Stress. That tiny little voice in our head that says: ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ Waking up early, following classes, studying after school and keeping in touch with family and friends can be overwhelming if we don’t take the time to stop and take a deep breath.

Studying in a new country can be challenging sometimes. As an international student you don’t always know what to do, where to go and how to manage your feelings. But Wellness Wednesday is here to help. Do you need a boost of energy, some quick tips on how to get your life together or are you in need of some good advice? Every Wednesday there will be a series of lifestyle articles posted on 21bis. Mindfulness, relaxation, food and exercise: we have it all. With our ideal tips and tricks, you will come a long way. Make sure to visit this website and follow us on our Instagram page: ‘weare21bis’ to stay up-to-date. Get ready to brighten up your day! And now onto the article: how to manage your stress levels.

Understanding your mind and body
Stress, in everyday terms, is a feeling that people have when they are overloaded and struggling to cope with demands. Although it may seem like there is nothing you can do about it, you do have a lot more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realisation that you are in control of your life is the number one foundation of managing your stress levels. But in order to take action it is important to understand what your mind and body goes through.

Caroline Baerten is the founder of Menu (Centre for Mindful eating & Nutrition) in Brussels. She is a recognised nutritionist, dietitian and mindfulness trainer who helps people reduce stress. She is specialised in training people with a disrupted eating pattern and works as a psychotherapist and trauma counsellor.

‘Stress can develop through different ways’, says Baerten. ‘On the one hand we have the context. For example being in a stressful work environment or stress that occurs after losing a loved one. On the other hand every person has a different way of handling stress and resilience.’ We call this the stress bucket. Some people have a high tolerance of stress and are able to not let their stress bucket overflow. While others might have a small bucket of low stress tolerance which means that the bucket overflows when being in a stressful situation. Having a low stress tolerance can be genetic or caused by a difficult childhood or family, while others have learned to deal with stress by their surroundings.

Your brain on stress
When we are experiencing stress, there are often symptoms that help us indicate that it is time to take a step back. ‘Every human body is different. Some people might physically start feeling tension in their shoulders, neck and back. While others suffer from long-lasting headaches, heart palpitations, digestive disturbances, stomach aches or not being able to eat anything’, explains Baerten. ‘Neurologically our cerebral cortex, the outer layer of our brain, is active and can reflect on situations and take very conscious decisions. What many people don’t know is that some people who experience stress end up in the ‘fight-flight-freeze mode’. Some parts of our brain freeze and end up being no longer able to take a break and think rationally. By other means we react emotionally and irrational by saying things we don’t mean or behaving inappropriately’, explains Baerten. ‘Not only can it lead to serious burnout issues, but it also affects your relationships with others on the long term.’

When people get stuck in an unhealthy stress environment a disconnection between our body and mind happens. Our body reacts by overthinking and crawling into a comfortable shell while our mind is panicking. ‘The biggest mistake is not being able to think straight and eventually lose contact with our inner and outer self’, says Baerten.

Nowadays more and more students have stress issues. The expectations of society and the many choices they need to make build up and result into not knowing which right path to follow. High expectations towards the individual are being made by their surroundings and themselves as well as on social media.

‘My doubts were the centre of my brain and I started comparing myself to others’
– Lotte Andriessen

Lotte Andriessen (19) is a Belgian student who had a long history of dealing with stress. During her time in secondary school, she often got anxious in social situations and made unrealistically high expectations about herself. ‘It was not easy making decisions when I was younger, my doubts about myself were the centre of my brain and I started comparing myself to others. I felt like I wasn’t good enough in comparison to the students’, says Lotte. ‘Stress started taking control when I was in the sixth grade. Suddenly I noticed a longduring pain in my chest. The doctor told me my muscles could cramp together when experiencing tension. I was very surprised because I didn’t even know I physically suffered from stress, but that was the main reason to make an appointment with a psychologist to find the help I needed.’

‘I am currently studying for my Bachelor of Drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp. It is something I am very passionate about, but it does get hectic sometimes. The urge to try and do my best as much as I can sometimes takes its toll. Whenever I set a goal to achieve in a certain period of time, it is also a way of stress creeping up around the corner’, explains Lotte.

‘In the past I suffered from stomach ache and sometimes even diarrhoea to be honest. It is nothing to be ashamed of because it can happen to anyone at any time. During stressful periods I got tired very easily because I felt exhausted and weak. I was constantly thinking and often forgot to take a step back. I became more selfish in that time and felt the need to get myself under control again.’

Bad decision making
The context of a student’s mind often endures a lot of mental and cognitive work. ‘In a mind where brains need to work this hard, students often lack energy’, says mindfulness trainer Caroline Baerten. ‘One of the easiest energy fuels is sugar and when the food pattern of a student is not balanced, he or she is more likely to grab fast sugars that give you that small rush of energy. When we only use sugar as our only fuel source, it is proven that this causes the student to get tired and experience a physical and emotional rollercoaster during periods of stress. Food gives the mind some sort of comfort and a quick energy rush, which makes it a vicious circle to escape from’, explains Caroline Baerten.

One of the causes of stress within the Belgian culture is being a perfectionist. We have too many standards that we want to accomplish: achieve good grades, travel around the world, earn a lot of money, be in good relationships with family and friends. But the main thing is that we often forget about taking care of ourselves first, explains Baerten. ‘We have to realise that we can’t always have control over all the decisions in our lives and that is what makes people upset. Instead, learn to accept yourself the way you are. It is a learning process that takes time but every step matters.’

