Leslie Atkin leads a college essay workshop at Wheaton High School in Maryland on Oct. 17. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
Find a telling anecdote about your 17 years on this planet. Examine your values, goals, achievements and perhaps even failures to gain insight into the essential you. Then weave it together in a punchy essay of 650 or fewer words that showcases your authentic teenage voice — not your mother’s or father’s — and helps you stand out among hordes of applicants to selective colleges.
That's not necessarily all. Be prepared to produce even more zippy prose for supplemental essays about your intellectual pursuits, personality quirks or compelling interest in a particular college that would be, without doubt, a perfect academic match.
Many high school seniors find essay writing the most agonizing step on the road to college, more stressful even than SAT or ACT testing. Pressure to excel in the verbal endgame of the college application process has intensified in recent years as students perceive that it’s tougher than ever to get into prestigious schools. Some well-off families, hungry for any edge, are willing to pay as much as $16,000 for essay-writing guidance in what one consultant pitches as a four-day “application boot camp.”
But most students are far more likely to rely on parents, teachers or counselors for free advice as hundreds of thousands nationwide race to meet a key deadline for college applications on Wednesday.
[College admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision]
Malcolm Carter, 17, a senior who attended an essay workshop this month at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County, Md., said the process took him by surprise because it differs so much from analytical techniques learned over years as a student. The college essay, he learned, is nothing like the standard five-paragraph English class essay that analyzes a text.
“I thought I was a good writer at first,” Carter said. “I thought, ‘I got this.’ But it’s just not the same type of writing.”
Carter, who is thinking about engineering schools, said he started one draft but aborted it. “Didn’t think it was my best.” Then he got 200 words into another. “Deleted the whole thing.” Then he produced 500 words about a time when his father returned from a tour of Army duty in Iraq.
Will the latest draft stand? “I hope so,” he said with a grin.
Admission deans want applicants to do their best and make sure they get a second set of eyes on their words. But they also urge them to relax.
“Sometimes, the fear or the stress out there is that the student thinks the essay is passed around a table of imposing figures, and they read that essay and put it down and take a yea or nay vote, and that determines the student’s outcome,” said Tim Wolfe, associate provost for enrollment and dean of admission at the College of William & Mary. “That is not at all the case.”
Wolfe called the essay one more way to learn something about an applicant. “I’ve seen rough essays that still powerfully convey a student’s personality and experiences,” he said. “And on the flip side, I’ve seen pristine, polished essays that don’t communicate much about the students and are forgotten a minute or two after reading them.”
William & Mary, like many schools, assigns at least two readers for each application. Sometimes, essays get another look when an admissions committee is deliberating.
Most experts say a great essay cannot compensate for a mediocre academic record. But it can play a significant role in shaping perceptions of an applicant and might tip the balance in a borderline case.
[Top colleges put thousands of applicants in wait-list limbo]
Essays and essay excerpts from students who have won admission circulate widely on the Internet, but it’s impossible to know how much weight those words carried in the final decision. One student took a daring approach to a Stanford University essay this year. He wrote, simply, “#BlackLivesMatter” 100 times. And he got in.
Advice about essays abounds, some of it obvious: Show, don’t tell. Don’t rehash your résumé. Avoid cliches and pretentious words. Proofread. “That means actually having a living, breathing person — not just a spell-checker — actually read your essay,” Wolfe said.
But make sure that person doesn’t cross the line between useful feedback and meddlesome revision, or worse. (Looking at you, moms and dads.)
“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”
Some affluent parents buy help for their children from consultants who market their services through such brands as College Essay Guy, Essay Hell and Your Best College Essay.
Michele Hernández, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, based in Vermont and Massachusetts, said her team charges $16,000 for a four-day boot camp in August to help clients develop all pieces of their applications, from essays to extracurricular activity lists. Or a family can pay $2,500 for five hours of one-on-one essay tutoring. Like other consultants, Hernández said she does pro-bono work. But she acknowledged there are troubling questions about the influence of wealth in college admissions.
“The equity problem is serious,” Hernández said. “College consultants are not the problem. It starts way lower down” — at kindergarten or earlier, she added.
