Ziemann: Dealing with 2020 stress

Columnist Megan Ziemann investigates how the body responds to both negative and positive stress and gives examples of ways to manage it.

Megan Ziemann

I don’t know about you all, but 2020 has been the most stressful year of my life. 

We’ve impeached our president, entered a global pandemic, watched the stock market rise and fall and rise again, fought wildfires, gathered in the streets and online for Black lives, returned to campus uncertain and afraid and are in the midst of what could be considered the most important election of our lives.

And that’s just in our Iowa State community. Globally, Australia burned, the United Kingdom exited the European Union and human rights crises in Yemen and Nigerian authorities continue to take innocent lives.

There’s no doubt about it — 2020 is stressful. In fact, it’s on track to be one of the most stressful years we’ve ever faced, according to the American Psychological Association. They report that the challenge of parenting children while working and learning from home, the recent economic downturn and disappointment in the government response to COVID-19 are all common stressors among Americans. 

And Generation Z (us) may have it worse. Newsweek reported in October that young people aged 18 to 23 are the most stressed group in the nation compared to other generational groups. We’re also feeling more tired and hopeless than our older counterparts. I know I can relate to Newsweek’s sentiment — and chances are you can too.

But let’s back up a bit. Not all stress is bad stress, and at this time in our lives, it’s perfectly normal to feel some pressure. 

The term “stress” was coined in 1936 and described the body’s response to any type of change, according to the American Institute of Stress. There are two types of stress: eustress, or positive stress, and distress. 

Everyone experiences eustress and distress. I’m about to experience a lot of eustress when I receive my diploma and graduate college at the end of this month. I’m excited and proud of myself, but my body will still register that excitement as stress because I’m going through a big life change. 

Other examples of eustress can be entering a new relationship, starting a new job or finding out you’re going to grow your family by having a child. 

Eustress affects the body in three ways: emotionally, psychologically and physically, reports Dr. Kara Fasone for Healthline. Emotionally, we feel motivated, inspired and have a positive outlook. We may become more resilient as our self-image improves. We experience eustress each time we work out — you know when you’re tired but energized at the same time after a good sweat sesh? That’s eustress at work!

While most of us experience both types of stress each day, due to the strangeness of this year, chances are you’re dealing with a lot more distress, or negative stress.

You probably know exactly how distress feels: all of a sudden, the room feels hotter. You tense up as something takes hold of your chest and squeezes. You’re breathing heavily, but it doesn’t feel like you’re getting enough air with each gasp. Sweat accumulates in your hairline. You may start to cry or feel numb. For a while, all you can think about is whatever is causing you distress. This can last seconds, minutes, hours or even days.

Distress symptoms affect our bodies, our minds and our behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common symptoms include headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, irritability, lack of motivation and social withdrawal. 

If that sounds like you, don’t stress (ha). No one expects you to feel normal right now. 

However, it’s tough to get normal life tasks done if you’re feeling too much stress. Reducing your stress levels can make you feel better in the short and long term, according to the American Psychological Association. I’ve included some simple, college student-friendly ways to reduce stress below.

Because goodness knows we all need it. 

First, in order to reduce your stress, it’s important to know what is causing it. Keep tabs on your thoughts throughout the day — if something is bothering you, you’ll likely experience stress symptoms each time you think about it. Journaling may help too. Writing something down makes it feel permanent and more manageable. Once you see your problems on paper, it feels like you can tackle them (because you can).

Don’t be afraid to use your pals for help. Asking for some extra love or support is normal and good. You’re there for your friends when they’re going through it — why wouldn’t they be there for you too?

Rest is so, so good. Whether that’s sleep or not, it’s important to step away and take some time for yourself when things are piling up. It may seem counterintuitive — why take a break when you could be working on homework, studying for finals or applying for jobs? 

But breaks help. You’ll feel refreshed and ready to take on those tasks afterward. 

Unfortunately, our efforts to mitigate stress may not work out on their own. Just like it’s OK to ask your friends for help, sometimes we need a professional to get us through a tough time. Iowa State offers free counseling in individual and group sessions, and it has helped me in the past. The best part? You’re talking to a neutral third party. No judgement allowed.

No matter how you’re doing it, practice some self-care this year. Life happens, and that’s OK. 

Let yourself experience it (with as many breaks as needed).