Modifying stress levels

How we habitually deal with stress plays an important role in our vulnerability to depression. Learning how to modify our stress levels is a vital part of protecting ourselves from depression.

Managing stress better

Stress itself cannot be avoided, and our basic stress response has evolved as part of the way in which we protect ourselves. Managing stress better means understanding how to use the stress response effectively to deal with problems constructively.

Planning and practical action

The most important first step for managing stress levels is to focus on what you can practically do to keep stress under control. Basic planning and time management can make an enormous difference to stress levels. There is lots of detailed advice provided by universities and colleges, and student organisations, for planning your student life effectively. Try these tips as a starting point:

  • Get a good quality planner or diary with enough space to record all your commitments
  • Use the planner to record all your study commitments and deadlines
  • Take some time to plan out your week so that you assign realistic blocks of time to study, leisure, work, exercise etc. This is especially important if your course involves a lot of independent study and not many organised contact hours.
  • Make a start on your assignments in plenty of time. Starting is the hardest part, so plan to just make a very small step as your starting point (getting a book out of the library, for example).
  • Or if the writing part is what you find hard to start then jot down some random thoughts and sentences straight away without thinking too hard about it – once you have something down on the page it is easier to shape a plan for going forward from there.

See the ‘Study’ page for more ideas and on planning study commitments.

Problem solving

Of course not all stresses can be ‘planned away’, and there will be problems and difficulties that cause you stress and anxiety. If you notice that you are feeling stressed or anxious the first things to do is establish whether you are worrying about a real, current problem that you have an element of control over. For example, that you have some unpaid bills and not enough money, or that your essay is due at the end of the week and you haven’t started yet. Use the following problem-solving process to tackle problems like this:

  1. Identify the problem clearly and specifically
  2. Make a list of all the possible solutions, including those you don’t like
  3. Only once you have a full list of possible options start eliminating the ones that are unreasonable or less desirable
  4. Put the remaining ideas in order of preference and evaluate the top 3 or 4 for their advantages and disadvantages
  5. Decide on a plan and implement it
  6. Evaluate whether it has helped and return to previous steps if more needs to be done

Change attitude towards control

However, there are many things which we cannot control. Stress, anxiety and anger spirals take place when our normal stress response goes into overdrive. Sometimes this happens because we have unrealistic expectations about the level of control that we are able to exert in our lives.

Having a constructive approach to control in life is like riding a bicycle… If you don’t try to steer and never use the brakes you give yourself a pretty dangerous ride. But if you brake too hard (ie. want to impose too much control) you’ll probably get thrown over the handlebars! If you let yourself balance without thinking about it too hard, and use the brakes and gears appropriately, the bike becomes an extension of your body and riding it can feel almost effortless.

Try to practise ‘going with the flow’ of life in the same way, putting effort in when needed, freewheeling when there’s a downhill stretch and ‘putting the brakes on’ gently and in good time without panicking… See more about how to address ‘control freakery’ and other control-focused thinking habits in ‘Managing anxiety & anger’.

Next: Managing anxiety & anger

Take Action

Problem solving plan


Depression vulnerability & triggers
Increasing exercise