Christopher Hunt, with a business in Colorado called College Essay Mentor, charges $3,000 for an “all-college-all-essays package” with as much guidance as clients want or need, from brainstorming to final drafts. He said the industry is growing because of a cycle rooted in anxiety. As the volume of applications grows, now topping 40,000 a year at Stanford and 100,000 at the University of California at Los Angeles , admission rates fall. That, in turn, fuels worries of prospective applicants from around the world.
[Stanford dean: Ultra-low admit rate not something to boast about]
“Most of my inquiries come from students,” Hunt said. “They are at ground zero of the college craze, aware of the competition, and know what they need to compete.”
At Wheaton High, it cost nothing for students to drop in on a college essay workshop offered during the lunch hour a couple of weeks before the Nov. 1 early application deadline. Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, provided pizza, and Leslie Atkin, an English composition assistant, provided tips in a room bedecked with college pennants.
Her first piece of advice: Don’t bore the reader. “It should be as much fun as telling your best friend a story,” she said. “You’re going to be animated about it.” Atkin also sketched a four-step framework for writing: Depict an event, discuss how that anecdote illuminates key character traits, define a pivotal moment and reflect on the outcome. “Wrap it up with a nice package and a bow,” she said. “They don’t have to be razzle-dazzle. But they need to say, ‘Read me!’ ”
As an example, Hammond Davis distributed an essay written by a 2017 Wheaton High graduate now at Rice University. In it, Anene “Daniel” Uwanamodo likened himself to a trampoline — a student leader who helps serve as a launchpad for others. “Regardless of race, gender or background, trampolines will offer their uplifting influence to any who request it,” he wrote.
Soaking this in were students aiming for the University of Maryland at College Park, Towson, Howard and Johns Hopkins universities, Virginia Tech, the University of Chicago and a special scholars program at Montgomery College. One planned to write about a terrifying car accident, another about her mother’s death and a third about how varsity basketball shaped him.
Sahil Sahni, 17, said his main essay responds to a prompt on the Common Application, an online portal to apply to hundreds of colleges: “Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Sahni showed The Washington Post two drafts — his initial version in July, and his latest after feedback from Hammond Davis. (It’s probably best not to quote the essay before admission officers read it.) During the writing, he said, he often jotted phrases on sticky notes when inspiration occurred. If no notepads were handy, he would ink a keyword on his arm “to stimulate the ideas.”
Sahni summarized the essay as a meditation on the consequences of lost keys, “how the unknown is okay, and how you can overcome it.” He said composing three or four high-stakes essays also had a consequence: “Every day you learn something new about yourself.”
Senior Sahil Sahni with Cynthia Hammond Davis, the college and career information coordinator, at Wheaton High’s college essay workshop. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)
For information about the Stress Management and Biofeedback lab and audio recordings of relaxation skills CLICK HERE.
This article has been written to provide students with some ways to handle the stress of college. Many of the ideas are particularly directed toward members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an effort has been made to integrate stress management techniques with scriptural references. The basic stress reduction techniques are, however, universally recognized and have direct application to students of different religious denominations. The article is not intended to include an extensive list of stress management procedures, but instead, some selected methods which students have found useful.
Stress is a common and natural condition of our mortal existence. It arises through our daily efforts to achieve goals, relate with others, and adjust to the demands of living in an ever changing world. It is a part of the "opposition in all things" referred to in the scriptures.(1) We often view stress as a negative element in our lives and seek to reduce or eliminate it. We forget that there can be a great deal of growth from learning how to deal with stressful situations. Dr. Hans Selye, an authority on stress, states, "Our aim shouldn't be to completely avoid stress, which at any rate would be impossible, but to learn how to recognize our typical response to stress and then try to modulate our lives in accordance with it."(2)
It is easy to become depressed when there is too much stress in our lives. Elder Boyd K. Packer explains a positive way to deal with such a condition in an address to LDS Church leaders:
We live in a day when the adversary stresses on every hand the philosophy of instant gratification. We seem to demand instant everything, including instant solutions to our problems. We are indoctrinated that somehow we should always be instantly emotionally comfortable. When that is not so, some become anxious--and all too frequently seek relief from counseling, from analysis, and even from medication. It was meant to be that life would be a challenge. To suffer some anxiety, some depression, some disappointment, even some failure is normal. Teach your members that if they have a good, miserable day once in a while, or several in a row, to stand steady and face them. Things will straighten out. There is a great purpose in our struggle in life.(3)
Elder Packer helps us see how accepting stress as a natural part of life can provide us strength in getting through tough times.
