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College Stress Got You Down?

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

So, your student is feeling overwhelmed and stressed out? I’ve got an app for that, meaning I have an approach for that!

The college experience has changed drastically in the last two years. It was once a place where students got to separate from caregivers for the first time in their lives, learn how to live on their own and build their identity, intelligence, and social life as a young adult in the world. Though colleges and universities still tout these benefits, the realities of the pandemic have greatly impacted this process. Colleges know that the first three weeks of school are critical times when students connect with the school and build a support network that helps them adjust to college life. Virtual learning, social distancing and constant mask wearing has greatly impacted students’ abilities to really connect with and feel a part of the college campus. Even though everyone is in the same boat, they are all experiencing it from six feet apart. And it does not look as if they are going to change any time soon. It is a sobering reality that most college students are beginning to realize.

It has created a huge stress crisis in our country and many students are feeling the impact from minor annoyance and agitation to crushing mental health symptoms. Students need support and ways to learn how to manage this new landscape with confidence and calm.

So how does one learn to manage the anxiety and stress that comes along with this new way of operating on a college campus? One way is through mindful practice. Simply put, mindfulness is the practice of being where your feet are. It is the skill of focusing intentionally on the present moment and accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness practice encourages inward contemplation to help you refocus your attention away from usual preoccupations and focus on experiencing the here and now. Why does it work? Let’s take a look at the brain…

When people are being mindful, they are using the prefrontal cortex region of their brain. This area relates to the abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts and determine good and bad, better and best, and future consequences of current activities. It also harnesses the functions of working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes). Mindfulness helps you to become fully engaged in activities and to develop attitudes that support enjoying life more skillfully. When practiced regularly, it helps individuals avoid getting caught up in worries about the future or regrets about the past.

Mindfulness is also linked to health benefits such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure. And in the recent past, more clinical therapists are using mindfulness as an adjunctive treatment to decrease the symptoms of mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and eating disorders. The premise is that if mindfulness can help you accept the present moment (and not avoid the issue), you can gain perspective and insight that can help reduce self-defeating behaviors and negative cognitions, recover from painful emotions, and not judge yourself in the process.

Often, people try to control “uncontrollables” which is like trying to tamp out lava from a continuously erupting volcano. It takes a ton of energy, and there is always going to be more lava. They sometimes also lack the skills necessary to be able to self-regulate. When someone is activated, triggered, or anxious, it is very hard to teach them or have them learn a new skill. It’s like trying to teach someone how to swim in a title wave without a lifejacket. Think of mindfulness as the life jacket that gets you through the hard times. Think of it also as learning to swim in calm waters (practicing every day even when things are going fine) so that when rough waves come, you know how to navigate difficult waters.

Training the brain to do that automatically is the challenge. We have been taught as a society to overreact, to overthink, and to look for quick fixes. None of that is mindful. Mindfulness requires activating the prefrontal cortex, but that part of the brain actually goes offline when we are stressed and anxious. Another, much smaller part of the brain, about the size of your thumbnail, located in the midbrain gets activated when we are stressed. This is the amygdala, and it causes rumination, rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, and a whole host of other emotional and physical reactions. When that part of the brain is over-activated, we many times feel out of control. Mindfulness is the tool that allows us to calm that part of the brain down.

It is when we use mindfulness, that we put our life jacket on, and we feel calmer and can navigate rough waters more effectively. Learning to deactivate the amygdala is the trick! But it can be done! It’s not magic, and it’s not a quick fix. It is daily practice and something that we can all use on a regular basis to help us stay present.

So how does this all relate to dealing with Covid stress and going to college? There are a lot of things we cannot control in this world. Covid is one of them. We cannot tamp down the people around us who are not wearing masks, we don’t know exactly where the virus is, or whether we will, or will not get it. The only thing we have control over is our own behavior and our own reactions. We can take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. We can wear masks, we can social distance, we can wash our hands, we can get vaccinated if that is what we choose to do. Otherwise, it is out of our control and the only thing that worry does is ruin the present moment.

