The University Network

How To Manage Stress In College — Interview With Dr. Danielle Merolla, Associate Director Of The Center For Prevention And Outreach Stony Brook U

TUN sits down with Dr. Danielle Merolla, a clinical psychologist and the associate director of the Center for Prevention and Outreach at Stony Brook University, to discuss ways for students to manage stress in college.

TUN: Dr. Merolla, thanks so much for joining us. 

DR. MEROLLA: Thank you for having me, Jackson. 

Stress is inevitable in college. At one point or another, every student is going to experience stress. But, what are the best ways to manage stress so that it doesn’t become consuming?

Stress is inevitable, period. First and foremost, we have to know when we are stressed. I think this is actually a bigger issue than we would think. Oftentimes, we don’t recognize that we are stressed until we are completely distressed and feeling overwhelmed by it. 

It is important to know what your baseline is. What I mean by that is, how do you know yourself to be a pretty decent day?

So, we’re looking at things like eating, sleeping, mood and social media footprint. How do you know yourself to be on a pretty decent day? What do those things look like? We need to know that in order to know when we are starting to be stressed. 

At CPO (the Center for Prevention and Outreach), what we really focus on is the prevention piece. As it relates to the individual, what does your stress look like? Once we can identify that, then the hope is that we are able to be aware of it or recognize it when it’s starting. 

So, I know that I need eight hours of sleep at night. But, there’s a paper that I’m working on and there are various things going on. In the last two days, maybe I only got four hours of sleep. This is off, based on what I know about myself. That is a clear indication that, now, I need to try to get that sleep back. 

So, it is recognizing how stress impacts us, both in our body and in our mind. Our mind and body are intimately connected. How does stress impact us physically and what are the cognitions that are associated with our stress? 

This is a lot easier said than done, but I will often say, “Thoughts only have the power that we give them.” 

Oftentimes, when thoughts are coming in and they’re increasing in duration, intensity and perhaps even becoming more negative, that is a sign that you’re stressed. What we tend to do when we’re already struggling is give those thoughts a lot more attention. 

They could be all-consuming, but, instead, recognizing those thoughts as a symptom that you are stressed is a really important thing. Recognition is number one. 

The second piece is to make sure that the things that you identified as your baseline are consistently being maintained over time. The measurable things, like eating and sleeping, are very, very important. 

Another thing that I stress to Stony Brook students who work really hard, sometimes with unreasonable expectations, is that you also need to have times that you are scheduling breaks and that you’re also scheduling time to just not think about work or anything else but having fun and engaging with others.

Absolutely. So, sometimes, stress is persistent and lasts for days, weeks or months. Other times, though, stress can be set on by an immediate event, like only having so much time to finish your exam. How can students remain calm in moments of immediate heightened stress?

The very basic, simplistic answer is to breathe. I know we hear this a lot, but there is an actual biological basis for this. 

Ultimately, when we are feeling stressed, anxious or any type of more intense emotion, we tend to breathe shallow. When we breathe shallow, it immediately impacts our nervous system that then tells our brain we don’t have enough oxygen, that there is a lot to fear and there’s a lot to be concerned about. Then, all of a sudden, our body and mind become engaged in this kind of over-active process. 

So, during those times, before walking into a test or an event, taking three deep diaphragmatic breaths — breathing literally from the belly up — then tells your brain, “Oh, I have enough oxygen. It’s okay.” 

So, we’re kind of working from the back end. Instead of the cognitions, it’s relaxing the body in order to relax the mind. Breath is so important. You would be surprised how often in a day we are not breathing effectively. Just remembering to breathe and taking deep breaths is a huge way to help mitigate some of those in-the-moment stressors and anxiety experiences that you’re speaking about.

Are there any things — perhaps foods, substances, habits or routines — that students should avoid because they’re known to increase stress? 

I think the fact that you’re using “routine” is important. I think routines are really helpful, especially as it relates to managing stress. 

I’m not only speaking about routine in terms of how much you’re studying but also the time that you’re going to bed, when you’re waking up, when you are eating, when you are taking a break and when you are exercising. 

The body has to move. In this time when we’re sitting in place a lot more and behind screens, we have to be really intentional about moving our bodies. 

In regards to things to avoid, I could get into the whole topic of how drugs and alcohol impact our experiences. Very simply speaking, we know that drugs and alcohol can absolutely intensify the experience of stress, intensify depression and impact sleep. 

If you notice your increase in using those substances, the question is, what’s going on? Oftentimes, when we are looking to change our conscious state, it means something in our conscious state feels intolerable. 

So, this goes back to knowing our baseline. You want to avoid not sleeping. You want to try to avoid eating things that aren’t necessarily balanced. I don’t want to say, “You should not eat this.” I usually say, “Try to be balanced.” If one day I decide I need to have all of these donuts in front of me, I want to make sure that later on that day, I have a fruit and a vegetable. Try to balance it out. I’m not someone who believes in too much rigidity or extremes in one way. But, a balanced diet is helpful. 

The other thing is, it really depends on where your stress is coming from. Sometimes, what we need to avoid is the media. Sometimes, what we need to avoid is the news or social media. So there are also times that I think turning those things off can absolutely help balance our stress. 

When stress becomes overwhelming and students feel that they can’t manage it on their own, who can they reach out to for help? Are there people or resources on campus or online that they could use?

Absolutely. I really want to stress that we really encourage students to reach out sooner rather than later. But, yes, there are absolutely support systems on our campus that are more accessible, quite frankly, than what is accessible off campus. 

One of those that I’d like to point out is “Let’s Talk.” So, “Let’s Talk” is basically a group of counselors that are available to students for brief conversations. It’s not therapy. But, it’s the ability to speak to a counselor about anything on your mind.

We used to be located across the campus, but now we are completely virtual. You can go to the virtual “Let’s Talk” link, pick a time within the available time frame and get a private, confidential link to speak with a counselor. 

Early on, if you start to feel a little bit stressed, connect and speak to a counselor. But, it’s a wonderful way, also, to problem-solve and work with that counselor to figure out, “Well, what do I need at this point in time?” That counselor can also be a wonderful bridge to other resources and supports in our community. 

Is “Let’s talk” available on multiple campuses, or is that only something available at Stony Brook? 

“Let’s Talk” actually originated about 13 years ago at Cornell University. I’m not sure of the actual number, but it’s certainly on various other college campuses. We adopted “Let’s Talk” probably around four years ago. 

Since we moved virtually, “Let’s Talk” has been utilized so much more. I’m so grateful for that. It has been a lovely place where students are able to come. Sometimes, that space is enough for students. Other times, it serves as a bridge to other resources like our counseling and psychological services on campus, which is free and confidential to all students, our academic resources and our Student Support Team on campus, which is a fantastic resource. Our Student Support Team works with students on all sorts of things, including academic distress, financial problems and food insecurities. 

Sometimes, what we need is just assistance. When we are overly stressed, even writing an email can be difficult. Things like the Student Support Team and “Let’s Talk” are aimed to help students navigate during those times.

Thanks, Dr. Merolla, for joining us today.

Thank you for having me. Everyone, take good care. Be well. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.