College is a particularly stressful time for most of us with the pressures of examinations, large amounts of reading, research papers, competition for grades, financial expenses, and social and career decisions. The remainder of this booklet contains suggestions on how students can effectively deal with stress rather than become discouraged and immobilized by it. These suggestions are supported by a major study conducted with university students which examined their most stressful challenges and how they dealt with them.(4)
Our Individual Stress Level
"See that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that man should run faster than he has strength...." Mosiah 4:27
Each of us functions best at a particular stress level. When stress increases beyond that level, the effectiveness of our performance begins to drop. When we pass our peak of effectiveness we usually experience symptoms like forgetfulness, dulled senses, poor concentration, headaches, digestive upsets, restlessness, irritability, and anxiety. The occurrence of these symptoms can alert us to take steps to reduce our stress so our effectiveness can remain at a high level.
Dr. Selye suggests that some people have a "race horse" life-style and seem to thrive on intense activity while others prefer a "turtle" life-style and function best when their activity level is not intense. Trying to adopt a "turtle" life-style when we really prefer a "race horse" life-style, or vice-a-versa, can be stressful. An example of this concept was illustrated when a medical doctor told a "race horse" patient, who had just been diagnosed as having high blood pressure, to go home and take it easy. He told her to slow down and do more things like reading and handiwork. She tried this program for two weeks and told the doctor she was going crazy. The change from the "race horse" to the "turtle" life-style actually increased, rather than decreased, her blood pressure. After talking with the doctor, she adopted a moderate "race horse" level and consequently reduced her blood pressure as well as her stressful feelings. We need to trust ourselves as the authority on what is best for us. We should avoid comparing ourselves with others who seem to function with a higher degree of stress in their lives than we do. For example, we should register for the number of credit hours we think we can effectively handle even though our friends may register for more hours. Also, we should get the number of hours of sleep we need even though our roommates may function on fewer hours.
"Men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves...." D&C 58:27,28
Setting goals is a good stress management procedure. Without goals, we are likely to spend time and energy in an aimless way. We are encouraged by the Lord to avoid being idle and to be diligent in doing good things.
Setting our own goals is important. It is wise to listen to the suggestions of others, but when we finalize our goals, we need to give first priority to what we think will be best for our growth and happiness. We create problems when we try to fulfill the dreams of others. For example, if we are encouraged by others to become a medical doctor and we do poorly in chemistry and math, we will likely be miserable trying to reach that educational goal. As difficult as it might be, we need to pursue a career course compatible with our interests, values and abilities even though it may not guarantee us a high degree of social prestige and financial security.
It is important to set short-term goals which are easily obtainable as well as long-range goals. Reaching short-range goals gives us a feeling of accomplishment and motivates us to work toward long-range goals. We can be more at peace with ourselves at the end of the day if we think about what we have accomplished rather than what we have not done.
Once we select a goal, it is helpful to pre-experience it in our mind. Visualizing the steps we will take to obtain the goal increases the probability of actually reaching it. Successful athletes pre-experience over and over in their minds how they are going to perform in a game so as to be at their peak effectiveness once the game begins.
One mistake made in seeking a goal is to focus so much on reaching the goal that we fail to enjoy the process of getting to it. We enjoy life more when we find satisfaction in our immediate efforts rather than thinking how nice it is going to be when we finally arrive at our distant goal. For example, we enjoy a trip more if we decide to take an interest in the landmarks along the way rather than just enduring the ride until we arrive at our destination. Similarly, we enjoy a class more if we explore the content beyond what is required rather than just do the bare minimum to pass the class.
Another mistake is to set unrealistic goals or have so many that it is impossible to reach them. We frequently do this at the beginning of the semester. We soon become discouraged when we realize we have neither the time nor the energy to accomplish all of our goals. Recognizing our physical, mental and emotional limits is an important component to realistic goal setting.
Scheduling and Preparation
"Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish even a house of prayer... a house of faith, a house of learning...a house of order, a house of God...." D&C 88:119
We usually feel stressed when we are unorganized or do not get done what we hoped to do in a certain period of time. Effective scheduling and planning can help ease such stress. There are many ways to schedule our time, but whatever method we use it is wise to keep the following points in mind. First, we need to be realistic and avoid over-scheduling ourselves. Most of us have a tendency to schedule too much for the time and energy we possess.
