Published: Oct. 12, 2016 By

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

How does stress affect our lives?

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

Stress shows up on a continuum and takes different manifestations. Some people have a very physiological reaction [to stress] and some people have a very cognitive reaction. These reactions can present as having an elevated heart rate, sweaty hands and feet, 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 students develop stress management routines that work for them?

Stress management is a task of balance. That doesn't mean we are trying to get to a fixed place, but what we really need to do is listen to how stress shows up in our bodies and in our minds. There are certain times in our lives, particularly when we are students, where tasks require a lot of attention and so it is important to see that managing stress can be a couple day process or just a five-minute breathing exercise.

No two people will respond to an identical stressor the same way, so it is important to try different methods for managing stress. When addressing stress, targeting the physiological response can in turn help calm the cognitive response. Tuning in to our senses is a great way to stay present when anxiety hits.

Identifying what needs to be done can help us be more aware of caring for our nervous system and counteract the negative effects of stress and anxiety. So what can we do to manage our nervous system? 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 a hobby you haven't done in a while or want to learn. Explore apps, podcasts, YouTube videos and other resources for guided relaxation that you can do at home.

What can students do if they are having trouble finding techniques that work for them?

We often see students who have extended themselves far beyond their threshold of managing stress so it shows up as tremendous anxiety. If you are trying stress-reduction exercises and you lay down and your mind keeps running, maybe it's 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 is designed to help students make a change in their lives by learning coping strategies and mindfulness techniques, examining their thoughts and better understanding their emotions. Feel Better Fast provides a space where students can receive guidance and support to get back on track and feeling better.

CAPS volunteers can also be found around campus at various outreach events with activities and resources to help you stress less. Health Promotion, another division of Wardenburg Health Services, also offers outreach events on campus called Havens, where students can enjoy free five-minute chair massages, aromatherapy, while learning other stress-reduction techniques. Feel Good Fridays, a free, weekly meditation is also available. 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 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 de-stigmatizing 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.

All fee-paying CU Boulder students are eligible for up to six free sessions with a mental health professional at Counseling and Psychiatric Services. Find out more online at http://www.colorado.edu/counseling