It is that time in the semester! As the exams and deadlines for hand-ins approach, many have already started to feel the pressure.
Stress is pressure. It is neither good nor bad. It is just that: pressure. How we feel under stress/pressure depends on our expectations regarding the consequences of the origin of stress. Stress is anything that influences our homeostasis, that is our balanced and content state. This could be as insignificant as a quick summer drizzle that cools your skin down for a minute or as significant as the death of a loved one, a loud noise in the middle of the night, an exam at the end of the semester, falling in love, a youtube video of very cute kittens, exercising, watching a favourite programme on the telly etc… anything that gets your heart beating up and creates even a quantum of excitement or surprise.
Imagine that you’re walking down the road checking your Snapchat, suddenly you hear loud, screeching breaks and you’ve just been nearly hit by a car because you didn’t notice the red light. Your body reacts to such situations by going into a instant “combat”mode, where you decide to fight or flight. This happens very very quickly. In an instant your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is always on stand-by for such threats, activates: secrete some epinephrine and norepinephrine, and cortisol amongst other hormones and neurotransmitters to flood the system with enough glucose to produce the energy necessary to pump (through your heart) more blood towards the big muscles (getting ready to fight or run) and extremities (getting ready to fight), moving blood out of non-vital systems such as the digestive system and reproductive (because they are not vital for the moment) and out of vital organs (in order to protect them against a possible bleeding because they are always vital). Your brain is in full-alarm. Your heart is racing like crazy. Muscles are in full tension. Pupils dilated, lungs working at full capacity to inhale. In short, the resources that would normally be used for whole system is now redirected to be used in this moment of emergency to protect the organism (you) and to survive the danger. This all happens in a split second.
Now, you look up and come eye-to-eye with the driver, who is really angry (another threat, maybe?). You grin awkwardly and nod to thank her that she managed to stop on time. The danger has passed, now it is time for your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to calm the system down after the moment of alarm by reversing the effects of what just happened. One difficulty here is that whilst the SNS is very rapid and instantaneous, PNS is slow in its action. Therefore, for example, after you exercised, your muscles need a nice rest to get rid of the lactic acid that accumulated during tension. Another issue is that the effects of the reaction of SNS to stress are hard to reverse. For example, the sugar content that increases during the stress reaction will take time to use up. This is why most people feel less hungry after exercising. The whole process becomes more clear if we rephrased this as such: The calm and easy going, rest and digest effects of PNS are very easily sidelined, whilst the high-power, tense and alerting effects of SNS takes a lot of energy to reverse.
These two systems come together to compose our autonomous nervous system. As the name suggests, this system is automatic and is responsible for looking after your metabolism. In general, we want these two to be somewhat in balance and they don’t really work as on-off switches. They represent the two ends of a scale and at any given time you can be somewhere on that scale. As said above, stress per se is not inherently bad. It is the person who deems a situation stressful or as a threat. There are situations that are generally accepted to be bad-stress situations, like when you encounter an angry lion, as well as others that are obviously good-stress situations, like watching the national ski team come first in a tournament (Boy, was that exciting!).
The problems begin when the stress is continuous and PNS never gets enough time to alleviate the effects of the SNS. This constant stimulation tires the system out as the high heart rate is sustained, the functions of digestive and reproductive systems diminish, high sugar content in blood causes conflicts with insulin regulation. Long term repair projects of the body are delayed because of the state of alert. Sleep deprivation ensues because the calming state that prepares us to sleep is triggered mostly by PNS. Constant muscular tension causes discomfort. SNS suppresses the immune system for the moment of alarm so you don’t feel pain so much, but over a long period of time this is not a desired effect, therefore we begin get ill more easily. For example, think of the time when you suddenly fell ill after a period of hard work or stress, etc. This happens because the immune system is temporarily suspended and any ill feelings are suppressed, and then once the stress is over your PNS is activated and you start to relax, and it is then that your body starts to fight back against the bacteria, virus, etc., and you feel ill.
This is a very very short recapping of the processes of stress reaction and what happens under continuous and unmanaged stress. You can find further and more detailed information on the internet very quickly. The point here is that stress is real, it could be bad or good but continuous stress is not healthy. Ignoring or denying it will not do anyone any good; it is a beast to be reckoned with, to be managed, not to fight with. There is a catch: you can’t fight your stress reaction without activating your SNS. It is pretty much like approaching fire with a bucket full of jet fuel!
As I said, a situation can only be stressful if you think it is stressful. It is always in the eye of the beholder, even meeting an angry lion. For example, there is some empirical evidence that suggest when people believe that the stress in their life is bad for them, the stress actually harms them more than when they think the same level of stress is not bad for them. This is to say that stress is what you make it to be. If you see stress as manageable, then you can manage it. Be it the stress of graduation or falling in love or jumping off a bridge (with ropes attached to you). This finding indicates not only that you decide if something is stressful, but also that you decide how much it is going to hurt you.
Acting on a problematic situation makes one feel empowered. It means that you are taking the situation under control, or at least beginning to take it under control. Dealing with the unwanted effects of stress will make you immediately feel good for this reason alone. Once you have decided that the state of emergency and alarm is not something that you want to live with, there are things that you can to manage and take your stress reaction under control. This begins from within, because the only thing that we can ever truly control is how we react to a situation or a person, and how we behave and in turn how we feel about it. All other things in life are beyond our control to varying degrees.
Before I continue to describe possible techniques to manage your stress levels, I’d like you to have a think about all this. Close your eyes and scan your body from head to toe. Take a few minutes to do this and then consider the following sets of questions. There are no right or wrong answers. Don’t judge yourself, just observe and note. Your answers are only for you to know. Some people like to write their responses down to remember later, maybe you can do that or maybe not. It is all up to you.
- How are you feeling right now?
- Is there a specific reason to make you feel the way you do, or do you generally feel like that?
- Are there any thoughts that you can identify that are related to the way you feel?
- Can you tell which of these thoughts or feelings comes/came first?
- Can you think of other situations that make you feel more or less of this feeling (e.g. more or less angry)?
- Are you more stressed out than you can handle?
- Where in your body do you feel the effect of stress the most?
- Do you think knowing more about your natural reactions to stress will be useful in create better insight?
Read Stress- II: How