Second, we need to allow for unanticipated interruptions in our schedule. This means leaving some empty spaces during the day or in some way being flexible enough to handle interruptions. If the unexpected does not happen, time is available to do something we were saving until the next day.
Third, we should make our first appointment of each day with the Lord. Communicating with the Lord helps us remember that we are indebted to Him for our lives. The Lord preserves us from day to day and supports us from moment to moment.(5) Without that support, our daily schedule would mean nothing.
Fourth, we should schedule homework early in the day so it is less likely to be crowded out by unexpected events like meeting an old friend or having a roommate ask for help with one of his classes. Homework should be a part of each day's schedule. Students who participated in a major study on stress (results at the back of this pamphlet), reported doing homework as the most frequently used method for reducing stress in their lives.
Fifth, it is wise to study in an environment which is conducive to study. We should pick a place which has few distractions and where we do nothing else but study. This should not be a place where we talk with friends, eat food, write letters, take naps, etc. When we are through studying, we need to leave that environment. This procedure will help us study more effectively.
Sixth, it is good to plan breaks in our study time to reduce mental fatigue. Breaks need to be short so we do not become distracted and lose interest in returning to our studies.
Seventh, it is helpful to reinforce ourselves for work we have completed. For example, once we have finished a particular assignment, we could reinforce ourselves with something like a game of basketball, talking to a friend, a movie, a treat, or a phone call to a loved one. We need to be careful with this procedure, however, so that the completion of the task comes before the reinforcement rather than the reverse.
Eighth, our daily schedule should include at least some time for doing what we want to do rather than just a long list of "have-to-dos." Looking forward to something each day is good for our mental health and can help prevent the feeling of burn-out.
Ninth, after we have made our schedule for the day, we should take a moment to visualize ourselves carrying out the schedule. This is similar to examining a blueprint of our activities before actually doing them. It is also similar to the Lord creating our world spiritually before creating it temporally.(6) For example, visualizing ourselves going to the library after our ten o'clock class instead of wandering over to the bookstore and looking through magazines increases the likelihood that we will actually go to the library. When we pre-experience in our mind how we will spend our time, we will be less tempted to become interested in non-productive "side-show" attractions.
Some days may feel overwhelming when we look at our schedule. If this is the case, it is helpful to concentrate on one thing at a time and avoid looking at the whole day. We will be amazed how quickly the tasks of the day will be completed.
Use of Energy
"Cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated." D&C 88:124
Most of us have a high energy period during the day when we feel physically energetic and mentally alert. This period varies from early morning to late evening, depending on the individual. It is wise to do our most important and difficult tasks during our high energy time and leave less important tasks for low energy times. Since studying and attending class contribute more to success in school than anything else, it makes sense to schedule our study time and classes when our energy level is high so as to maximize our learning effectiveness.
It is easy to talk ourselves into believing that we will have more energy for our studies if we first take care of worrisome details like running errands, cleaning our apartment, grocery shopping, balancing our checkbook, or making phone calls. We think that if we can clear our mind of these details, we will be able to more fully concentrate on our studies. This belief is misleading. All of these details consume small units of energy which will not be available when we get around to studying those difficult chemistry and biology assignments. Also, we will have less motivation to do so. It is interesting to note that doing difficult tasks first is likely to energize us to do less difficult tasks afterward. Conversely, doing less difficult tasks first seldom energizes us to do more difficult tasks afterward. Thus, studying our hardest subjects before our easiest ones is likely to motivate us to do more studying overall.
Getting Closer to the Lord
"Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." D&C 88:63
Stress can occur when we are casual in our relationship with the Lord. It is easy to slip into the mode of only praying when we need something, only attending church meetings when our roommates attend, only reading the scriptures when we have a test in our religion class, or only helping our roommates when we absolutely have to. This pattern may not bother us much until we are called upon to perform a spiritual function like accepting a Church position or administering to the sick or praying for the Lord's help when a loved one experiences a tragedy. It is then that we clearly recognize the distance between ourselves and the Lord.
