With the academic year in full swing, many of us find ourselves juggling schoolwork, social lives and work. Matthew Tomatz, a counselor at Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) here at CU Boulder, attests it can be a stressful time and it's important to be mindful of maintaining a healthy balance.

How does stress affect our lives?Stressed student with laptop

Everybody experiences stress in their day-to-day lives. In short bursts, stress can motivate us to get things done and help us succeed. However, when experienced over long periods of time, stress can negatively impact our physical and mental health.

Stress shows up differently for everybody. Some people have a very physiological reaction to stress, and some people have a very cognitive reaction. These reactions can include having an elevated heart rate, sweaty hands, inability to focus or racing thoughts. No matter how our bodies react to stress, learning ways to manage it can help us stay healthy in mind and body.

How can you develop stress management routines that work for you?

Stress management is a task of balance. Learning to listen to how stress shows up in our bodies and minds helps with finding that balance. There are certain times in our lives, particularly when we are students, where tasks require a lot of attention, so it is important to understand that managing stress can be a process over the course of a few days or can be as simple as a five-minute breathing exercise.

No two people will respond to an identical stressor the same way, so trying different methods for managing stress can help with finding one that works for you. When addressing stress, tuning in to our senses is a great way to stay present when anxiety hits. For instance, targeting the physiological response by naming what we see, hear and feel can help calm a speedy mind.

It is important to identify methods that help us care for our nervous systems to counteract the negative effects of stress and anxiety. For instance, bringing our thoughts to the present has tremendous benefits for our physical and emotional wellbeing. Take time to be outside and be mindful of your senses. Take advantage of free time by engaging in old hobbies or exploring new ones. Explore apps, podcasts, YouTube videos and other resources for guided relaxations you can do at home.

What can you do if you’re having trouble finding techniques that work?

At times, students have extended themselves far beyond their threshold of managing stress, so it shows up as tremendous anxiety. If you are trying stress-reduction exercises on your own and your mind keeps running, it may be a sign that you need to talk with someone and look at where your stress is coming from.

There are a variety of free resources on campus for stress management. CAPS offers a free skill-building workshop called Feel Better Fast that students can join at any point in the semester. This three-part series can help students make a change in their lives through mindfulness techniques and by learning ways to cope with distressing emotions and thoughts.

Some of the skills students will develop include learning how to make balanced decisions, to self-soothe, to take a step back from their thoughts and to live by their values. Feel Better Fast provides a space where students can receive guidance and support to get back on track and feeling better.

CAPS peer educators can be found around campus at various outreach events with activities and resources to help you stress less, including a free meditation session every week called Feel Good Fridays, led by Tomatz. Also, Health Promotion here at CU Boulder offers Stress(Less) programming, where students can enjoy stress-reduction activities such as crafts, five-minute chair massages, aromatherapy and more.

If you find yourself walking through campus and feeling overwhelmed, keep your eyes open for one of these quick resources! Everybody feels stressed at some point. As students, it is important to remember to take care of daily needs while also working toward achieving our long-term goals.

About the expert

Tomatz joined CAPS in 2008 as the substance abuse program coordinator. He has since assumed the position of outreach team lead and works in this role to bring counseling services into the CU Boulder community. In this role, he dedicates time to counseling services, community outreach, prevention efforts and the work of destigmatizing mental health issues. 

He holds a Master of Arts in psychology and contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University and is a licensed professional and addiction counselor. He specializes in working with substance abuse, veterans, anger, men’s issues, anxiety, relationship concerns, performance psychology, chronic illness or injury and mindfulness strategies.

Prior to working with CAPS, Tomatz worked in a variety of settings including drug and alcohol treatment programs, an adult offender therapy program, the Colorado AIDS Project and private practice. Before entering the field of psychotherapy, he studied music education and trumpet performance and worked as assistant dean for the Aspen Music Festival and School.