‘My greatest escape when feeling down is blasting some loud music and going for a run. My friends and family are both very supportive and know I sometimes need some time for myself. They notice it very easily, but I guess that is because they know me so well. I can easily talk about my feelings with my boyfriend, but I understand that some people might need a person they can trust. The best way to talk about your feelings is by knowing who supports you in your daily life and who you feel comfortable with’, says Lotte.

‘There is a certain type of beauty within flaws and vulnerability’
– Caroline Baerten

‘Whenever you are feeling down or stressed, try to think about this: ‘what is the worst that can happen?’. It is an easy phrase to put things in perspective. Knowing that although the situation is bad, it is not the end of the world. For me this was one big learning experience because I became more conscious about myself: physically and mentally. I also know now how I react in certain type of situations. When I look back at stressful periods of time I am able to choose where to put my energy. It are often the things I care the most about and find important that are worth the struggle, but the main reason is that I want to be in control this time. I would like my future self to learn how to deal with staying calm in the moment. I keep on growing every day and try to fall in love with the process itself’, explains Lotte proudly.

‘There is a certain type of beauty within flaws and vulnerability’, says mindfulness coach Caroline Baerten. ‘Try to give life more meaning and colour, try to appreciate the beautiful and not so beautiful moments in our life. Life itself is not perfect so why do we demand ourselves to be perfect in any way? If we try to accept our mind, body and all the feelings and thoughts that come with it, life can be seen as something very worthy. The greatest thing is to fall and get back up because life is still a big learning process and we should not be too hard on ourselves.’

Practise mindfulness
Many people live inside their head and let their body follow but don’t pay a lot of attention to this. With a few weekly practises you can learn to balance your mind and body. ‘Mindfulness training helps to release stress. We try to eliminate this feeling by focussing on our body. It is a practice to become conscious about our mind and to get in touch with our body and the parts we normally don’t focus on. In our daily life we are often tempted to only focus on the outside that we forget to pay attention to the inside. Apart from breathing exercises, we try to make contact with the earth by focussing on one body part at the time, starting from our head to our toes. When we focus on one spot at a time it is easier to observe and pay attention to the parts that might feel painful that are causes by stress. With this method we can identify and diagnose the tension in order to reduce the stress’, explains psychotherapist Baerten.

If you ever feel stressed or are having a bad day, music has the power to improve your mood. The perfect way to restore your energy supplies is with a dedicated meditation or yoga session. In the need to create a relaxing atmosphere? Down below you can find 40 essential songs to set your mood because ofcourse, nothing beats a good Spotify playlist. If you are a newbie when it comes to meditation, click here and follow a guided meditation routine.  This playlist will have you recharged in no time.

Nowadays mindfulness trends such as yoga and meditation are everywhere. Lifestyle magazines and demonstration classes teach you everything you need to know about self-care and even students are curious. Yoga has been around us for more than a decade. It is a meditation form in motion. It teaches us to be conscious about our breathing and to not break the boundaries of our own body. Instead we try to search for these limits and treat them with respect. This meditation form has many advantages: it not only helps the blood flow, but it also strengthens the muscles that were normally not being used. It is a certain mind-body medicine.

‘In our acting class we always start our morning with an hour yoga class while we focus on body and breathing exercises’, says Lotte. Whenever I am meditating, I can feel myself physically and mentally benefiting from it. My stress levels decrease and I feel me again. That is why every now and then I set an alarm for ten minutes and try to meditate and place my thoughts in the background. I sometimes forget to meditate but I think the best thing we can do is not be too hard on ourselves and just apply the ritual whenever we can. Another practice that helped me accept my stress was writing my feelings down.’

Meditation forms
Meditation without movement (sitting meditation) follows the principle of drawing the attention to the inside. Instead of losing ourselves in the sensations of the outside world, we make contact with our inner self. Something that often gets mistaken when we talk about meditation is that we try to think about absolutely nothing. This is false. We can not turn off our thoughts and emotions, but we can place them in the background. ‘We are made of a body with physical appearances and our thoughts and emotions are what makes us human’, explains expert Baerten. ‘It is not something we fight against but instead we try to give the tension we experience a safe place. Meditation and yoga exists to bring more attention and awareness to our body and spirit. It brings us balance and connects us with something we normally don’t pay much attention to. It is the right way to become a master of our own thoughts and emotions.’

‘I always thought that we needed to be happy and not show our emotions and struggles to the outside world’, says Lotte. ‘A great way to understand people who suffer from stress is by making this topic more discussable. Nowadays there are even Youtubers that raise awareness about this subject, which is great. Please do not wait to find the help you need or perhaps do some research online if you ask yourself questions about your mental health.’ One of the bigger solutions is giving society the chance to learn how to cope with stress. ‘We do not learn this from parents and schools enough’, says Baerten. ‘It requires a strong commitment for the government to incorporate this in our education system but in the long run it can reduce burnouts and increase the quality of work and wellbeing drastically.’

If you experience symptoms of stress and would like professional advice, do not hesitate and contact your doctor.

If you like our Wellness Wednesday series, be sure to check out our previous article: 6 tips to help you fall asleep faster.

Text and photos ©: Anne-Sophie Verkoyen