinking about eating

4. Behavioral changes: Feeling jittery or anxious; acting irritable or impatient; crying easily; having panic attacks; feeling tired all the time but having trouble sleeping; or shutting down and not feeling anything

5. Physical discomfort: Feeling headachy; tight shoulders; acne or eczema flare-ups; getting queasy or having heartburn; intestinal cramping or overactivity

6. Self-harming or dangerous comfort-seeking behavior: Drinking, smoking, drug use, cutting, shoplifting, overspending, hanging out with people you don’t trust

7. Depression: Self-defeating thoughts, feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of self-harm

Pretty awful, huh? Stress can turn into a painful spiral that leads to more discomfort and more serious symptoms. The discomfort can even feel inescapable. But it’s not.

There are lots of things you can do to lower the pressure, stop beating yourself up, and make life more livable. They can even make you more productive and less exhausted. Below are a few actions you can take that help people make major improvements in their mood and their lives.


Asking for Help Is Brave—and Smart

Merriam-Webster says stress is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”It’s psychic pain that leads to physical symptoms, and can come from difficulty, anxiety, and worry. Much of what drives negative emotions is fear of failure, embarrassment, or causing or experiencing harm. Fear causes fight-or-flight responses sending stress chemicals flooding through us. Our stress may rise so high that our health, work, relationships, and mental health suffer.

If you’re experiencing that level of stress, you deserve to feel better, and there are many people who’d love to help you. So ask for help from friends, parents, teachers, counselors, therapists, clergy members—someone you can open up to.

If you’re having trouble with school work and feel overwhelmed when you think about college, a near-peer mentor can help you become more focused and confident. CollegeVine’s mentors help you prioritize studies, build a study plan, and show you how to improve essay-writing and test-taking skills. They help you choose extracurriculars that are fun and meaningful while making you a more appealing college applicant.


Good Students Can Be Bad at Asking for Help

When you’re stressed, it’s hard to think straight, but easy to be hard on yourself and underestimate your value. Good students can be bad at asking for help when stressed. They’re used to working through problems independently. When they hit a snag, they often think they should be “smart enough” to work through troubles alone. Some even believe that asking for help shows weakness. It doesn’t.

Asking for help takes courage. It shows willingness to admit problems and look for ways to solve them. Getting help moving through any kind of pain is a sign that you recognize that you have the power to get better, and want to use it in a healthy way.


Why Don’t Stressed-Out People Do What They Need to Do?

The main culprits behind most stress come from within—they’re negative self-talk and feelings of powerlessness. You may be upset because you have too much homework or failed your driving test. But your reaction to setbacks is what causes stress or pain, not the situations themselves. Your reaction is likely to be worse if you feel powerless to make things better.

Some people believe life is out to get them. They wait for things to improve, then nurse grudges when it doesn’t. They don’t see that they have power to improve things. They’ve decided things won’t get better, so they fall behind. That becomes “evidence” that they’re unlucky victims of chance.

Others feel responsible for everything bad that happens. They feel unworthy, embarrassed, uncomfortable. They bristle when corrected and fear being seen as failures. They worry that if they ask for help, they’ll feel ashamed, so they stew silently. They lose hope, then distract themselves from fears by avoiding taking actions that would make them feel better.

Does either of those extremes sound like you? Or are you somewhere in between?


The Worst Bully of Them All: Yourself

Obviously, avoiding things that harm you is important. Asking for help from someone you trust is an excellent idea, as is talking to a counselor or therapist. Beyond that, learning how to stop beating yourself up with negative self-talk is the key.

You may not realize how often you undermine yourself. Do you worry that you’re not smart enough, you’re lazy, you never turn anything in on time, or you won’t finish your assignment without help? Within a minute, you feel your stomach tighten and your heart pound as you think of your school work, tests, and college applications. Stress chemicals flood your body and brain. You start craving escape and comfort. You go from thinking, “It’s time to do my homework” to “I’m a loser. I’m useless. Where are the Doritos and my Xbox controller?”

Psychiatrist and cognitive therapist David D. Burns, MD, has written about depression, anxiety, and self-defeating behaviors for four decades. He taught psychiatry at Stanford and was a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School. His book Feeling Good is often prescribed by psychotherapists. Dr. Burns encourages recognizing negative thought patterns and self-defeating behaviors, then replacing dysfunctional thoughts with fact-based, real-life examples of their positive behaviors to fight against paralyzing negativity.

If you turn down a dark mental road, remind yourself of real, demonstrable facts that combat negative self-talk. Challenge negativity with positive truths and you’ll gain more accurate assessments of your abilities, a hopeful outlook, and confidence.


Destructive Thoughts to Avoid

Dr. Burns often points to ten common fallacies that people fall into that cause irrational or dysfunctional thoughts. The major fallacies he warns against are:

All-or-nothing thinking: If you can’t get something completely right, you’re a failure, so why try

Overgeneralization: Today’s failure is a sign of unending failure to come.

Mental filter: Focus on one negative detail and dwell on it to the exclusion of  all else.

Disqualifying the positive: Ignore or diminish the importance of facts that support a good outcome.

Jumping to conclusions: Believe negative interpretations even when there’s insufficient evidence to support them.

Catastrophizing or minimizing: Your mistakes are huge; everyone else’s are minor

Emotional reasoning: If you feel something strongly, it must be true

“Should” statements: You should be a certain way, and if you aren’t, you should be punished

Labeling and mislabeling: Labels describe people or events in limiting ways

Personalization: Blame yourself for negative events that you aren’t responsible for


Stop Beating Yourself Up!

I’ll bet you’ve fallen into negative thoughts several times today. We all do. Here are some examples:

“I can’t do anything right.” Actually, you do a lot of things right. You learn new skills all the time. You overcome obstacles every day. When you take things one task at a time, you can do what you need to—and there are lots of people who’d love to help you.

“I’m always late.” Think about three times when you were on time. How did that happen? Did you get up early or set reminders? Remind yourself of times when you’ve succeeded to see what behaviors have worked for you.

“Why should I bother with this?” I won’t get a good grade. I won’t get better. I’ll just feel stupid. I’ll feel better if I watch Netflix instead.” Logical fallacies galore! You don’t know what grade you’ll get—that’s jumping to conclusions. Deciding you’re likely to fail the class is catastrophizing. Calling yourself “stupid” is mislabeling—it assumes you’re incapable of learning.

When you interrupt ugly self-talk, you train yourself to reach for positive instead of negative thoughts. Stop stress chemicals from flooding your brain! Visualize positive outcomes and chances of making them happen skyrocket.

When you think you don’t deserve help or encouragement—stop! Interrupt with examples of things you’ve done well, times when you made good decisions, moments when you prepared and succeeded. Talk to yourself as you’d talk to your best friend—would you say the horrible things to your friend that you say to yourself? I didn’t think so.


One Small Action Changes Everything

It’s hard to stop a negative thought spiral. But start with one tiny action. Each one gets easier with practice and breeds hope. That lifts depression and relieves stress. So go on, be brave—believe in yourself enough to take positive action right now.

Laura Grey

Laura Grey

Laura Grey is an alumna of Mills College and the mother of a Simmons College graduate. Laura’s liberal arts education has served her well over the course of her writing and editing career, and she’s a big supporter of the women’s college experience. She enjoys writing film and music reviews, creating art, studying history and incorporating Godzilla figurines into her holiday decorating.
Laura Grey