When our level of spirituality is high, we feel at peace with ourselves, others and God. We feel the Lord will support us and that things will somehow work together for our good.(7) When our level of spirituality is low, we are likely to feel lonely and anxious about the future. If we feel this way, we can always increase our closeness to the Lord by repenting of our sins, praying for companionship of the Spirit, reading the scriptures, and performing acts of service for others. Feeling close to the Lord helps us encounter any stressful situation in life.
"That we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." I Timothy 2:2
Sleep and relaxation are valuable in preserving our physical and emotional health. When we are tired, it is more difficult to deal with stressful challenges than when we are rested.
Our bodies function best when we get adequate sleep. Most sleep experts suggest getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night but they recognize that the need for sleep varies for each individual. The Lord gives us some wise counsel about sleep. He encourages us to go to bed early and to arise early so our bodies and minds can be invigorated.(8)
Relaxation is most effective if it is incorporated into our daily life. One way to accomplish this is to let go of some tension in our muscles as we go about our daily tasks. We hold a lot of unnecessary tension in the body when we perform most functions, and those functions can be done just as effectively with less muscular tension. For example, we can let go of tension in our shoulders and arms as we walk to class, in our legs and back as we vacuum the carpet, in our jaw and neck as we take a test, and in our arms and hands as we drive our car.
Other ways of relaxing include doing something like knitting or drawing, taking a warm bath or shower, listening to music or playing a musical instrument, stretching or walking, reading or meditating, and using relaxation exercises like the three included at the end of this booklet.
"O be wise; what can I say more?" Jacob 6:12
The thoughts we give ourselves have a direct effect on our feelings. Our feelings are usually a result of how we perceive ourselves, others, and the events in our lives. For example, our anger at a messy roommate most likely comes from such thoughts as, "She is lazy. She ought to have more consideration for me. She deliberately lives like this to get me mad". Realistically speaking, it is not the roommate who makes us angry; instead, it is what we choose to tell ourselves about her behavior. We always have the choice of thinking thoughts that do not produce anger, such as, "She and I are different. Maybe she was never taught to keep things clean and organized. Hopefully, my example will help. Perhaps this is a good time for me to learn more patience. She does have a fun sense of humor even though she is messy." Calm feelings will begin to replace angry feelings when we use such statements. Remember, in most cases, it is our thoughts about the event which cause our stressful feelings - not the event itself.
Sound thinking involves checking out the intent of a person's behavior rather than making a hasty assumption about it. When someone says or does something which upsets us, it is best to ask him what he meant by his comments or actions. This helps us avoid making incorrect assumptions about the person, taking things personally, and saying or doing something we would later regret.
Sound thinking involves accepting our past decisions and using the outcomes from those decisions to make better decisions in the future. It is always easy to look back and see what we might have done without realizing we probably did the best we could at that time. Brooding over past decisions wastes time, gets us upset, restricts us from enjoying the present, and hinders us in planning for the future. When we think of the past and future, it is more beneficial to learn from the past and plan for the future than it is to feel guilty about the past and worry about the future. It is more constructive to think about past mistakes in terms of "next time" instead of "if only." We accomplish nothing when we worry. In fact, we usually make things worse. Sometimes we believe the more we worry, the more we care. This is an erroneous idea. Genuine caring involves doing what we can about the situation rather than worrying about it.
"Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger...be put away from you...." Ephesians 4:31
When our stressful feelings include anger, it is best to resolve them as soon as possible. Holding in anger and hostility puts a great stress on the body which may be converted into physical symptoms like headaches and gastrointestinal problems. Anger turned inward can lead to depression. Anger not only damages us physically but erodes our spirituality by letting the evil forces in the world influence us.(9)
There are a number of ways we can deal with anger. One way is to go directly to the person we are angry with and try to settle our differences before getting other people involved.(10) Another way is to give in occasionally rather than always having to be right. The use of the phrase "perhaps you are right" will help us do this. Along with giving in occasionally, we can resist correcting someone who has an incorrect understanding about something. We can do this by asking ourselves, "Does it really matter in the long run?" and "Will it do more damage than good for me to show him he is wrong?" Another way do deal with anger is to laugh at ourselves and smile more. It is difficult to remain angry when we smile, even if it is a forced smile. Hard physical work and prayer are additional ways to reduce anger. Brigham Young's advice is to pray when we are angry until we feel like praying.(11)
Other ways to reduce anger are to thank others for small things as opening a door, serving us at a cash register, or picking up an extra handout from a class we missed. We can thank the Lord for blessings of health, movement, the air we breathe, the ability to think and learn, and freedom. We can write letters of appreciation to people who have added to our life in some way. A genuine "thank you" melts away anger. Forgiveness also reduces anger. Doing something for a person we are angry with and praying for him is a powerful way to combat anger.(12)
Increasing Our Love
"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." John 13:34
Much has been written about love and the benefits it can bring into our lives. Love is associated with many of our emotions. When we give love to others, we are likely to feel peaceful, happy, and secure. Conversely, when we withhold our love from others, we miss the benefit of such positive feelings.
