Transitions

Introduction
Sources Of Stress
Symptoms Of Stress
Coping With Change And Transition

 

Introduction

Anything that involves change is a transition. Transitions can be challenging and stressful. This is true even when the changes are positive. Stress reactions are the same whether you are responding to positive or negative events. Good stress associated with change helps motivate us to succeed and grow in different directions. Stress can also prevent us from reaching our goals. We are often unaware of how stressors affect us and even what they are.

Sources of Stress

Changes students often experience are: starting a new academic program, handling an increased academic load, changing living arrangements, living on your own for the first time, leaving friends and family, meeting new people, coping with peer pressures, struggling with financial pressures, graduating, and negotiating more freedom and independence... to name a few.

Students describe specific types of stress which affect their lives. As they are discussed below, think about which kinds might apply to you and whether there are others you would add. Sources of stress can be categorized as follows: physical or environmental (e.g. poor health or a difficult commute), social (e.g. getting along with new roomates, dealing with family pressures, meeting people and dating), emotional or personal (e.g. shaky self-confidence, isolation from others, shyness), and academic or school-related (e.g. increased academic work load, competition, and time pressures, the need to choose a major or career direction).

Undergraduates frequently cite the following as sources of stress:

  • Leaving home for the first time
  • Having a roomate
  • Increased freedom and independence
  • Increased responsibility
  • Struggling for balance between school and other demands
  • Choosing a major
  • Taking exams
  • Making new friends
  • Fitting in
  • Wondering if you're in the right place

Graduate school brings with it other stresses including:

  • Feeling that former academic training or experience is irrelevant
  • Fear of failure
  • Increased academic competition
  • Increased academic workload
  • Struggling for balance between school and other demands
  • Taking exams
  • Developing a professional identity
  • Public Speaking
  • Wondering if you're in the right place

Symptoms of Stress

People experience stress in many different ways - some physically, some emotionally, and some behaviorally. It may be helpful to develop a profile of yourself under stress so that you can recognize the symptoms. Realize, of course, that stress is only one of the possible causes of these symptoms.

Physical

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Muscular aches (especially neck and back
  • Rapid heart rate, high blood pressure
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dry mouth or throat
  • Stomach pain, indigestion, diarrhea
  • Trembling, shaking, twitching
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing


Emotional

  • Rapid mood shifts
  • Increased anxiety, irritability, restlessness
  • Feelings of depression, hopelessness, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Behavioral

  • Changes in sleep habits (sleeping too little or too much)
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Teeth-grinding
  • Procrastination
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Use of alcohol and other drugs

Coping with Change and Transition

  • The first step in coping is to recognize what's happening - you are struggling with a transition or a change. You, like most others, need some time to accommodate to the changes in your life.
  • Next, try to pinpoint exactly what aspects of this change are troubling. Is socializing and connecting with others hard? Or are you overwhelmed by the academics? Are you experiencing pressure from your family or your financial situation? Or, is it all of the above and more?
  • Then, begin to think about what you can do differently to overcome the feelings and concerns you are experiencing. The following are some suggestions:

Relax. Take some time, slow down. Realize that what you are experiencing is probably natural. If you are anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed by your feelings, give yourself a break. Don't be so hard on yourself.

You may want to try some relaxation techniques to reduce your stress and anxiety. This can be as easy as taking a deep breath, holding it to the count of five, and letting it out. Try this several times... Breathing in relaxation, breathing out tension and stress... You should begin to feel more relaxed very soon.

Another useful exercise is to close your eyes and visualize a place that you associate with relaxation and ease. This may be a beach, the top of a mountain, or somewhere else. Imagine what this place looks, feels, sounds, and smells like. Remember how your body and mind feel peaceful and relaxed when you are there. Allow your body to enter that state of relaxation. Enjoy it for awhile...

There are also many other types of relaxation techniques available to learn and use.

