The brakes lock as your car begins to skid. The guard rail looms ahead, but you’re sliding fast too fast. The rail strains then snaps, and the scream of metal scraping metal pierces your ears. As the car slams into the rail, your head continues forward, violently hitting the steering wheel with a loud crack. Your car does not stop, however. It careens down the small slope beyond, rattling and jostling violently all the way. At last, at the bottom of the hill, you come to a stop. It’s over.
|Joi Ong, Joanna Eberts
In the crash’s aftermath, you’re greeted by a gruesome scene. Your head is cut, and blood slowly streams down your face. You step out of the car to survey the damage, and as your knee buckles, you notice you must have smashed it. Standing outside your scraped-up car with the smell of burnt engine oil and fresh blood filling the cold November air, you are, to say the least, stressed.
Your body, however, is built to deal with these situations. The nervous system is composed of two halves: the sympathetic nervous system, which springs into action in times of crisis, stress and excitement; and the parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with day-to-day, relatively mundane periods of low stress.
A Body in Crisis
When danger arises, the sympathetic nervous system quickly kicks into action. The body is in immediate danger, and it postpones long term projects. The immune system is suppressed, its energy diverted elsewhere; there’s little need for antibodies if you’re dead. The digestive process slows to a crawl any energy that can’t be used immediately can wait. Various glands start to secrete adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol, plus a cocktail of other hormones. In doing so, your senses are heightened, your pain is dulled, and your reaction time sharpens. You feel stronger and more energized as your heart rate skyrockets, delivering oxygen to your muscles at an accelerated pace. The liver, muscles and fat cells pour out glucose, simple proteins and fats, rapidly providing energy to the body. Despite your many injuries, there’s a surprising lack
of pain. The cut on your forehead is clearly there, but you don’t feel it; you’re dimly aware of it in the same way as your knee. The rest of the world, however, appears in high definition. You hear the soft echo of your footsteps with razor-sharp intensity, and your dilated pupils are acutely aware of the light shining off the car’s crumpled hood. You feel nervous, scared and anxious all too aware of the consequences of what’s just happened. Your brain has the luxury of worrying about the future, because without so much as a thought, your body has adapted and acted on your behalf.
Types of Stress
It’s then clear that humans are adept at dealing with situations like car accidents that cause shortterm, high-level stress, called acute physical stressors. These are pressing, immediate concerns, requiring, in some cases, drastic physiological adaptation in order to survive. These situations are common to nearly everything that walks, crawls or flies, and nature has prepared them for it well.
There are also chronic physical stressors that affect the body over a long period of time. Again, almost all animals have to deal with these. The zebra whose water hole has dried up must deal with thirst for months on end; the farmer whose crop has been devastated by locusts will similarly become well acquainted with hunger for a long time.
But now that humanity has settled down and built cities, stopped migrating, and generally stepped away from the rest of the animal kingdom, we have developed a unique type of stressor. These are psychological and social stressors, and nature has left us unprepared. The body’s stress response is a sacrifice, prioritizing short-term survival ahead of long-term sustainability.
In short bursts, there’s no problem. However, take a man in his 40s losing his hair, high blood pressure, a few years away from his first heart attack. He’s taken out a second mortgage to help put his kid through college, and he’s losing sleep trying to figure out where that money is going to come from. Or take that college kid himself: he wants to make it into grad school, and he knows his grades have to be top-notch. With exams looming, he’s nearly pulling his hair out wondering if he’ll make the cut.
|Joi Ong, Joanna Eberts
When these short bouts of serious mental stress become prolonged, however, the body is at risk. That same stress response activates regardless of the source of the danger, real or imagined, present or future. Imagine your stress response as an army, fighting a war against everyday threats. The problem is not that the army is poorly trained; the problem is that the country collapses trying to pay for the war effort. Over a long enough period, the stress
response itself becomes damaging.
If your body is too busy worrying about exams, that stress response is consistently triggered; and that carries with it a bevy of problems: a weakened immune system, interrupted digestion, and repeated expenditure of adrenaline, simple sugars, proteins and fats. With the long-term consistently being put on hold, the processes of the body become an endless repetition of inefficient, shortterm bursts.