Loving others is difficult when they have hurt us. We must remember, however, that our ability to love others is not dependent upon them. As unloving as they may be, we still have the power within us to love them regardless of their obnoxious, mean, or vulgar behavior. It helps if we can direct this power toward focusing on their positive aspects, their eternal worth, and their potential for change rather than concentrating on their offensive and undesirable behaviors.
One of the first things we can do to increase love within us is to decide to love others. A dramatic example of this is illustrated in a true story from World War II, when a Polish individual by the nickname of Wild Bill Cody decided to love others even though the German army had just shot his wife and five children. He stated:
I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people's minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life - whether it was a few days or many years - loving every person I came in contact with.(13)
The decision to love instead of hate gives us an inner calmness and peace of mind with which to face this world of turmoil.
Another step we can take is to try to understand the background of others. It is common for someone to act in an unloving way as a protection against hurt and rejection. For example, a roommate may use criticism and sarcasm to protect herself from being the target of verbal abuse like she experienced when she was growing up in her family. Our love for her will develop as we begin to better understand her needs and her past family environment.
We can also increase love by doing things for others without any expectations for reciprocation. Voluntary acts of kindness and service without a desire for recognition or repayment usually increases love in both the giver and the receiver. Examples of such acts could be: complimenting someone for a talk she gave, helping a roommate type his term paper, leaving an anonymous note of admiration and encouragement, running an errand for a friend, listening to a friend's troubles, and doing the dishes for a roommate.
One of the quickest ways to increase our love is to become involved with people who are handicapped or disadvantaged. Associating with and serving those who are less fortunate than ourselves usually increases our compassion and appreciation for them. It also helps us put our own problems in perspective.
Loving others is much easier if we love ourselves. For some reason, it seems easier for us to focus on our failures and the successes of others. When we belittle our ideas, looks, and abilities, we diminish our capacity to extend love to others. Accepting our limitations in a positive and realistic way, while keeping in mind our eternal potential, helps us maintain good feelings about ourselves and makes it easier to love others.
Exercise and Recreation
"They were exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity...." Alma 53:20
Exercise is a valuable way to reduce unwanted stress and tension in our bodies. It helps us feel better emotionally, as well as physically, and consequently helps us to better deal with frustrations and disappointments. College students are usually at their peak of health and sometimes see little need to exercise, but it should be remembered that the body is the only machine which wears out when it is not used.
Choosing an appropriate exercise activity can be difficult, particularly if we have not engaged in one since our high school gym class. To start with, we should pick one which does not markedly disrupt our daily routine such as a brisk walk each day which only takes a few minutes and can be done most any time and place. We should try to establish an exercise program which is enjoyable and fits our interests and time schedule. Varying our exercise is important so we can maintain interest in it. Boredom sets in when we walk or jog around the same block every day. Exercising with someone else is helpful since it sustains a commitment to exercising on a regular basis. Regular exercise (at least three times a week) is necessary for beneficial effects to occur within the body. It is best to start with a small amount of exercise and gradually build upon it until reaching a desirable level.
Recreational activities other than exercise are also good stress-reducing avenues. Hobbies, crafts, attending movies and plays, sports, hiking and reading all provide a stimulating variety in our lives and help us keep our stressful challenges in perspective.
