Danielle put her hands to her temples and closed her eyes.

“I am having these headaches, doctor,” she said. “It feels like a giant is trying to pop my head like a zit.”
I would have smiled at her colorful analogy had she not looked so miserable. The headaches had been bothering her for a couple weeks now. No, she didn’t have a head injury. No allergy or cold symptoms. No vision or speech problems. Various over-the-counter pain relievers had helped, but only for a short time.

As she talked, I watched her body language. She sat on the edge of the chair, shoulders hunched and forehead creased. Her hands held each other in a tight squeeze, and one leg jiggled up and down as she spoke. I asked about her stress, and the leg stopped for a moment.
“Sure, I have stress. I’m a student,” she said.

I prompted her to tell me about it, and she went on as the leg resumed its antsy dance.
“Well, I have a full-load class load, and I’m behind in two of them,” she said. “I have a paper due on Monday that I haven’t even started. Plus, money is always an issue. I have a job, but it barely keeps us going with rent and everything, and my boss is a jerk. My son — he’s 8 — he’s with his dad this week. He’s been getting into trouble at school. Oh, and my mom is in the hospital back in Michigan. They’re not sure what’s wrong with her.”

She paused, raised her eyebrows, looked at me and said: “I guess I do have kind of a lot of stress.”
I guess so. No wonder she was having headaches.

Danielle’s story is not so unusual. She might have more on her plate than the average freshman in the dorm, or it might just be different fare. School is stressful. Life is stressful, and your body knows it.

Danielle had headaches. You might have neck pain, or stomach aches, trouble sleeping or back aches. Every body feels stress in a different way.

I told Danielle she needed to take a month off, fly to an island in the South Pacific and lie on the beach sipping her favorite tropical beverage. No, I didn’t. Wouldn’t it be nice, though? Nice, but unrealistic. Only the likes of Steve Jobs can do what it takes to totally decompress whenever they want. So what can the rest of us do?

I am a big fan of baby steps. Decompress a little at a time. Danielle didn’t have time to take a weekend off to rest or play. She didn’t have money to go see her mother. But she could leave her phone at home for a half hour and take a walk around the park. She could call her mom every day and talk for five minutes. She could enjoy a warm bath at the end of a long day.

Treat yourself to small servings of self care to feed your flagging spirit. You’ll be surprised at how much nourishment you can get from nibbles. To mix metaphors, it is like releasing a small jet of steam from a pressure cooker. Do it often enough, and you can avert an explosion.

What replenishes you? Short of the South Pacific, I mean.

Nothing is too small to consider. Five minutes on a bench in the sun? A delicious meal? A single deep breath? Thirty minutes on the elliptical? A hug? Whatever it is, do it. And then do it again tomorrow. You might not think it’s much, but little steps can go a long way toward maintaining your overall energy and function.

Danielle decided on phone calls to mom and a massage for starters. Next time I saw her, the headaches were improving, and the jiggling leg had stilled.

Baby steps in the right direction. She’s going to be OK.

Margaret Spencer, MD, is a family physician. She has been a UNM student health physician for 17 years. Drop your questions in her box in the lobby of Student Health and Counseling, or e-mail her directly at pspencer@unm.edu. All questions will be considered, and all questioners will remain anonymous. This column has general health information only and cannot replace a visit to a health care provider.