As the exams approach, Danielle Crowley takes a look at how stress affects us and whether we’re thinking about stress in the wrong light.

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STRESS. You all know it. You’ve all felt it. You’re possibly feeling it right now. But what is it exactly? Is it as bad as we are led to believe? What can we do to combat the effects of stress?
Stress is due to the “fight or flight” response. Two major systems in your body are involved in this process: the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA).
The ANS controls the unconscious functions of your body, such as heart rate, the digestive system and the reproductive system. When the body reacts in response to a stressor, which is something that stresses you out, the ANS shuts down any systems that will not be needed to deal with the threat, such as the digestive and reproductive systems, while it diverts blood and other resources to the muscles that will help you escape.
The HPA sends out hormones, which stimulate these responses. The hypothalamus, which is the part of your brain that helps regulate various bodily functions, sends cortico-releasing hormone to your pituitary gland, which is situated just under your brain. This then sends adrenocorticotropic hormone to the adrenal glands on top of the kidney.
It is here that the hormones cortisol and adrenaline (or epinephrine) are released. Adrenaline primes your body for action: a well-known example is causing your heart rate and blood pressure to go up. While adrenaline acts almost immediately, cortisol takes its time. It also increases blood pressure, as well as increasing blood sugar and priming your body to use your food stores to replenish the energy that will be lost in dealing with the threat.
Once the threat is gone, your body returns to its “rest and digest” mode, where normal function of all the “unnecessary” systems returns and your heart rate and blood pressure drop back to normal levels.
For some threats, like being attacked by some large predator or another human, this is a very good system. But when it’s applied to our modern way of life, where stressors come in the form of deadlines, relationships and monetary issues that may never go away completely, it can lead to a lot of problems, as your body is now in an almost constant state of fight or flight.
These biological reactions are the underlying cause of many of the additional symptoms we associate with chronic stress, which is feeling stress for a long period of time. Weight gain can be due to cortisol. While eating to restore your energy after you’ve expended it in an epic battle with a lion makes perfect sense, it doesn’t when the stressful things we face today require little physical effort. Since cortisol is involved with raising your blood sugar levels, chronic stress when combined with over-eating can lead to diabetes.
One of the more sinister side effects of stress is memory loss. As cortisol increases, it negatively affects the part of your brain known as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. It also has a role in the HPA, and if there are less connections in the hippocampus due to stress, then it can’t deal with stress as well and so the vicious cycle continues.
Cortisol can also reduce synaptic connections in your frontal cortex, which controls skills such as concentration, judgement and social skills. This reduction of connections due to stress causes your brain to shrink. Chronic stress also reduces new neuron growth in the hippocampus. As well as memory the hippocampus is involved with learning, so damage here can potentially reduce your ability to learn new things.
The scary thing with this is that some researchers think that this brain damage could make a person more susceptible to illnesses like depression and Alzheimer’s.
How can we effectively deal with stress? This varies from person to person. Exercise is hugely helpful for many, but if you hate exercise with a burning passion, it’s unlikely to do much for you. Any hobby that you really enjoy is likely to calm you down, as well as planning your life so you don’t end up trying to do all of your assignments at once.
In a TED talk given by Kelly McGonigal, she suggested one way may be to change the way you view stress. In a study, those who experienced a lot of stress, but didn’t view it as harmful, had the lowest chance of dying due to stress-related causes out of all those in the study. If you view your stress as helping you to achieve your goals and to reach your potential, your physical response changes. Your blood vessels stay relaxed rather than contracting, which reduces your risk of cardiovascular problems.
McGonigal also points out that oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, is released when you’re under stress. It causes you to want you to seek out support from loved ones, and it helps protect your heart. And the more time you spend with your loved ones (yes, your loved ones can include your pets), the more benefit you reap from oxytocin. Even caring for others can be beneficial, with people who spent time helping others showing no increase in their risk of dying due to stress.
Stress is scary, but it is an inevitable part of life. Since it’s not going to go away anytime soon, we may as well learn to accept it and try to find healthy ways to deal with it, for the sake of our wellbeing.