Recently, studies have associated long-term, chronic stress with type 2 diabetes (also called adult-onset or insulin-resistant diabetes). If you’re running from an escaped bear, that energy generating glucose is quickly used, but if you’re sitting at your desk thinking about your exams next week, it remains in your blood for a prolonged period. This results in hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar a key symptom of diabetes. To make use of all that extra glucose, the body also releases a lot of insulin with the stress response. Insulin is the key that unlocks the energy in glucose, but when the body releases high levels over months and years, it builds up a tolerance; you become insulin resistant. Sound familiar?
The grim list stretches far beyond diabetes. Even without the increased risk of a dulled immune system, chronic stress can result in clogged arteries, ulcers and in extreme cases, loss of muscle mass. Stress is not something anyone should live with for very long, unless they wish to put their health in jeopardy. But how is stress caused? What, exactly, constitutes a stressor? At what point does planning ahead and anticipating problems become worrying? How can stress be mitigated?
Identifying the Stressor
Those questions have yet to be fully resolved. However, in 1967, psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe conducted a massive study to find correlation between major life changes and the stress and diseases that followed. What they found was a definite relation between those life-altering events and illness. Each discrete event was assigned a number from zero to 100, the score in “life change units.” Depending on how drastically your life has shifted in recent months, just about anything dismissal from work, starting school, changing eating habits, trouble with the law, pregnancy could push you over the edge and put you at risk for disease. The Holmes-Rahe scale isn’t perfect, but it has been supported by further studies. A separate scale was eventually developed for young adults. At the top of the scale? Death of a spouse, parent, or sibling: 100 life change units.
Even without the scale, the causes of stress are well-known to the public. It’s all too easy for college students to get caught up in that vicious whirlpool; if you’re not careful, assignments and obligations can stack up like cordwood the instant you turn your back. Exams are the most notorious stressor, but everyday assignments from a variety of courses can unite to form a daunting roadblock. Students who don’t practice time management and just “wing it” might have no problems at all. Or, they might find themselves caught in a situation with no clear exit.
The signs of stress are not uncommon. In fact, they sound like a laundry list of what most college students accept day-to-day life. In the short term, it starts as anxiety, feeling pressured or nervous, and general worrying. As you become stressed, insulin levels increase, plaque builds up and your body falls behind on long-term improvements. Things start to break down.
You feel fatigued. You might feel less hungry, or you might feel driven to overeat. Your sleep one of the most precious resources during finals week might be affected, breaking up throughout the night or generally less restful. Your body is starting to accept stress as the status quo.
Of course, the crushing weight of stress afftects your mind just as much as your body. You may begin to feel depressed or hopeless about the array of seemingly impossible tasks before you. You might feel trapped, like there’s no way out. Or, no matter how unreasonable it is, you might feel guilty whenever you take a break, like you don’t deserve to rest until everything is done. Over time, the buildup of this mental detritus may just accumulate into a bona fide disorder.
The prevalence of stress in academia is indicative of a massive problem in need of resolution. So lighten up. Exercise has long been known to be a great stress reliever. It’s effective, and quick, too. Even if you’ve got a mountain of work to do, you probably have time to go for a 15-minute run or shoot a few hoops. Or, if you’re just not up to exercising, you can still chill out for an hour with your friends and try to relax. When your body is suffering from chronic stress, it’s like a wound up toy; you’re under strain, tense and ready to go off at a moment’s notice. Take some time and try to release that pent-up nastiness; your body will thank you.
In fact, all that fatigue and nervousness means that you’re not even doing your best work. Unwinding might take a little bit of your time; but when you return, you’ll be feeling better and more prepared. When you’re feeling less stressed, your mind is clear and you can work more effectively. Relax. Your final product will be much better for it.
Be glad that you have a stress response. Unchecked, it might hurt you someday; but without it, you might not be here today. That jump-start of oxygen, adrenaline and glucose may have been the difference between life and death somewhere along the line. Beware, though, because it’s crucial not to activate that response too often. It can put your body on hold, keep your immune system down, and make you sick.
|Joi Ong, Joanna Eberts