Physical exercise. Exercise, any kind that you enjoy, at whatever pace is comfortable for you, is another great way to relieve stress. This is because our bodies are designed to reduce stress through physical action and activity. Even if you don't enjoy exercising, try something. After finishing, you will undoubtably feel better. And next time, when you are procrastinating about exercising, don't think about the energy it may take to do this activity. Rather, remember how relaxed and calm you feel afterwards.

Don't avoid the problem. Some people avoid how they feel by engaging in various behaviors, such as using drugs or alcohol. Others avoid what is overwhelming by, for instance, procrastinating about their schoolwork. If this sounds familiar, recognize that the stress of the transition in your life may be fueling these behaviors. Be aware that if you continue avoiding what is troubling you, the situation will worsen. If you don't catch yourself and make some changes, the circumstance might become too hard to repair.

Mourning the loss, conceptualizing the future. Any change involves a loss. Think about what you may be missing and why. Remember and appreciate all of the things that were meaningful or important. Then, begin to conceptualize the future. Are there some aspects of the past that you can incorporate into your life now? Is there a way to say "goodbye" to what can't be brought with you so that you can move on? Are there certain aspects that you are glad to leave in the past?

Remembering past transitions and changes. Remember back to the last big change in your life. How did that feel? How did you handle it? What different phases did you go through before you felt that this change was now a part of you and your life? Chances are you will adapt to this most recent change in a comparable or even better way.

Remember even further back when you were first learning to do something new, like ride a bike. Remember how shaky you felt and how you believed you would never get it. Remember the spills you took and how much they hurt. Then think about how, at some point, you just got it. No shakiness, no falls, no anxiety. Learning to adjust to this most recent change will probably be quite similar.

The importance of routine. One of the most comfortable things about the past is that we were used to it. We knew what to expect, even if it wasn't always positive. When starting something new, establish and follow a routine each day. Depending on your style, the schedule can be structured or somewhat loose. However, if you follow it, you will probably do what you need to do. You will also feel less overwhelmed. Students usually find that by taking a more active role in their lives, they begin to feel more effective and in control.

Think positively. Things will get better. You've probably heard this a lot but it's true. As time goes on and we get used to change, we become more comfortable. We realize we will survive this and probably succeed. This feeling of increased confidence and mastery happens very gradually. One day, you will probably wake up and realize how much better you feel. You will recall how you felt when you began this journey and marvel at the contrast.

In the meantime, it is important to monitor what you say and think about yourself. You may notice these statements are pretty negative and defeating- "I'm so stupid (or ugly or ...), "I'm going to fail," or "no one is going to want to be my friend." Catch yourself when you think this way. Substitute or balance these thoughts with others that are more realistic, hopeful, and encouraging- such as "I'm not stupid," "I probably won't fail if I do what I need to do," or "I know I've made friends in the past and I will now."

Study groups, extra help and balance. If your concerns are academic, here are a few tips. Students have found that forming study groups to work together on various subjects is invaluable. In doing so, you will benefit from the knowledge of others. You will also experience how much you really do know as you share your knowledge with others.

Also, talk to your professors about your academic concerns. They will probably have some useful suggestions for you and will appreciate your honesty and concern about your work. The university also offers tutorial services. Seek these out as well.

Finally, balancing academics with things that you enjoy is essential. If you tend to avoid what you need to do and focus on socializing more than school, push yourself to find a more satisfactory balance. Similarly, if all you do is study, force yourself to take time off and do something relaxing and fun. Otherwise, the time you spend studying will not be as productive or useful.

Talk to someone. It always helps to talk to someone about how you are feeling. This may be a friend, a resident advisor, a parent, a professor, or someone else you know and feel comfortable with. Sometimes, just hearing yourself talk aloud about your feelings puts things in perspective. Furthermore, you may get some good advice. Moreover, by talking to others, you will begin to make meaningful connections with supportive people. You will not feel so alone.

When talking to others is not feasible or has not been as helpful as you hoped, it is always possible to talk to a professional. Some students seek out a therapist in the community, while others contact the Counseling Center in Westchester at (914) 773-3710 or in New York City at (212) 346-1526.

Even if you thought you would never talk to a professional, go once and see how it feels. You may be surprised.