"Every herb in the season thereof, and every fruit in the season thereof....flesh...of beasts and of the fowls...used sparingly...all grain... shall receive health...and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint." D&C 89:11, 12, 16, 20
Much could be said about eating good food on a regular basis but most of us already know that we feel better physically and emotionally if we eat foods containing complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, grains), lean meats and low-fat dairy products, and avoid foods high in sugar, refined flour and saturated fat. When we eat better, we feel better. When we feel better, we are happier. When we are happier, we handle pressure and responsibility better. In short, eating better leads to handling stress better. Good eating habits, which include eating a wholesome breakfast each day, help us better control our emotions and be less susceptible to anxiety and depression when the events in our life do not go as planned.
The Lord has given us the Word of Wisdom as a guide in taking care of our physical bodies.(14) It is interesting that more and more health authorities around the country are emphasizing the adverse effects of alcohol, tobacco, tea and coffee on the body systems. Each of these substances should be avoided to help maintain maximum body efficiency in dealing with stress.
Doing Something Permanent
"Do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy...feast upon that which perisheth not, neither can be corrupted...." 2 Nephi 9:51
Stress can come from feeling that we are not moving ahead in life. This is particularly true when we seem to do the same tasks day in and day out. We frequently feel exhausted at the end of the day but seriously question whether we have accomplished anything of significance. We recognize that the process of daily living requires a number of short-lasting, have-to-do tasks like preparing meals, doing dishes, cleaning, washing clothes, and running errands, but if our day is consumed with such tasks, a stress reaction is likely to develop. We begin to feel bored. We feel like we are spinning our wheels since we have to turn right around and repeat the same tasks the next day.
One way to counteract this stress reaction is to schedule an activity each day which has some lasting value. A few examples include: (1) writing meaningful ideas in our diary; (2) reading something new and sharing it; (3) providing a service for someone which we would not normally do; (4) writing letters of encouragement to relatives or friends facing difficult circumstances; (5) spending time teaching a skill to a child; and (6) making something like an article of clothing or a bookshelf which can be used and enjoyed. Such activities can give us a feeling of doing something significant which will last beyond the routine tasks of the day.
"That which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God." Moroni 7:13
Relationships with others can bring a great sense of joy and happiness but can also be a source of great stress and unhappiness. Even though we cannot totally control the nature nor outcome of a relationship, there are some steps we can take to help foster a happy, fulfilling friendship with another person.
First, we can look for someone with whom we have similarities such as classes in school, music, sports, books, exercise and movies. This makes initial conversation easier and gives a foundation on which to build the relationship. Second, we should look for someone we can respect and esteem.(15) We should be skeptical of someone who tries to persuade us to do things like skip class, give up study time for a movie, cheat on a test, or lower our standard of appropriate physical affection. We should avoid those who try to use, control, manipulate or play mind-games with us. Third, we should look for those people who help us feel good about ourselves and spiritually uplifted. Fourth, we should have in mind what we would like in the relationship, including what physical and emotional boundaries we feel comfortable with, so we will not be drawn into a relationship we later resent. All interpersonal relationships become structured with time whether or not we make a conscious effort to structure them. Once certain patterns have been established, it becomes increasingly difficult to change them. It is wise to decide at the beginning of a relationship what kind of interaction would be in our best personal, academic and spiritual interest.
"The hope of the righteous shall be gladness...." Proverbs 10:28
We almost automatically create daily expectations for ourselves, others, and the events in our lives. Common examples include: (1) expecting an "A" grade in our biology class; (2) expecting to get all the items on our list done before the day is over; (3) expecting the bus to arrive on time; (4) expecting birthday money from mom and dad; (5) expecting our boss to recognize our extra work; and (6) expecting our spouse to know how we are feeling without our saying anything. When things do not happen the way we expect, it is easy to become disappointed and upset.
One way to deal with the stress which comes from unmet expectations is to replace expectations with hopes. For example, if we say, "I hope I get a scholarship for next year, but I am not going to expect it to happen," we will be less disappointed if we do not get it. Another example is to say, "I sure hope he calls tonight, but I am not going to expect him to." By thinking this way, the evening is not ruined if he does not call. Identifying and changing our expectations to hopes is an excellent way to control stress.
Reinterpretation of the Stress
"Thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow...thou knowest the greatness of God: and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain." 2 Nephi 2:1,2
How we view or perceive the events in our lives determines the degree of stress we attach to them. We commonly take a negative view of a winter snow storm, an opinionated roommate, losing a game, getting a low grade, being refused membership in a club, and receiving a speeding ticket. Such negative views create stressful feelings. We can reduce those feelings by perceiving the events in a different way. For example, we can reinterpret a stressful situation as:
- A growth promoting event which will give us valuable experience and understanding for the future,
- A challenge where we will have a chance to test our ability and increase our competence,
- A natural or normal part of mortal life which we need to accept and endure,
- A humorous event which we will be able to laugh at in the future.