And once we start worrying, we start telling ourselves lots of stories, we have a narrative inside of our head, most of which isn’t accurate and feeds off the emotional state that we are in, which results in more feelings of anxiety and panic. However, if we are using logical thought, and being reflective, we can come up with solutions and we can think more rationally. So, mindfulness is being in the present moment, without judgment, and being aware of the storytelling and the overthinking and the over analyzing in a situation that has nothing to do with reality, and saying to yourself in those moments “that is an unhelpful thought.” “What can I do right now instead of worrying that will help me feel productive?”

Here are the 4 steps I use every day to practice mindfulness and stay in the present moment.

1) Pause and become aware of your irrational thoughts and notice where you feel it in your body. You cannot have an emotion without having a body sensation. So take a couple seconds and notice where you feel that emotion in your body and what your thought process is in that moment as well.

2) Breathe deeply, at least a few times, if not more until you feel settled in a bit. This will help you center into your body and notice your reactions even more fully. Do not try to think and figure things out if you are still activated, that only keeps the amygdala functioning in a stressed manner and produces irrational, unproductive thoughts. Do not move to the next phase until you are settled in and more relaxed – that is when you know the prefrontal cortex has been turned on and they amygdala is going offline.

3) Next, reflect on your thoughts and whether they are true or useful. If they are not true, you can let them go. If they are true, but not something you can control, then you can still practice mindfulness by not judging the situation or adding fuel to the fire to make it worse. Be reasonable about it. Also be aware of how you may have contributed to the situation that could have made it worse in the first place.

4) Finally, choose how you want to respond and how you want to behave that feels more skillful and effective. Decide what will make you feel the most successful, or even compassionate in these difficult times, not only towards others, but towards yourself.

These are the four steps of mindfulness that help to calm a triggered and anxious mind. This is what I used when my husband was diagnosed with stage four cancer and my dad was dying from heart failure at the same time. I also had two small children who I needed to take care of, and a full-time job working as a clinician helping students with suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety.

This is what I used every single day to help me stay focused, grounded, and not get wrapped up in my thoughts. It helped me to stay clear on what was important, and what I needed to focus on, and it gave me perspective about how I can be effective and skillful in the moment. It allowed me to activate a part of the brain that calmed me down automatically and turn off the part of the brain that was trying to “freak me out.” Knowing that I have control over that is a great feeling.

I developed this practice out of necessity.

I continue this practice because it changed my life.

I teach this practice because I want everyone to know and learn the benefits of mindfulness.

So, if you’re off to college, I challenge you to Pause, Breathe, Appraise and Choose the next time you get stressed. If you practice every day, I promise you will notice a difference, you will feel calmer and you will begin to reduce your anxiety and stress.

If you want to learn more about how to practice daily mindfulness to reduce your stress and live a more satisfied life, buy my workbook: Ripple Affect: Change Your Mind. Change Your Life. Buy now at

About Denise Zack:

Denise is a Certified Life Coach, Meditation Instructor, and Registered 200-hour Yoga Teacher, who worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor for Southern Connecticut State University for 20 years, where she was a clinical therapist. She’s also done private, wellness-based consulting, meditation, mindfulness and yoga for individuals and businesses alike.

Throughout her career, Denise found that everyday stress and anxiety was the number one problem experienced amongst her clients. Fishing these individuals out of what Denise calls the “stress river” became a regular occurrence. For students and staff, young and old, these everyday stressors wreak havoc and create overload and emotional unrest. She decided to swim upstream to better understand why so many were falling in. She found repetitive, daily thought patterns that left them blocked, helpless and drowning in their relationships and careers. Their ability to make good decisions was impaired and their reactions were impulsive. ​

Through years of neuroscience and brain research reviews, Denise realized that negative brain patterns caused individuals to replay unhealthy thought triggers and habits over and over – leaving them swimming in circles in the same old “stress river” day after daunting day. This led her to develop a specialized method of Mindful Life Coaching. Her therapeutic approach helps her clients to identify their damaging patterns and then positively alter them to improve emotional balance and decrease stress. Denise has worked with thousands of clients to develop her proven coaching model. She finds it incredibly rewarding to examine where they are, determine where they want to be, and then take the mindful steps to get them there.


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