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So you want to go to college. You're a high-school junior or a senior. And if one more person tells you these are the best years of your life, you'll scream! You have to raise your average, pick a college, select a major, apply, get in, get a job, clean your room, juggle school work, a social life and school activities. And this is easy? What you really have is STRESS. You call it anxiety, frustration, tension, nerves. But what is stress really? And, more importantly, what can you do about it?

The word "stress" is a misnomer. While people usually think of stress as something to avoid, stress can be positive or negative. In biology, stress is defined as the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it. Stress is a reaction to any stimuli. It is caused by any kind of demand to which a person must adapt or respond: physical injury, infection, cold or heat, noise or psychological pressures. Positive stress or "eurestress" is healthy stress. It is what makes you fully alive and keeps you going. It gets you out of bed and ready for the day. Even at rest it is necessary because it keeps your heart and lungs going. The absence of stress is death.

Stress is not the result of working too hard. It is not the work that wears you out - it's the frustration that goes with it. Think of a difficult task at which you succeeded: winning a game, learning something new, studying for a test and passing it. You worked hard but felt great. On the other hand, consider the times you waited in a doctor's office for hours or sat through a particularly boring day in school. You did no work but were exhausted.

When people say they are under stress, what they really mean is that they are under excessive stress or "distress." Distress is damaging or unpleasant stress. It is the result of prolonged or unvaried stress. The key issue in every stressful situation is control. When something changes in your environment and you lose control or feel you are losing control, you experience stress. If you experience a loss of control in many areas at once, for example, if you have problems at home, at work, in school, and with friends, you experience distress. Or, if you experience one problem over a long period of time, like a prolonged illness or an ongoing family problem like alcoholism, you experience distress, too. What eventually happens is that your body breaks down in some way. You get a headache or a stomachache; you can't sleep or eat; you get edgy or cry - and often you don't know why. You don't connect your physical symptoms with the pressures from school or home. If you ignore these minor signals for a long time, you can get very ill. In fact, stress has been linked to such physical ailments as ulcers, skin rashes, high blood pressure, asthma, even cancer.

You can however, do something about negative stress. You can manage stress by modifying your behavior so that you regain some level of control in your life. Following are some helpful suggestions.

  • Listen to your body. Become aware of those specific parts of your body that signal stress - pursed eyebrow, tightened jaw, clenched hands - and then concentrate on relaxing those parts.

  • Spend time with positive people. Surround yourself as often as possible with people who accept you for yourself and with whom you can relax in healthy ways.

  • Set priorities and realistic goals. You can't do it all, and you can't do it all in one day. Make a priority list for the day or the week and keep it realistically short. Complete the most important task first.

  • Communicate your feelings. Express your feelings using "I" messages (not "You made me..."). Don't bottle up your feelings. They are only going to come out as misplaced anger or a headache.

  • Change your routine or activity. If you did something physically strenuous all day, do something restful like reading, watching T.V. or listening to music. If you have worked at a desk all day, take a brisk walk, exercise, get moving. If you have been in, go out. If you've been out, stay home. Stress on one system relieves stress on another. It's balance.

  • Replenish. Involve yourself in activities that are nourishing to your mind and body: exercise, work at a hobby, laugh, cry, take a nap, meditate or pray, take a walk. Eat properly. Get adequate rest.

  • Don't be afraid to seek help. If you are feeling overwhelmed and your usual ways of getting through bad times don't seem to be working, then by all means seek out the help of a trusted family member or professional. There are times for each of us when it is necessary to ask for help. Do it!

  • Some don'ts. Avoid drugs or alcohol. Chemicals do not solve problems. Once the drug wears off, the problem remains, only you have the effects of the drug to contend with also. Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Stay away from excessive sugar and salt, too.

Finally, remember you live in a stressful world. This won't change, but you can. Practice some of the techniques listed above. Then you can make stress work for you. As a result, your college preparation time can be less stressful and more fun.

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