Recovery Concepts: Coping with end of term stress

Late April, and that end of term stress might just be starting to kick in. Whether it's dissertation time, or the end of another year of study, it's a time when sleep, routine and emotion can get the best of anyone. Here are some useful recovery-based tips to help you through the next few weeks.

Coping with end of term pressures

Approaching the end of April, for many students it’s that crunch time when projects are finalised, dissertations are compiled, and looming submission dates appear ever closer on the calendar.

Coping with all the stress that comes with that is a challenge for almost anyone - in recovery or otherwise. Yes, there are those curious folk who seem to simply breeze through even the most hectic of study periods, but stress affects us all on some level.

The science bit

As much as it’s uncomfortable, unsettling, and often feels uncontrollable, stress is a completely natural reaction. It can be environmentally influenced, nutrition can stimulate it, our posture can create it, and it is also intrinsically linked to our emotional state.

And so, when we find ourselves in an emotional state, three chemicals can be released into the body. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and the most prominent - cortisol.

While not always directly related to stress, cortisol remains synonymous with it nonetheless. For instance, having one or several night’s terrible sleep (laying awake thinking about all that fabulous dissertation writing you’re going to do, as an example) can naturally increase cortisol levels in the body.

And the result is a similar experience to that of a ‘fight or flight’ response. Feelings of exhaustion, depression and anxiety can be prolonged, even leading to changes in the way the brain functions (which isn’t great for ploughing through a several-thousand word essay).

Chemicals creating chemicals

For someone struggling with alcohol or substance use, the above negative feelings of ‘meh’ , ‘argh’ and ‘WHYYYYY?’ will be unfortunately familiar. During periods of high stress, anything harmful to the body simply becomes something else it has to fight off - often by releasing more cortisol.

However, quite naturally, there will also be moments of elation and relaxation in between (otherwise why would anyone ever drink, smoke or otherwise ingest anything remotely narcotic?). High amounts of sugar, too, can increase cortisol in the blood, albeit with a similar, temporary feeling of respite or elation.

Oddly enough, small amounts of sugar can actually decrease cortisol. (Although the likelihood we’re only going to consume a few pieces of chocolate when experiencing high stress is debatable). 

A spoonful of recovery

It’s easy to suggest, then, that a cleaner way of living will create a distinctly less cortisol-controlled environment. However, everyone is different, not everyone necessarily needs complete abstinence to live, and individual circumstances and experience will always define how someone reacts to certain situations.

But, there are many elements of recovery that can be profoundly positive for someone suffering from stress. Not adding intoxicated flames to a stress-ridden fire is certainly first and foremost - but many other recovery qualities can be beneficial too.

For instance, rather than mask the sense of emotional stress with a drink or substance, talking about how we feel can helps us to understand it. Yes, that whole problem shared = problem halved trick. During which time the feeling we felt the need to escape from may have somewhat dissipated, rather than been exacerbated.

Many people in recovery discover that exercise is no longer impossible - but actually enjoyable. And this, in fact, can create a healthy level of cortisol within the body, and one that remains lower over time (with regular exercise, of course).

Another popular practice, admittedly one that isn’t for everyone, is meditation. That sense of sitting with one’s thoughts, feelings and emotions, and allowing them to be, even for just a short period of time.

And finally, there’s the vision of routine (something many people in early recovery may have lost sight of, over time). But again, the same principles apply. When life feels impossibly chaotic, try to break it down into realistic chunks. What could be achieved in the next hour, or before your next commitment? What elements of your life need to be packaged up into a plan? And what may you need help with?

These are all questions that can be answered easily, making a daunting day quickly become far less terrifying, and stressful.

Practice makes…

Perfect? Probably not. But becoming more efficient at something, including managing stress, can only be achieved by repetition, patience, and accepting that perfection is nothing more than a word. In reality, all we can ever do is our very best with the time we have.

And so, regardless of your relationship with alcohol or other substances, you can see that there’s an element of recovery in how we manage any challenging situations. A series of simple changes in how we live can create dramatic, eventually life-changing results. Leaving those moments of despair (Meh, Argh, WHYYYY) as nothing more than experiences we had, which resulted in who we became.

After all, we don’t take on new challenges, such as university, without wanting to create a lasting impact on our future. And the concept of getting into recovery can be just the same. It’s simultaneously daunting and exciting. It can seem far too big and impassable. And yet there are examples of what it can create everywhere, and it’s always within our reach if we believe in, and work for it.

Wishing you nothing but the best for the next few weeks, and we’re here if you ever need to talk about recovery - wherever you are in your own journey.