Montana State University


College Office

Many college students report experiencing high levels of stress at times, which is a normal part of college life. However, too much stress or a strong negative response to stress can be harmful, mentally, emotionally and physically. High levels of unmanageable stress can cause problems that affect your health, your academic success and your relationships.

So, what is stress? Stress is a response to a demand that is placed upon you, meaning we face stress many times a day. Usually it is experienced as a short term tension, leading to added mental alertness that subsides when the challenge has been met (e.g., having to get up in the morning for class entails stress). Once the challenge has been met you can relax and carry on. Stress also occurs when change occurs. Some level of stress is necessary - this is what helps us get our tasks done. However, we should return to that relaxed state once the challenge has been met.

Common stressors

  • Class presentations
  • Homework
  • Exams
  • Physical danger
  • Family problems
  • Relationships (pleasant and unpleasant stress)

Signs of unhealthy responses to stress

  • Headaches, stomach aches or other chronic pain
  • On-going sense of fear or sadness
  • Increased anxiety
  • Desire to increase substance use (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, other drugs)

Healthy ways to relieve stress

  • Exercise is almost always helpful. Start with this.
  • Ask for help (with schoolwork, with a family problem, a health problem, etc.). Never underestimate the value of talking to a friend or family member when you're feeling overwhelmed.
  • Sleep! Students tend not to sleep enough, and this 'deficit' is cumulative. Lack of sleep will lower your resistance to even small stressors, plus increase the likelihood you'll catch a bug.
  • Learn relaxation strategies: breathing, mediation or just finding a quiet place and being still for a short time.
  • Pay attention to what you're eating when stress levels are high. Poor nutrition, while sometimes giving a quick 'boost,' will not help in the long run.

Relaxation techniques can reduce stress symptoms by:

  • Slowing your heart rate
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Slowing your breathing rate
  • Reducing muscle tension and chronic pain
  • Improving concentration
  • Reducing anger and frustration
  • Boosting confidence to handle problems

There are many types of relaxation techniques. Try these to see which ones work the best for you!

  • Autogenic relaxation. Autogenic means something that comes from within you. In this relaxation technique, you use both visual imagery and body awareness to reduce stress. You repeat words or suggestions in your mind to help you relax and reduce muscle tension. You may imagine a peaceful place and then focus on controlled, relaxing breathing, slowing your heart rate, or feeling different physical sensations, such as relaxing each arm or leg one by one.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. This helps you focus on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation. You become more aware of physical sensations. One method is to start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. Tense your muscles for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat.
  • Visualization. In this relaxation technique, you form mental images to take a visual journey to a peaceful, calming place or situation. During visualization, try to use as many senses as you can, including smell, sight, sound and touch. If you imagine relaxing at the ocean, for instance, think about such things as the smell of salt water, the sound of crashing waves and the warmth of the sun on your body. You may want to close your eyes, sit in a quiet spot and loosen any tight clothing.

Other common relaxation techniques include:

  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Listening to music
  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Hypnosis
  • Massage


Confidential appointments with a counselor can help you.
  • cope with and adjust to college life.
  • deal with problems regarding physical or mental concerns.
  • learn skills to optimize personal and academic effectiveness.
  • resolve personal problems.
If you need help relieving stress, contact the Student Health Service at 994-2311 or MSU Counseling & Psychological Services at 994-4531 for an appointment.

The Hosaeus Recreation & Fitness Center offers aerobics classes for $40 a semester. Other classes include: spinning, pilates, yoga, Ab Lab, Hydro Sculpt, and more! Check out their website at

Information taken from Mayo Clinic, 2009