Adjusting without stressing

MU officials give advice on ways to cope with college pressures.
Sunday, August 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:20 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Depression. Anxiety. Sleep deprivation. Homesickness.

The first few weeks of college can be fraught with pressure as students struggle to balance busy schedules filled with classes, homework, jobs and social events. Some keep their struggles inside. Others seek help from alcohol or drugs.

This time of year, students visit the MU Counseling Center in greater numbers than usual for free individual and group counseling, officials said, although they were not able to provide specific numbers.

“We often have many people coming in at the beginning of the year with adjustment to school, either new or transfer students with anxiety, loneliness, or homesickness,” said Dr. Amy Bowers, a Counseling Center psychologist.

Should problems surface, Bowers advises against waiting too long to seek counseling in her office, which is part of the Student Health Center. Schedules tend to get busier as the year goes on, she said, and the buildup of stress is not healthy.

Tara Smutz, an 18-year-old freshman from Dallas, is still learning how to best manage campus life. But before the first week of class was finished, she had already realized the importance of time management in keeping her hectic schedule under control.

“You have to use your time because you might have blocks of an hour where you’re free, and you have to decide, ‘Do I read a book, do laundry, go to the Wal-Mart?’” she said.

Yoga is also an effective technique for reducing stress, said Lynn Rossy, director of the Mindfulness Practice Center. In addition to yoga, the center offers a lunchtime “mindfulness” meditation class.

“It teaches how not to get caught up in thoughts and just to be with stressful thoughts and observe them,” she said, describing a more cognitive approach offered by yoga.

Mindfulness isn’t just a practice that is applied to problems but a practice that can be applied to everyday life, according to Beth Shoyer, a Student Health Center psychologist.

“The concept of mindfulness can help us learn about patterns of reacting in our lives so we can be more aware and less reactive,” she said. “Essentially, we live our lives on autopilot. We miss the moments, the subtle thoughts and feelings.”

One way to make stress more manageable, according to Shoyer, is to use mindfulness to not only recognize all the tasks and problems in our lives, but also to get a handle on those challenges as soon as they surface.

“We don’t notice, ‘I have a lot of work to do.’ We wait to get so overwhelmed and say, ‘I can’t do this,’” she said. “What we can say is, ‘I can break things down into tasks.’”

Meditation, yoga and effective time management aren’t the only tools available for students looking to reduce stress, Bowers said.

“It’s always good to practice good health like eating well, exercising and having a good support group of friends,” she said.

For Smutz, her social network is also a support system.

“The one class I think is going to get me is the honors biology … but one of my sorority sisters is in the class and another sister has already taken it, and they promised to help me,” she said.

Sometimes, the best method to prevent stress can be found by following the adage of always being prepared.

“One thing I’ve learned this year is to always carry an umbrella,” Smutz said at the end of a rainy first week of classes.

For Andy Filla, a sophomore at MU, freshman year proved particularly stressful after he was forced to move when the Mark Twain dorm shut down for renovation. Fortunately, his friends were there to help.

“It was hard moving out of Mark Twain halfway through my freshman year and having to meet a new set of people twice, but I basically just hung out with people from my old dorm,” he said.

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