The Lord seemed to be helping Joseph Smith reinterpret the stressful events in his life when he told Joseph his trials "...shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good."(16)
We always have the choice of how we are going to view or interpret a situation. A student who fails a class can view himself as stupid and not fit for college or perceive himself as needing more background in the subject before repeating the class. A blind person can view his physical disability as an affliction he resents or perceive it as something which enables him to appreciate people on a deeper level since he cannot see them. A person who receives a speeding ticket can view the event as unfair since other drivers were going faster than him or perceive the event as an opportunity to assume responsibility for his behavior without comparing himself with others. A student can view living with her strong-willed and outspoken roommate as intolerable or perceive the situation as an experience which will prepare her for dealing with idiosyncracies her future husband might possess. A parent can view his two-year old child's constant wiggling in church as behavior which needs to be disciplined or perceive it as natural behavior for a child that age and patiently try to cope with it until the child grows older. Any sacrifice can be interpreted as a hardship or as a chance for us to build character and spirituality.
How we interpret a situation often depends on the types of questions we ask ourself about the situation. It is easy to ask questions like, "Why me?" and "What did I do to deserve this?" and end up feeling confused and angry. Asking different questions like, "Is there any way this terrible situation could be a blessing?" or "What are other ways I could view this situation?" are more likely to help us see the situation in a less stressful light. Elder Richard G. Scott talked about the impact of our questions when we face adversity:
When you face adversity, you can be led to ask many questions. Some serve a useful purpose; others do not. To ask, Why does this have to happen to me? Why do I have to suffer this, now? What have I done to cause this? will lead you into blind alleys. It really does no good to ask questions that reflect opposition to the will of God. Rather ask, What am I to do? What am I to learn from this experience? What am I to change? Whom am I to help? How can I remember my many blessings in times of trial? Willing sacrifice of deeply held personal desires in favor of the will of God is very hard to do. Yet, when you pray with real conviction, "Please let me know Thy will" and "May Thy will be done," you are in the strongest position to receive the maximum help from your loving Father.(17)
The way we perceive a stressful situation has a powerful effect on our feelings and ultimately our behavior. When we interpret our stress as useful, beneficial, growth-promoting, enriching, refining or enlightening, we increase our capacity to control the stress instead of letting it control us.
There is nothing that will magically relieve our stress. Effective stress management involves selecting a variety of ways to deal with stress and implementing them over a period of time. A particular stress management technique may be effective on one occasion, but not another, so we need to be ready to implement new ones at any given time. The use of stress management procedures can help us grow from the stress in our lives rather than being immobilized by it.
- Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2:11.
- Selye, Hans (March, 1978). On the real benefits of eustress. Interview by Laurence Cherry, Psychology Today, p. 60.
- Packer, Boyd (May, 1978). Solving emotional problems in the Lord.s own way. Ensign, p. 93.
- Maughan, Michael L.; Hawkins, Clyde; and Barton, Paul (1997). Stress Among On- Campus Housing Residents and RA.s. Unpublished Report, Brigham Young University.
- Book of Mormon, Mosiah 2:21.
- Pearl of Great Price, Moses 3:5
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 90:24
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 88:124.
- Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 11:29.
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 42:88.
- Widtsoe, John A. (1961). Discourses of Brigham Young. Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, p. 44.
- Holy Bible, Matthew 5:44.
- Ritchie, George G. (1978). Return From Tomorrow. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, p. 116.
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 89.
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 38:24, 25.
- Doctrine and Covenants, Section 122:7.
- Scott, Richard (November, 1995). Trust in the Lord. Ensign, p.16.
RESERVE LIBRARY, HBLL 48 HOUR RESERVESTRESS MANAGEMENT AND RELAXATION
|Don't Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and it's all small stuff (Carlson)||BF 637 .B4 C35 1997|
|How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably less Disturbable (Ellis)||BF 575 A5 E444 1999|
|Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (Davis)||RA 785 .D374|